Two recent pieces—an essay by Joseph Epstein in the Weekly Standard and a blog post by Miriam Burstein over at the Little Professor—have turned my thoughts back to the college classroom.
Epstein and Burstein make an odd couple. Taking off from New York Times columnist David Brooks’s praise of the high educational attainment among President-elect Obama’s appointments, Epstein expresses his doubt about a familiar academic type, now crowding into Washington—the “good student.” Burstein concentrates her fire upon the good student’s biggest fan—professors who complain about bad students.
The good student, Epstein explains, is
Because there is a difference between the mark and the success, or, if you prefer, between academic success and the whole point of going to school, which is to learn some things. As the political scientist Harvey Mansfield regularly points out on the first day of his classes, the average grade at Harvard is a B plus. In many classes, then, it does not require much effort to earn an A. Taking the time thoroughly to research the subject of a research paper, in fact, would put a student at a huge competitive disadvantage, especially if he is taking two or three other classes and must budget his time. In graduate school, I marveled at the course requirement that I was supposed to turn out a “publishable paper”—knocking off in a month or so what the course instructor took six to twelve times as long to complete.
As game theory ought to have taught professors, students’ course work is determined by the choices that other students are making and not by the professor’s academic standards (such as they are). Students know how the game is played. In J. V. Cunningham’s words,
Your speech with commonplace,
And studiously amaze
Your audience with his phrase.
They are also amazed because the good student’s coevals, they loudly complain, are so ignorant and write so badly. Burstein is right to draw attention to any signs of a backlash, however graced with English department commonplaces, to the culture of professorial complaint about students. It is indeed “toxic,” as she quotes an English professor, but not for the reason he says. He says that it is “toxic to the professional socialization of graduate students and new professors. . . .”
It is doubtful that merely stopping the complaints about students will improve the “professional socialization” of English professors. The current regimen of submitting to the authority of some dominant figure—known in the parlance as learning an “approach”—insures that young professors will (in the words of Burstein’s professor) “inoculate themselves against either self-inquiry or student criticism for the rest of their careers.” No, the reason that complaining about students is so “toxic” is that it encourages professors to feel superior to them, reinforcing the worst professorial habits.
What are professors, after all, but former A students? Their complaints are the condescension of the good student, who by an astonishing creative act reproduces his teacher’s exact words, for the bad student. The principle of achievement remains the same whether seated among the desks or standing in front of the class. As Loye Young writes in his blog, “Regurgitation of conventional wisdom is a well-tested path to tenure and subsequent promotion to faculty administration positions.”
There is much to complain about in students’ preparation and writing abilities. The problem lies not in themselves, however, but in their stars. Academic achievement or success is prized above knowledge, and that is the distemper afflicting American higher education. “In order to succeed,” François Crusset says in French Theory, discussing academic stars like Judith Butler, Gayatri Spivak, Stanley Fish, and Fredric Jameson, “the only cardinal rule is to be constantly intellectually innovative, showing an originality undefinable according to an endogenous criteria (because new thought is not always easily recognizable as such),” and requiring therefore external recognition: publication by the best presses, repeated citation by junior colleagues, job offers from better universities at higher salaries.
But here is the thing. Constant intellectual innovation is at odds with the acquisition of knowledge. A body of knowledge is the basic tool of a scholar’s trade, and to be constantly innovating new tools is to be constantly starting over. In an academic environment where the stars are rewarded for innovation, and students are rewarded for aping the latest trend, is it any wonder that few people know very much? The alternative, after all, is just not going to appeal to many:
by J. V. Cunningham
After these years of lectures heard,
Of papers read, of hopes deferred,
Of days spent in the dark stacks
In learning the impervious facts
So well you can dispense with them,
Now that the final day has come
When you shall answer name and date
Where fool and scholar judge your fate
What have you gained?
A learnèd grace
And lines of knowledge on the face,
A spirit weary but composed
By true perceptions well-disposed,
A soft voice and historic phrase
Sounding the speech of Tudor days,
What ignorance cannot assail
Or daily novelty amaze,
Knowledge enforced by firm detail.
What revels will these trials entail,
What gentle wine confuse your head
While gossip lingers on the dead
Till all the questions wash away,
For you have learned, not what to say,
But how the saying must be said.