What Else Do Professors Do? They Teach.

Teaching periodically reaches the public’s attention, as in a recent statement by a group of scientists about the failure of research universities to train their students to be good teachers. The New York Times ran a report on a study published in Science that led its lead researcher to contend: “I think that learning is all about retrieving, all about reconstructing our knowledge,” said the lead author, Jeffrey Karpicke, an assistant professor of psychology at Purdue University. “I think that we’re tapping into something fundamental about how the mind works when we talk about retrieval.” This undoubtedly prompts teachers to feel more pressed to teach “to the brain.” Is learning finally “all about retrieving”? And the veiled acknowledgment that students might fare better by being tested more regularly, a staple of language learning, for example, can now be imagined as one more panacea for our cultural ADD. I do not think Professor Karpicke and his associates are off-base, I think they are tinkerers at the base of a vast cultural inheritance of teaching and learning that deserves its own acknowledgment.
When my graduate advisor, Philip Rieff wrote Fellow Teachers, which began as a lecture/conversation he conducted at Skidmore College in the early 1970s, few were prepared to read about the vocation of teaching—not about how to teach. The latter has become the ball and chain wrapped around the ankles of so many teachers. No reputable institution of higher education today is without a teaching and learning center. (Curiously at my own institution, it is called the Learning and Teaching Center, suggesting that many carts (i.e. students) are entitled to go before the horse in keeping with a consumer-driven logic that drives up the cost of everything.) Fellow Teachers marked an important point of departure in the culture wars that spread throughout many institutions, first in the American university. It had been preceded a year or so by Robert Nisbet’s equally important The Degradation of the Academic Dogma. Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind upped the ante considerably, by then, already fifteen years later, but also by then, the arguments had assumed a life of their own far beyond the university as they do today.
I do not mean to disparage the craft of teaching. The Socratic Method, for example, is intended to engage students effectively in a public setting, insisting that they learn how to think on their feet. A film illustration of this made Orson Welles’s early collaborator, John Houseman, the cultural icon of teaching as Professor Kingsfield in The Paper Chase. The film celebrated the autocratic, distant figure in authority who could drill and humiliate while teaching the law. The film’s final scene marked, however inadvertently, the end of that kind of figure. Kingsfield’s best student folds his final grade report into a paper airplane and sends it into the sea without opening it. For him the encounter with such an inspiring teacher counted more than the final grade. What more needs to be said today about how much has changed?


A teacher like Philip Rieff or the imaginary Charles Kingsfield could not survive in today’s climate of teaching, and so it is not unreasonable to acknowledge that some might wish to avoid teaching, if only such teachers still existed. The avoidance of teaching has grown for very different reasons for those who have lifetime security in higher education. Blame it on the federal government’s long-term investment in research. Blame it on the insistence to publish or perish. Blame it on entitled students whose demand for good grades puts teachers on the defensive and produces grade inflation. Blame it on administrators whose strongest rationale for using teaching evaluations is to assure themselves that teachers are doing their jobs, which means conforming to students’ expectations. Blame it on the belief that teaching is mostly a waste of time, given the many ways that students can now learn so many subjects, including the use of computer-streaming presentations of lectures. Who needs a real and expensive human being in a room with four walls?
In a very different kind of meditation that speaks more appropriately to present circumstances, Jay Parini’s The Art of Teaching (2005) notices something hard to identify in our remarkably conformist times. What has become of the eccentric teacher? You know, that odd bird, filled with breadth of knowledge, able to convey it, though, sometimes it may be a bit challenging to follow it easily. This is not a teacher who wears political opinions on his or her sleeve. This is not a teacher who ignores those qualities of performance that bind talent with instruction. This teacher is not a bore; Joseph Epstein once quipped that a professor is someone who talks in someone else’s sleep. Institutions are now exceedingly cautious about eccentric intelligence, as are the academic disciplines themselves. It is not simply that my younger colleagues may be careerists, accused in other words of figuring out how to play the game rather than making up new ones. They are, in the great phrase of Peter and Brigitte Berger, “hostages to history.”
The history of higher education is the history of a teaching elite that once understood its vocation but no longer does, an elite that ruled locally and made no pretense to be celebrities or to move endlessly from one institution to another with loyalty only to the call of self-aggrandizement. Avoiding teaching is now part of the ambition of being more than a local hero.
Historians are likely to appreciate the dilemma more than their colleagues in other fields. Teaching undergraduates is the least prestigious obligation of the historian, seeing how easy it is to impress students who know so little. Being honored by one’s peers, that is, professional honor, is a step up the ladder of status, but the “great” historian is one who can “build enduring literary monuments that will be read and praised by posterity.” Even in the case of teaching undergraduates, honoring teaching is an afterthought given as a prize at graduation ceremonies.
Many years ago, the late Irving Kristol wrote in the pages of The Wall Street Journal about how elite colleges and universities invited only graduation speakers whose politics reflected the politics of much of the faculty and student body. This was an undeniable fact and remains so. After many years of observing this phenomenon, I have made my peace with my colleagues’ reflexive inability to acknowledge greatness (or even accomplishment) across the political spectrum. In any case, it requires something more than consensus to change that reflex. My solution to the problem is not to invoke equal time but rather to return the graduation ceremony to its roots, not to honor celebrities but to honor great teachers who should talk about their teaching vocation. Symbols matter.
The great sociologist, Max Weber, whose fame went far beyond being only a teacher, understood the vanities of professors. Weber left us with an abiding despair that modern life had come to produce specialists without spirit and sensualists without heart. Rather than pinning the blame on modernity, I would say those specialists and sensualists are present among us by the dictates of human nature and by the confusion over what institutions of higher learning are meant to honor other than celebrity, fame, and fortune. True teachers must live with the prospect that most of those they teach over a lifetime will not remember their names or what they were taught. They must endure George Bernard Shaw’s famous aphorism that “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.” That was in Shaw’s The Revolutionist’s Handbook. In the same section of aphorisms, under the heading “Education,” he added, “No man can be a pure specialist without being in the strict sense an idiot.” Our contemporary idiots in the strict sense disdain teaching because the purity of their ambitions is inconsistent with their location. However one views the pond, big fish in little ones, little fish in big ones, a Darwinian prospect presides and is, to my mind, the impetus for eccentricity and independence of spirit, two aspects of character that might be remembered and imitated in their own way for their own time by those who quite literally will succeed us.

Jonathan Imber

Jonathan B. Imber is Jean Glasscock Professor of Sociology at Wellesley College.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.