What professors aren’t paid to profess

23 10 2006

Professor Stanley Fish:

Of course, before you can do your job, you have to know what it is. And you will not be helped by your college’s mission statement, which will lead you to think that your job is to cure every ill the world has ever known – not only illiteracy, bad writing and cultural ignorance, which are at least in the ballpark, but poverty, racism, ageism, sexism, war, exploitation, colonialism, discrimination, intolerance, pollution and bad character. (The list could be much longer.)

I call this the save-the-world theory of academic performance and you can see it on display in a recent book by Derek Bok, the former and now once-again president of Harvard.

Aloof Ivy Tower

Bok’s book is titled “Our Underachieving Colleges” and here are some of the things he thinks colleges should be trying to achieve: “[H]elp develop such virtues as racial tolerance, honesty and social responsibility”; “prepare … students to be active, knowledgeable citizens in a democracy”; and “nurture such behavioral traits as good moral character.”

I can’t speak for every college teacher, but I’m neither trained nor paid to do any of those things, although I am aware of people who are: ministers, therapists, social workers, political activists, gurus, inspirational speakers and diversity consultants.

I am trained and paid to do two things (although, needless to say, I don’t always succeed in my attempts to do them) :

1) to introduce students to materials they didn’t know a whole lot about, and

2) to equip them with the skills that will enable them, first, to analyze and evaluate those materials and, second, to perform independent research, should they choose to do so, after the semester is over.

That’s it. That’s the job. There’s nothing more, and the moment an instructor tries to do something more – tries to do some of the things urged by Derek Bok or tries to redress the injustices of the world – he or she will have crossed a line and will be practicing without a license. . .



5 responses

23 10 2006

I just saw a bio for Derek Bok that was interesting — his Ph.D wife’s parents were BOTH Nobel Laureates and his daughter is a philosophy professor now, at Johns Hopkins I think.
And I thought *I* was born breathing academe as air, ha, what an amateur! 🙂

23 10 2006


In one of his books, Derek Bok apparently argues that corporate money (not political correctness, moralizing or ideology) is the threat to fundamental academic values. The review I found makes it seem that he believes “profitable knowledge opportunities” are the ultimate evil, a seduction away from the “academic values” he has dedicated his life to — although according to Fish, Bok’s are not actually “academic” values but more global change-the-world ideology.

No doubt the truth lies far from either extreme, with profit as neither ultimate value nor aultimate evil.

“Derek Bok probes the efforts on campus to profit financially not only from athletics but increasingly, from education and research as well. He shows how such ventures are undermining core academic values and what universities can do to limit the damage.”

23 10 2006

Another strong perspective – the Dartmouth Review says professors are the problem, not the solution, while all that money is the solution, not the problem. I like the part about parents and graduates (in other words the public?) playing the role of purposeful reformers for our own influential institutions. If the mission of college is indeed to change the world, hadn’t it better be changing it according to OUR values?

Faculty need not be the answer, as Bok presumes they must be. Alumni can reassert their control of their alma mater. . . . alumni and parents, in conjunction with many state legislatures, control the most valuable asset of all in the struggle to reform American universities—money. Without it, even the most entrenched faculty will wither on the vine.

Organizing vast groups of alumni to demand better returns on their donations is certainly no easy task, but it is still better than relying upon the faculty to reform itself. Reforms in the corrupted core of American higher educational are long over-due, but they must come from without, rather than from within.

23 10 2006

Yet ANOTHER view – this time, of Derek Bok’s own academic elitism as the very obstacle to achieving the social progress he believes universities are responsbile to create in the world.

So here’s a thought — maybe combining Professor Bok’s disdain for academic money with Professor Tinto’s struggle to get enough of it, would be the perfect solution. (And if parents and alumni lead the charge to do this, it incorporates the Dartmouth Review paradigm as well!)
We simply shift the big bucks from the ivy elites to demographically diverse, hard-working, apolitical community colleges, and everybody gets what he wants, and the world becomes a wonderful place?

“Most Colleges Aren’t Like Derek Bok’s”

“. . . our future as a diverse democratic society depends on our capacity as a nation to ensure as best we can that low-income students in general and community college students in particular are educated in ways that not only advance their growth and occupational attainment but also enable them to transfer, should they so wish, to the colleges and universities about which Bok cares so deeply.

We need a national effort that provides community colleges and the faculty who teach students in those colleges with the resources they need. . .

All this is not so much to criticize “Our Underachieving Colleges” as it to ask its author to give as careful and caring consideration to two-year institutions and the students they serve as he does to the institutions to which he speaks.

Vincent Tinto is Distinguished University Professor in Higher Education at Syracuse University. He has written widely on issues of student success in higher education, in particular on the effects of innovative programs—such as learning communities—on student success, especially among low-income and underserved students.

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