The death of the mentor

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In the best of all possible worlds, my students end the semester with renewed interest in learning. Having developed a commitment to improving their communication skills, their writing eclipses what they produced at the start of the term. They might be able to catch a few more literary allusions, but that’s not absolutely necessary. Oh, and they all earn A’s.

That’s the ideal—for my English courses.

in the words of Mark Bauerlein, “while they’re content with teachers, students aren’t much interested in them as thinkers and mentors. They enroll in courses and complete assignments, but further engagement is minimal.” Students recognize that they, themselves, have been reduced to cogs—and that their professors have been, too.

There is a myriad of reasons for this, including over-reliance on adjuncts leading to reduction of tenure-track lines and increased “service” responsibilities for full-time faculty. A return to “publish or perish” made possible by the intense competition for the few jobs certainly hasn’t helped. Nor has the diminution of faculty self-governance that has turned college teachers from independent professionals into “employees.”

Bauerlein writes that you “can’t become a moral authority if you rarely challenge students in class and engage them beyond it.” True. But you can’t develop the moral authority to challenge and engage if your own position is vulnerable. As parts in a machine rather than unique professionals, today’s professors can be easily swapped out—even in the middle of a semester. Even tenured faculty view their jobs with an unease that did not exist in what Bauerlein sees as the halcyon days of the sixties, seventies and eighties.

Administrators have become the power on campus in a way they never were and were never meant to be. Accreditation and budget issues have become their weapons, cowing faculty into acquiescence and regimentation. Old lines about “faculty involvement” have become laughable as they are spoken today, passed off without challenge before intimidated bodies of junior faculty and their senior colleagues who have become interested in doing little more than protecting what little they already have. As Bauerlein says (though from different reasoning), as “a result, most undergraduates never know that stage of development when a learned mind enthralled them and they progressed toward a fuller identity through admiration of and struggle with a role model.”

Bauerlein places responsibility for today’s situation in academia on the faculty. He says we have “become accreditors” but implies that’s our own fault.

No.

We can take some of the blame, certainly, but it’s also the fault of a declining vision of the value of education, one conflating it with training. It’s the fault of a society that has reduced the future to jobs, not careers, and human possibilities to the quantifiable (to money, in particular). It’s the fault of administrators whose vision of education centers on “products” and corporate models, who see faculty as people they should control instead of support. It’s the fault of parents so competitive, so worried about their children that they push them to “succeed” without ever considering just what the word means. It’s the fault of politicians who see college campuses as convenient targets that can’t effectively shoot back.

Again: “You can’t become a moral authority if you rarely challenge students in class and engage them beyond it.” Certainly not. But you cannot challenge anyone without support and trust behind you, and these are sorely lacking on college campuses today.

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