Can teaching be saved?

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Future generations of professors may be harder to recruit and to retain compared to the current generation of nearly-retired senior faculty. This is especially the case in public colleges and universities. The condition of academic life in public higher education at the beginning of the twenty-first century was not enviable. Decades of sacking and pillaging by external and internal forces have left the professoriat stranded in purgatory, overrun by larger numbers of under prepared students and evaluated by pseudo processes. The professoriat has also contributed to the demise of liberal learning by substituting escapism for scholarship and by rolling over for various forms of coercion and financial seduction. This essay discusses one person's teaching experience in the context of evolving cultural norms about learning, of professional standards pertinent to teaching, and of the psycho-social consequences for college teachers of the secular anti-intellectual drift in post-literate society. Public college and university teaching in the last decade of the twentieth century, for most workaday faculty not heavily endowed with external research funds or not capable of manipulating endless leaves of absence, has been a voyage of uncertainty. The combined effects of triumphant managerialism, techno-idolatry, political correctness and bureaucratic rationalization have subverted public higher education, and the subversion has occurred with the willing collusion of many “insiders” in the academic establishment. Worse: so engrained is the system of incentives for self-preservation (on the part of administrators and faculty) and evasion of accountability (on the part of students) that the system is unable and unwilling to correct its own dysfunctions. The absence of complaint from the “consumers” of higher education, students and their parents, is not the result of good institutional performance. It is, unhappily, the result of tacit collusion in the willingness to certify mediocrity and call it excellence. Many volumes would be required to diagnose and prescribe remedies for the entire matrix in which public higher education now finds itself. Space does not permit comprehensiveness here. Instead, I offer admittedly selective perceptions of my own teaching experiences of more than two decades, as related to the problems cited in the preceding paragraph. However, I doubt that it is a singular view. More than a personal cri de coeur, it represents the frustration of a generation of educators who have seen public higher education seduced and sacked by some of the same forces that might have been expected to nourish and protect it: including the educators themselves. Of course, the cynical saying of one of my colleagues remains true: “Institutions never lose: individuals always do.” And he is right–higher education will endure and prosper, even if those who still remember what education is forare marginalized or driven into another line of work. No one can doubt that American colleges and universities have succeeded as organizationsand in the pursuit of organizational values over the past two or three decades: many are richer, larger, and as marketing savvy as the most endowed Fortune 500 corporation. Whether American higher education still has anything useful to say about American society and culture is another, and more arguable, matter. There is significant risk that institutional value distortion has pushed the critical faculties of students and teachers into a Phantom Zone of indifference or even hostility, relative to what “really” matters to the governing boards and administrations of many institutions of higher learning. The commingling of academic institutional and organizational–corporatist values has another side: it has betrayed many students by asking of them as little as possible, and many professors by rewarding them for their entertainment value.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1079-1095
Number of pages17
JournalInternational Journal of Phytoremediation
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2002

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Pollution
  • Plant Science


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