Academic journal article Policy Review

Professor, Do Your Job

Academic journal article Policy Review

Professor, Do Your Job

Article excerpt

PICK UP THE mission statement of almost any college or university, and you will find claims and ambitions that will lead you to think that it is the job of an institution of higher learning to cure every ill the world has ever known: not only illiteracy and cultural ignorance, which are at least in the ball-park, but poverty, war, racism, gender bias, bad character, discrimination, intolerance, environmental pollution, rampant capitalism, American imperialism, and the hegemony of Wal-Mart; and of course the list could be much longer.

Wesleyan University starts well by pledging to "cultivate a campus environment where students think critically, participate in constructive dialogue and engage in meaningful contemplation" (although I'm not sure what meaningful contemplation is); but then we read of the intention to "foster awareness, respect, and appreciation for a diversity of experiences, interests, beliefs and identities." Awareness is okay; it's important to know what's out there. But why should students be taught to "respect" a diversity of interests, beliefs, and identities in advance of assessing them and taking their measure? The missing word here is "evaluate." That's what intellectual work is all about, the evaluation, not the celebration, of interests, beliefs, and identities; after all, interests can be base, beliefs can be wrong, and identities are often irrelevant to an inquiry.

Yale College's statement also starts well by promising to seek students "of all backgrounds" and "to educate them through mental discipline," but then mental discipline turns out to be instrumental to something even more valuable, the development of students' "moral, civic and creative capacities to the fullest." I'm all for moral, civic, and creative capacities, but I'm not sure that there is much I or anyone else could do as a teacher to develop them.--except Moral capacities (or their absence) have no relationship whatsoever to the reading of novels, or the running of statistical programs, or the execution of laboratory procedures, all of which can produce certain skills, but not moral states. Civic capacities--which mean, I suppose, the capacities that go along with responsible citizenship--won t be acquired simply because you have learned about the basic structures of American government or read the Federalist papers (both good things to do). You could ace all your political science and public policy courses and still drop out and go live in the woods or become the Unabomber. And as for creative capacities, there are courses in creative writing in liberal arts colleges, and colleges of fine arts offer instruction in painting, sculpture, pottery, photography, drafting, and the playing of a variety of musical instruments. But even when such courses are housed in liberal arts venues, they belong more to the world of professional instruction--if you want to make something, here's how to do it--than to the world of academic interrogation.

I'm not saying that there is no connection at all between the successful practice of ethical, social, and political virtues and the courses of instruction listed in the college catalogue; it's always possible that something you come across or something a teacher says may strike a chord that sets you on a life path you might not otherwise have chosen. But these are contingent effects, and as contingent effects they cannot be designed and shouldn't be aimed at. (It's not a good use of your time to aim at results you have only a random chance of producing.)

So what is it that institutions of higher learning are supposed to do? My answer is simple. College and university teachers can (legitimately) do two things: I) introduce students to bodies of knowledge and traditions of inquiry that had not previously been part of their experience; and 2) equip those same students with the analytical skills--of argument, statistical modeling, laboratory procedure--that will enable them to move confidently within those traditions and to engage in independent research after a course is over. …

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