What’s the point of being a professor?

In today’s New York Times, Emory University professor Mark Bauerlein offers a stinging criticism of the culture of higher education. He bemoans the fact that 43% of students are given As for their work (it was only 15% decades ago) and that more than 80% of students are more concerned with making money than they are with moral and worldly understanding. Among his greatest outrages was a recent gathering at which an Emory dean told the students not to get too involved in their course-work because there is so much more going on at the university. You can find the entire article here.

I think that Bauerlein makes some very salient points and I too am concerned that college students’ expectation that “learning is fun” sets up an unrealistic educational paradigm. Though I am often the first person in line for a good time, I do think that intense learning environments can be inherently difficult and uncomfortable. And I’m not sure that we do much service to undergraduate students or societal culture at large by leading them to think otherwise.


  1. Hi Richard, I’m self-plagiarizing here since you will see a version of this comment in the feedback Bill and I will be giving to your group. I believe your Group did a brilliant job of deconstructing the binary that underlies Mark Bauerlein’s piece and many of the “grade inflation” screeds: your group deconstructed the binary of “hard work” v “fun” which translates into something like: “learning is hard work and it is the professor’s job to make it harder” and “learning is fun and frivolous and it’s the professor’s job to pander and inflate.” If those are the two options, we are playing a losers game.

    Your group demonstrated—and, much harder, had us demonstrate—ways in which deep, meaningful, purposive work is perhaps not “fun” in a superficial sense but, more importantly, is a joy in the sense of a deep sense of accomplishment, fulfillment, and mastery. There is a huge missing middle between “hard work” and “fun.” The point of student-centered research is students being encouraged to take responsibility for their own learning in a way that requires diligence not because a teacher demands it but because it helps them on their own career and life path. Your mindfulness exercises could be incorporated in almost any challenging situation—not only in a classroom—to help center the “self” at the core of learning.

    The lesson of John Dewey is that as long as learning is centered in the “other” or the “authority” or “the teacher,” it is a lesson in subservience not mastery that, on its most fundamental level, undermines the objective of the students themselves attaining mastery. Your Group exemplified that pedagogy.

    The other point of interest-driven pedagogy–finding a way that each and every student can understand that mastery of a particular subject matter links directly to their own goals–is that all the research on future success in the workplace and life shows that hard work correlates directly with success. And all the research on motivation in voluntary activities shows that people work hardest when they really believe something benefits them or (interestingly) others they care about. The last part of that is why peer-mentoring proves to be so successful.

    Your group, in other words, demonstrated a number of things that this op ed glosses over. That said, your point is well taken about the ideology of “fun.” I especially hate that ideology because it is so hypocritical. America tests kids at a younger age and more often than any other country on the planet—and then throws up “fun” as a learning goal? That’s just a lie. And kids know it. As profs, we have a lot of work to do in other directions and your Group pointed to several important ones vacant from this op ed.

  2. I love this response, Cathy, and I agree with every word of it. I have been aiming for that magic, sweet spot in the middle all semester long in Anatomy and Physiology, and may just have been successful at hitting it. The students are working very hard, so there’s not much fun in it. But, they’ve had a great time while doing it. And many of them are experiencing the deep satisfaction and contentment (you refer to it as joy) that comes with intense learning. And as I like to say, you need to gift yourself the time to study in a peaceful and relaxed atmosphere.

    Bauerlein certainly has his finger on the issue. And his personal solution of meeting privately and insisting that students rewrite WITH HIM is a touching stroke of brilliance. At least he’s trying to do something to change the direction of some of these trends.

  3. I hear what you’re saying, Richard. At the same time, Bauerlein’s piece completely rubbed me the wrong way. He sees his students as distracted by “the gym, text messages, rush week”—no mention here of the jobs, caregiving, and other huge responsibilities that occupy the time and attention of our students. He criticizes them for wanting their education to lead to jobs, but students are increasingly buried in debt. He laments that they don’t want to be “disciples,” but the devotion to knowledge that he longs to see among his students is part of what keeps some people adjuncting for years under terrible working conditions. He’s not wrong about some of his critiques, but the whole thing feels elitist and out of touch with most students’ and faculty members’ realities.

    There are a few responses I have found compelling:

    “This is academic classism, pure and simple.” —The Tattooed Professor in “I Will Not Be Lectured To. I’m Too Busy Teaching”

    “To the extent that student attitudes towards college became more utilitarian over the years, I suspect that a combination of cost-shifting to students and a higher-stakes job market explain much of it.” —Matt Reed in “Kids Today: A Response to Mark Bauerlein”

    Here’s what upsets me the most about the piece: “And then watch as knock-off narratives about that aloof, out-of-touch, selfish professoriate are turned around and cynically used by politicians and profiteers to further erode public support for higher education at non-elite institutions – at community colleges, at state schools, at struggling HBCUs – where faculty, broadly construed, are already expected to do more with less.” —L.D. Burnett in “Selling (Out) the Good Old Days”

    It’s great that you came away with insights from the piece, but I worry a lot about what others will come away with.

  4. Thanks for posting this, Richard! Katina: I’m inclined to agree with you. This piece also rubbed me the wrong way in its out-of-touchness with the economic and social realities of many college students and adjunct faculty.

    Several phrases really caught me off guard. Bauerlein expresses a desire to be perceived as a “fearsome mind” and “moral light” by students, and I really bristle at this sentence: “We may be 50-year-olds at the front of the room with decades of reading, writing, travel, archives, or labs under our belts, with 80 courses taught, but students don’t lie in bed mulling over what we said. They have no urge to become disciples.” The kind of “pure quest for knowledge” and devotion Bauerlein calls for is, in more ways that one, a highly privileged attitude toward education.

    There is no reciprocity in the student-teacher relationship Bauerlein describes. Rather, the relationship he seems to be advocating for is one in which the student reveres the teacher, based on accolades that stem from elitist ideals and ideas of accomplishment. I also worry what kind of ideological support this kind of piece would provide for those who dismiss public, non-elite institutions.

  5. If you’re so inclined, here is a follow up interview with him from Salon.


    He’s certainly not going to win any new followers with his responses here, but the interviewer does ask him to address a few things that he did not in his original piece. I find his call to stop funding the Humanities particularly galling coming from someone in his position.

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