By Tom Robotham
Last month The Post and Courier, a newspaper in Charleston, SC, ran a story about a professor at the College of Charleston who was suspended because his syllabus was “gravely deficient.” The story caught my attention because the dispute, to my mind, reflects a battle for the very soul of higher education in this country.
The dust up began when Associate Professor of Biology Robert Dillon, who’s been teaching for 34 years, handed in a syllabus that failed to include a list of “student learning outcomes,” in keeping with the latest accreditation standards from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
Dillon responded that such a list would reduce his class to a “regurgitation of facts as opposed to an engagement with the scientific method.” When he refused to surrender to the administration’s demands, he was barred from his classroom, and his courses were assigned to other instructors.
“I must point out that much has changed in higher education in the past 34 years, even if your approach to teaching has not,” wrote the college’s provost Brian McGee, in a memo to Dillon.
Much has changed, indeed.
The story got me thinking about my experience as an undergraduate, as well as my own approach to teaching today at Old Dominion University.
When I reflect on my undergraduate years at the State University of New York, Plattsburgh, one professor stands out in my mind above all others. His name is David Mowry. Nearly 40 years have passed since I took my first class with him—Introduction to Philosophy—but I still think about him frequently.
That said, I’d be hard-pressed to come up with a list of specific “outcomes” from that class—for there was really only one: He made me fall in love with the subject.
That intro class was only the beginning. Subsequently I took two more courses with him. The first of these was Political Philosophy, in which we studied Fascism, Communism and Democracy. (I still have the textbook.) I vividly remember him in one class offering a mock defense of Mein Kampf. As I reflect on this moment, it occurs to me that in many universities today he would probably be called on the carpet for offending the sensibilities of some students. He offered no “trigger warnings,” which, increasingly, are demanded today, because students are presumed to be too delicate to be subjected to certain ideas. But I digress. Political correctness has run amok in certain circles. This, however, is not my main concern at the moment. My main concern is the point of Dr. Mowry’s lesson—that you cannot possibly argue against anything, if you cannot competently argue in favor of it.
The other moment that stands out for me is one evening during Dr. Mowry’s Plato seminar. That evening, rather than having us meet in our classroom, he invited us to his home, where we spent our time sitting on his living room floor, drinking wine and talking about The Symposium. The setting made sense, given that this is what happens in that particular dialogue: Socrates and his friends sit around drinking while talking about the nature of love.
This could not happen today, of course, for a wide variety of reasons. For one thing, the drinking age was subsequently raised to 21, so technically it would be illegal. For another thing, the whole undertaking would be regarded in many circles as “inappropriate.” What happened that night, however, was a very model of what higher education should be about—students sitting around with their professor, thinking and talking about an important subject. There were no Power Point presentations; no reviews of what was going to be on the final; no recitations of important bullet points about Plato’s life. Dr. Mowry had only one objective that night: to engage us in the process of philosophy, in the same way that Socrates had engaged his students.
Alas, Dr. McGee is right: Much has changed in higher education over the last three decades—and very little for the good.
Very few professors I know—and administrators, for that matter—would disagree with me. But the pressure from accreditation bodies—and politicians who authorize funding—is enormous. As a result of these pressures, colleges and universities increasingly operate like businesses. Just as corporate America is obsessed with measuring employee “performance” and profit margins, institutions of higher learning are now obsessed with measuring “student outcomes.”
The mentality does not serve corporations any more than it serves colleges. As Tom Peters pointed out in his book In Search of Excellence, back in 1982, far too many American corporations seek not excellence but mediocrity because of the focus on quarterly earnings rather than long-term goals.
Similarly, colleges today are focused on turning out students with “skill sets.” Never mind that those “skill sets” are meaningless unless there is a coherent vision behind them.
Beyond that, of course, there is a crucial difference between corporations and universities. In the end, the former can be measured by numbers and “outcomes.” Universities and individual professors—if they are doing their jobs well—cannot possibly be.
Do you think that Dr. Mowry could have possibly cited “outcomes” from the night that we gathered in his living room? Do you think he could have predicted that at least one student in his class would be so profoundly affected by that experience that he would remember it three decades later—and that it would have shaped his entire philosophy of education?
Of course not. He was operating on faith that something good would come of it. Indeed, without articulating it as such, he was teaching in accordance with the Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13: “And when he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, and the fowls came and devoured them up: Some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth: And when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprung up, and choked them: But others fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold.”
Let me put this another way: We cannot measure “student outcomes” because we have no idea what students will do with whatever it is that we impart. And that is all that matters. How well they perform on tests at the end of the semester is utterly irrelevant. On the contrary, whatever they’ve remembered for those tests will largely be forgotten. The only question is what larger ideas will stick with them for life? What passions will take root, and sprout and bloom as a result of some class discussion?
My confidence in this philosophy has been reinforced by countless conversations I’ve had with former students with whom I have remained in touch. They don’t talk about facts they learned in my classes—they talk about impressions. They talk about ideas, and what they’re doing with their lives. They talk about the lasting imprints of our discussions of Thoreau, or the New Deal or The Godfather.
Not all of them, mind you. Many of my students have been far too conditioned by the societal machine, which tells them that education is about doing well on tests, getting A’s, getting diplomas and getting a “good” job—i.e., one that pays well, regardless of what it does their minds and their souls.
But some of them. Some of them have. And for me, that is satisfaction enough. Just as it is, I imagine, for David Mowry—and Robert Dillon, should he be reinstated.