Mark Bauerlein, English professor at Emory University, recently published an article in The New York Times questioning the point of college professors. In his opinion, students today view college solely as a mechanism for career preparation; thus, they have no desire to develop personal relationships with their instructors, no longer becoming their “disciples” as they once did in a previous generation. At the same time, Bauerlein continued, professors have sacrificed their “moral authority” with relation to their students because of limited research time. Hence, students see their instructors less as purveyors of knowledge and morality and more as grudging necessities to get a degree.
While there is some validity to Bauerlein’s argument, I have to disagree. It is true that most undergraduates today are consumed by their plans for the future or lack of them. It’s difficult to see past the sheer costliness of higher education when we, as students, are looked upon as customers paying a cost that’ll only increase. These concerns often manifest themselves in an academic setting, with the typical student memorizing facts and formulas for the sake of two or three exams over the course of a quarter or semester. We enter college with the knowledge of how to get the grade after four years dictated by high-stakes testing, rather than critical thinking.
However, Bauerlein’s pessimism regarding academics and the future of academics is a disservice to students and faculty who take initiative to do otherwise: to engage, learn and grow, both inside and outside the lecture hall. Although there are certainly disconnected students and faculty on every campus, portraying all faces of American education as complacent and listless automatons is not only a massive generalization, but also highly insulting to those who do put in the effort and go the extra mile.
Bauerlein’s argument on discipleship poses two main questions. First, do students today want to leave class with a renewed and rejuvenated life philosophy? And second, do professors consciously and consistently strive to impart lessons on morality to reshape their pupils’ perspectives?
I will say this. The closest I’ve come to remotely experiencing what Bauerlein heralds as true education was with a chemistry professor last quarter. Over ten weeks, I accumulated a small list of “life lessons,” prominently displayed at the beginning of each lecture. These ranged from “use your blinker” to “call your parents,” always told with my professor’s signature anecdotal and sarcastic sense of humor. Unlike what Bauerlein might’ve done, I didn’t enroll in that class hoping to achieve nirvana; I did it to learn chemistry. The life lessons were a welcome touch, almost like an afterthought, that made the 430 seat lecture hall a little less disjointed than before. I greatly admired my professor, but it would’ve been borderline creepy if I asked him existential questions in office hours. And quite frankly, I wouldn’t even want to do that in the first place.
Needless to say, college education is shifting, not collapsing. Just because students are less prone to stand on tables and triumphantly proclaim Whitman to their admiring professors does not signify the coming of the Antichrist. If interest and passion seem to be fading, it is the responsibility of both students and professors to find new and innovative ways to stay engaged.
That is not to say that the dynamic in Bauerlein’s days must be entirely scrapped. Performing in a more competitive atmosphere and having a benevolent relationship with professors are not two mutually- exclusive events. Yes, today’s typical student lacks the time, energy and desire to become “disciples” of their professors, as Bauerlein reminisces. But since when was the effectiveness of higher education measured by how many students a professor has in their fan club?
Brittany Pham is a first-year biological sciences major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.