Comment Of The Day: “Comment Of The Day: ‘Ethics Quote Of The Week: Ken White of Popehat’”

This is the second Comment of the Day within a week from Ethics Alarms prodigal son Curmie, a college prof, who makes the case that college education is being excessively maligned. You should probably re-read the post he’s responding , another Comment of the Day, to appreciate his argument.

Here is Curmie’s Comment of the Day on the post, Comment Of The Day: “Ethics Quote Of The Week: Ken White of Popehat”:

This is a cogent analysis up to a point, but I must say I’m more than a little sick and tired of having people tell me what goes on in my classroom. I teach at a non-flagship state university. And the description of what happens in college classrooms simply does not match my experience of them.

(Side note to Ryan: I really do like a lot of what you’ve said here. I apologize if the succeeding sounds like a personal attack. It is not intended in that spirit. Just one too many sweeping generalizations about my profession, and the last straw happened to be yours.)

Ryan cites Thomas Aquinas. I prefer the great late-20th century philosophers known as Monty Python: “I’m not dead yet.”

I do expect students to know some objective facts: if you can’t tell me the basic tenets of neoclassical theory or who David Garrick was, you’re not going to fare well in my theatre history class. If Ryan wants to say that in this sense I insist on regurgitation, he has my permission to do so.

But to get an A on the research paper, you’d better be able to interpolate from incomplete data, and to articulate a point of view based on the facts as they are available to us. That means finding out what the facts are, but also finding context: okay, so it cost a penny to see a play at the Globe Theatre. But that’s a meaningless statistic if you don’t know what that Elizabethan spectator could have bought for a penny if he didn’t spend it on standing room in an outdoor theatre.

Equally importantly, if I ask a student who the protagonist of a play is, you can bet the script under consideration isn’t Hamlet or Oedipus, but something like Death of a Salesman: is that play about Willy or Biff (or Linda, if you can make a case)? I don’t care (much, at least) what you answer; I care how you get there, and whether your conclusion is based on your close reading of the play, or on expert opinion, or on what your high school teacher said.

I tell students that if they agree with me for all the right reasons and can articulate why they do so, that’s probably good for a B+ on an end-of-semester paper. If they want an A, they’d better disagree with me for the right reasons, or at the very least make me reconsider something I had previously accepted perhaps too uncritically.

I mentioned Death of a Salesman above. I’m reminded of a scenario many years ago. I was wrapping up my PhD and looking for a part-time job to supplement my part-time lectureship. I got an interview at a local technical college to teach an intro to theatre course. One of the questions I was asked was “what is the great American play?” I said that depended on what is meant by that term, and suggested that probably the most important American play was Oklahoma, the one generally agreed to have considerable artistic merit to be produced the most today would likely be The Glass Menagerie, etc. Nope. The “correct” answer in the mind of this accounting teacher was Death of a Salesman, and all else was equivocation. I didn’t get the gig. I am still thankful for that.

To be sure, my method is sometimes terrifying to students who have grown up in an era of largely bogus standardized testing that does indeed encourage regurgitation rather than thought. But secondary schools and teachers are increasingly under the gun to raise scores on whatever meaningless (at best) test a gaggle of idiot politicians of either party decided would increase “accountability.” I can’t really blame my colleagues in secondary schools for teaching to the test—their livelihood depends on good scores—but what can be quantified and what is important are discrete categories, whether the petty pols and the educationists think so or not.

I don’t suggest that there aren’t some lazy or indeed unethical faculty at about every institution in the country. They present opinion as fact and reward toadyism. And they get a lot of notoriety from the right-wing media. But I’d argue four things:

1. The majority of faculty in traditional liberal arts disciplines really are more interested in how students think than in what they think.

2. Administrations tend increasingly to run scared. It’s just a question of who scares them the most.

3. It tends to be students (and faculty) in pre-professional programs (business, accountancy, nursing) who want to be able to memorize the “correct” answer rather than in developing the ability to think.

4. Many (not all, but many) of the problems in higher education are created completely outside the academy. Students arrive at universities unable to write, to problem-solve, to consider multiple perspectives in large part because of the “teach to the test” mentality to which their secondary school teachers needed to ascribe for their own career safety. This is primarily a function of well-meaning but also willfully ignorant state legislatures and boards of education, who trust corporate propaganda more than the expertise of their teachers. And that leaves university professors at a disadvantage: trying to teach subject matter while simultaneously struggling to backfill the communications, research, and study skills which inevitable had to be tossed aside in order to sufficiently worship the Great God Accountability.

None of this is likely to change any time in the near future. But I, personally, am going to keep challenging students’ suppositions and demanding evidence for their claims. I have tenure. And I’m not dead yet.

10 thoughts on “Comment Of The Day: “Comment Of The Day: ‘Ethics Quote Of The Week: Ken White of Popehat’”

  1. That rapid growth of online classes, that make students and parents think lecture, little if any testing, and no application bothers me even more. I will say some preprofessional programs require innovation and encourage deeper engagement: AI, graphics, and plot/design. My alma mater required interdisciplinary classes, even if the classes were often hit or miss at that point.

  2. The number of unfair, unreasonable university staff is often exaggerated because we never forget those we encountered as students. Our innocence blundered headlong into some jerk working as adjunct faculty and never recovered. I had dozens of wonderful professors, but memories of the three or four real crazies can still make my blood boil 30 years later.

    • One bad professor can wreck your undergraduate experience. Especially if you’re stuck with them as your advisor and they teach almost half the requires classes in your major. My blood does indeed still boil.

      On the other hand, a few professors I’ve now known for half my life and are quite good friends to this day. It took me a while to appreciate that most professors are just regular people. Most regular people happen to be assholes, in my opinion, but some assholes still manage to be reliable friends and at least somewhat decent people when it counts.

      Now those damn college administrators, on the other hand…

      • Tex,

        I think we all agree that most colleges were taken over by progressives years ago, and recent events show that the indoctrination has taken root, with all the safe spaces and one sided intolerance of opposing views. Your link validate this. Thanks.

    • Tex,
      The NAS has evolved over the years. Their original mission–or at least the one that was in play 30ish years ago–was promoting a core curriculum. They recruited me as a member after I presented at a conference, then told me I couldn’t join because you weren’t really a scholar unless you had a PhD: not merely a terminal degree, specifically a PhD. I was ABD at the time.
      Since then, they have leaned increasingly rightward–unlike, say, FIRE, which probably supports the right more than the left, but not because they’re on the right. (Does that distinction make sense?)
      Moreover, the membership is now open to anyone who pays the fee.
      If you know British newspapers, they’re the equivalent of the Telegraph: not the outright propaganda of the Sun, but everything is filtered through their political stance. They are to right what NPR is to the (corporate) left.
      None of this discredits their report, per se, but we should be skeptical about believing its analysis without further review.

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