THR Web Features   /   May 15, 2015

Culture, Authority, and the University

Guest Blogger

"Scholars at a Lecture," William Hogarth (1736).

Even the title—“What’s the Point of a Professor?”—makes it clear why Mark Bauerlein’s recent op-ed in The New York Times struck such a sensitive nerve. Bauerlein, a professor at Emory University, observed that in an era when “when college is about career more than ideas, when paycheck matters more than wisdom, the role of professors changes.” Students no longer seek to converse with professors, or even to learn from them. They want to get a grade and move on. The situation isn’t hopeless, Bauerlein argues. If professors would only devote more time to engaging with their students, some of these students might be changed.

The reaction to Bauerlein’s critique has been sharp. As L.D. Burnett points out in her important column, Bauerlein does not acknowledge the extent to which budget cuts have transformed universities. And as others have rightly noted, many hard-working professors still care deeply about and devote significant amounts of time to teaching well.

Below structural changes lie deeper cultural shifts. Bauerlein blames students for not caring and professors for not devoting enough care, but perhaps what is really at stake here is the shifting nature of authority in American life. The real issue is that administrators, the faculty, and students do not accept the authority of the university itself. In an age when growing old is unacceptable, acting as young as you feel is obligatory, and adulthood has lost its moorings, authority too is adrift.

Signs of this lost authority abound: First, universities have been thoroughly consumerized. They offer the courses and programs students want. As demands of the students shift, universities make accommodations—which suggests that there is no academic core that defines a college education. Second, universities invest their resources in building beautiful college campuses and providing student amenities, while cutting the tenure-line faculty. And third, universities have cut back on general education programs and invested in online programs to offer students what they want, how they want it, and as fast as they can get it—rather than offering what the faculty (as authority figures) think students need. Have it your way.

Many of these changes are being imposed by well-paid administrators (whose ranks steadily swell). But the faculty, too, have become uncomfortable with their own authority. Faculty members do not see themselves—or, rather, too few faculty members see themselves—as engaged in the moral and intellectual formation of young people. This does not mean that professors do not care or devote too little time to thinking about how to help students learn the material. It does mean that they are reluctant to assume the role of authority figures or be charged with contributing to the intellectual and moral formation of their students. Focusing on only the narrowest conception of student achievement, intellectualism without a soul, they reveal their uncertainty about the moral foundations of their work.

Ironically, the decade of the 1960s that Bauerlein looks back to with fondness was part of the problem. It inaugurated what Daniel Rodgers has called the “age of fracture,” an era in which anti-institutionalism replaced thinking institutionally, in which free choice and free markets mattered more than participating in shared social institutions.

Until we come to terms with what the loss of authority in our culture means—a loss that is clearly evident in our universities—students will only be reinforced in their view of themselves as consumers, empowered to study whatever they wish. So long as university administrators cater to the student-consumer; so long as professors are unwilling to see that the formation of students is both a responsibility and an opportunity (and not an exercise of coercive power); so long as students think they have to go to college, whether they truly want to or not—so long as these things are true, the challenge will be even greater than Bauerlein imagines. Professors matter a lot, but a good university education requires more than a good professor.

Johann Neem, professor of history at Western Washington University, is a visiting faculty fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.