The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"...liberal education consists in reminding oneself of human excellence, of human greatness."...  ...Leo Strauss.

Commentary of the Day - October 25, 2008: How Will You Go to College?  Guest commentary by Doyle Wesley Walls.

I write, in part, to those of you who in a few months will open acceptances from colleges and universities.  You -- and your friends and relatives -- are awash in anxieties.  Where will you go next fall?  Soon, most of you will know.  I write to you as a father of sons who have left home for college; I write to you as a professor of English at a small liberal arts university.  My focus is on how you will go to college, not where.  I also write to address two other groups: I write to all college and university students, no matter their standing at those institutions of higher learning; and I write to all of us -- faculty, staff, administrators -- who have the responsibility to provide that "higher learning."

When our elder son was a junior in high school in the mid-90s, he received a student prospectus from The University of Chicago with language on the cover that survives in their publication to this very day.  One sees, just under the classic phrase "the life of the mind," these words: "WARNING: Study in this university is known to cause thinking, occasionally deep thinking.  Typical side effects include mild temporary anxiety followed by profound long-term satisfaction."  What?  The promise of stress?  Where’s the usual stuff?  No photo of the snooker tables in the student union?  No shot of students sitting in the stands watching their university's professional sports teams?  How laudatory their goal and their honesty at the University of Chicago!

When our younger son was a high school senior, that same august institution offered him money to enroll there as a "university scholar."  A different institution, one with a particular religious slant that will betray its mission in the following quotation, summed up their "promise" to all prospective students with these words on their admissions brochure: “Come to [our university] and learn how to defend what you believe.”

"Dear Prospective Student," they seemed to say, "while you are what a chess master could only call a 'wood pusher,' we have chosen to feed you a line that will flatter you and make your life easy -- at least during your time in college: we will kowtow to whatever beliefs you bring to us (especially if they agree with our obvious party line); we will help you prop up those inchoate 'beliefs.'  Far be it from us to present you with the difficulties inherent in real thinking.  We promise not to worry your little heads with the concept of transformation at the heart of real education.  We promise to scrap any process -- like critical scrutiny, for example -- at the first sign of your discomfort.  Believe us: belief is easier than thinking.  In return for our intellectual capitulation and groveling, you will agree to give us your money."

No matter which institution of higher learning you choose, no matter how well-known and respected, you will fail from the starting gate if you lapse into the all-too-easy temptation proffered by that unnamed university above.  Please keep these words from Friedrich Nietzsche in mind as you pack your bags in late August: "A very popular error: having the courage of one's convictions; rather it is a matter of having the courage for an attack on one's convictions!"

Quality educational institutions pay lip service, at least, to the high aspirations represented by the University of Chicago on the front cover of their prospectus.  Even great institutions can miss the mark through expediency and cowardice, and especially through treating the students like customers instead of students.  The owner of a department store may advertise a slogan like "the customer is always right," but that slogan should fool no one who can think.  Even though the customer cannot always be right, the business person realizes that stooping in that fashion will most likely keep the shopper happy and coming back to lay down another dollar.  That business person isn't interested in the truth of the statement, only the results obtained by advertising it widely.  There is no respect being shown to the customer with such a statement.

On the other hand, that professor who challenges the student because he or she wants that student to be stronger than he or she now is sends a powerful message of respect to the student.  (Why am I even writing such a comment?  Isn't this obvious?  Unfortunately, no.  I write this because I have seen far too many people in charge of universities -- professors, people on staff, administrators -- who could not wrap their minds around this simple concept.  Such a stance seemed "tough" to them, not "nice."  Such a stance seemed "unfriendly," not "sweet and welcoming."  Let's face it: such a stance is no come-on to the weakest prospective students who might well be lured to a university by every appeal that makes the place sound like a resort instead of a boot camp.)

The professor who believes in challenging the student says this: you are not nothing, and, beyond that, you can achieve so much more than you already have.  You may someday thank me for these challenges I present to you along with my willingness to work to help you succeed in your own right.  I know from experience that some students will appreciate that work in the moment, some a decade or two later; some may never appreciate it.  But a student's appreciation of the teacher has never been the real issue anyway, nor is it the mark of authentic teaching.

Here are statements at the heart of what I am trying to do as a professor, statements I routinely deliver to my students.  A "student" is a noble thing to be.  If you are here and working hard, be proud of what you are doing.  Take ownership of your scholarly and creative pursuits.  You are a student now, and you should always be a student.  I respect that desire to learn I see in you: I am inspired by it, and it makes me feel even more keenly my responsibility to help you grow.  You only have to agree with me on one point -- that we are all in process, myself included, and need to keep working.  I need neither your love nor your validation.  Your tuition dollar alone cannot buy you a degree worth having.  I am not primarily interested in your tuition dollar (though I realize the importance of that dollar on my campus); instead, I think constantly of the fact that I need your help in the war against stupidity and ignorance -- fighting those wars against yourself and in the various cultures of the world.

Administrators, at their worst, merely count beans.  Are the residence halls full?  Is everyone wearing a happy face, accentuating the positive?  Professors, at their best, are determined that their students, like Thoreau, should know beans.  On occasion, a student will leave a classroom in a huff or even leave the university.  No one will be smiling all the time if real work is going on.  Plenty of people at the university stand ready to fluff pillows.  Only a very few people at a university are hired to fluff those metaphorical pillows; however, when the fluffing of pillows begins to feel like genuine concern for the educational needs of the student, then the university is lopsided, way out of balance.  Such misplaced concern can weaken students; it does not prepare students because it fails to make them stronger.

Students, think ahead about transforming your life, or forget the idea of a liberal arts university altogether.  If what you really want is a country club, then join one; they have alcohol and golf and tennis and swimming and dances, and they cost only a fraction of a liberal arts education.  If you really want a university, then come prepared to hear me challenge your attitudes about booze and sports and socializing.

You college-bound students cannot be excited about having received that fat envelope from a school without simultaneously telling me you're looking forward even more to the tomes of literature and philosophy, to the pregnant ideas of thinkers in psychology and biology and history.  Without concentrating on such tomes seriously, your liberal arts diploma is a meaningless piece of scratch paper.

East coast or West coast.  Private or Public.  Urban or rural.  Go to any so-called "best school" the wrong way and you will have gone nowhere -- and wasted valuable money and time and potential.

2008, Doyle Wesley Walls.
Doyle Wesley Walls is a Professor of English at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon.

The Irascible Professor comments: As Professor Walls correctly notes, the real purpose of a college or university education is or should be, at its heart, deeply transformational.  Too often, students, faculty members, and administrators fail to realize this, and focus only on the acquiring of marketable skills.  These are important, but acquiring the habit of thinking and questioning at a deeper level is the difference between becoming educated and simply getting a degree.  Here at Krispy Kreme U. the focus often has been far too much on the latter than on the former.

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