U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Selling (Out) the Good Old Days

Did you know that the student protest movement of the 1960s displayed nothing but reverence for the professoriate? In fact, student esteem for the professoriate continued up into the early 1980s, and then, for some reason, students decided to value education as a means to post-college employment over education as the pursuit of wisdom. And now nobody comes to professors’ office hours any more.

This is the narrative of declension du jour about higher education, peddled this time by Emory professor Mark Bauerlein via the op ed page of the New York Times. Since I am neck-deep in breathless dispatches about the cultural decay at the core of American higher education written in the 1980s and 1990s — The Closing of the American Mind, ProfScam, Tenured Radicals, Illiberal Education, yada yada yada — I don’t have much use for Bauerlein’s derivative shenanigans, except maybe to say that higher ed narratives of declension just ain’t what they used to be.

Or maybe they are.  Maybe screeds about how the university (or the professoriate, or liberal education, or teen spirit) just ain’t what it used to be in the good old days are exactly what they have always been: part of a slick sales pitch.  But what in the world does Bauerlein think he’s selling?

For one thing, what’s with this nostalgia for the good old days of 60s student protests, when the ire of student activists was directed solely at university administrators, and the prestige of the professoriate went unchallenged? Either Todd Gitlin, quoted in Bauerlein’s piece, was not apprised of the bizarre argument into which his standalone quote would be shoehorned, or he has not read the Port Huron statement lately.

That manifesto called the professoriate on the carpet for pursuing research at the behest of the military-industrial complex, with professors’ “skills and silence purchased by investors in the arms race…..Theoretic chaos has replaced the idealistic thinking of old – and, unable to reconstitute theoretic order, men have condemned idealism itself.”* Far from preserving the professoriate from criticism, the student activists of the 1960s condemned professors and administrators alike as sell-outs, sacrificing educational ideals for crass material gains. So the 1960s were hardly the golden age of student awe for the professoriate that Bauerlein has made them out to be.

However, it was the case that in the 1960s more students viewed the primary aim of college as a means to “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” than saw it as a means to becoming “very well off financially.” What in the world has gotten into today’s young people, that they worry more about making a living than they do about attaining wisdom? What could possibly be behind the prioritization of financial security over freedom to flourish intellectually and spiritually? What can we blame for this? Surely not an accelerating trend of massive budget cuts shifting the costs of higher education – an education necessary for that “well-trained workforce” that corporate America wants but won’t pay for – to individual families.

No, the fact that students enter college with a utilitarian view of education and leave college with the same utilitarian view is the fault of the professoriate, of course. “You can’t become a moral authority if you rarely challenge students in class and engage them beyond it. If we professors do not do that, the course is not an induction of eager minds into an enlarging vision. It is a requirement to fulfill.”

As Kevin Gannon has pointed out, Bauerlein’s essay is blithely oblivious to the working conditions of the professoriate – and I use that term broadly (as I think Gannon does as well) to cover all those who are tasked with the job of teaching undergraduates, including many road-warrior adjuncts who don’t even have an office door to keep open in the first place. Gannon astutely argues that Bauerlein is engaging in “academic classism, pure and simple.” Rather than rehearsing Gannon’s points, I would encourage you to read his essay.

But I’ll tell you what else Bauerlein is engaging in here – the lazy (if somewhat confused) rehashing of old arguments. Take one part Allan Bloom (these distracted kids don’t love wisdom any more!) and one part Roger Kimball (these selfish professors care more about their own agendas than the liberal education of their students!) and you’ve got Bauerlein’s lament in a nutshell. What’s new here is the historically confused 60s nostalgia – other than that, it’s a remix of earlier screeds about the closing of the American mind and the ruination of the professoriate.

But, hey, why reinvent the wheel when you can roll out something old and peddle it as something new? If the New York Times is willing to pay good money for warmed-over arguments about higher education that can draw clicks and drive traffic to the paper’s website, who can blame Bauerlein — or, for that matter, Christy Wampole — for getting in on the hustle? Write a lament about how life in the upper echelons of the prestige economy of higher education isn’t what it used to be, collect your check, and then…

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.

That’s what bugs me about Bauerlein’s piece – not that it’s historically confused or intellectually lazy. Such op eds are legion, “even in the New York Times.” What bugs me is how in its logical and historical confusion and its apparently willful elision of the structural shifts in the higher education economy, Bauerlein’s essay contributes to the delegitimization of American higher education, providing fodder for those who don’t just want to denigrate a college education but defund it as well.

That ain’t right, Bauerlein.


*Tom Hayden, The Port Huron Statement: The Visionary Call of the 1960s Revolution (New York, NY: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2005), 49, 50.

55 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Does Todd Gitlin run a small business of providing quotes to columnists out of his office? I have nothing against the guy, but it’s strange how often he pops up in this column or that column, in places where you wouldn’t even necessarily think his opinion is immediately relevant. I think he’s just gotten stuck as the go-to SDS dude for journalists to call, but considering what work they’ve been putting his sound bites to, maybe he should start being a bit more cautious!

    Anyway, much more importantly, this post is totally and completely awesome.

  2. Thanks, Robin Marie.

    Gitlin’s quote — its presence in this op ed, more than its actual content — nicely demonstrates an argument that both Gitlin and Russell Jacoby made about the east coast media establishment as a sort of echo chamber when it comes to coverage of higher education, with a small number of elite schools (and a small number of elite authorities) representing American higher education more broadly. (They made that argument in the mid 1990s — Jacoby in Dogmatic Wisdom, Gitlin in Twilight of Common Dreams.)

    One of the challenges of my own research is to not fall into the same pattern, or feed (or buy into) the assumption that “obviously” it’s important to understand the canon wars at Stanford because Stanford. No, it’s because what happened there became fodder for all kinds of polemics that were used to delegitimize higher education at much less insulated places. And the echo chamber of higher ed coverage in various elite media outlets, including the NYT, helped that process along.

    But seriously — what in the world does Bauerlein think he’s doing reinventing the 1960s here?

  3. L.D., I like your response a lot. I did not like Gannon’s. I think it goes too far the other way: the super professor knocking on dorm room doors to rescue students. This is not our job. This is as true at a small liberal arts college as it is at an R-1 as it is at a medium-sized state school. I’m an adjunct at a non-elite urban public university. I love my students, love teaching them, love helping them, love encouraging them. But Gannon’s portrait is of a person who invades student privacy. Finding translators for a Bosnian student’s parents? Perhaps an administrator of some kind should be doing that. Bauerlein’s “moral authority” piece was absurd, but academics should be teachers and scholars first and foremost, not life coaches and babysitters. I bring my students baked goods (usually by Dunkin Donuts) on the last class. I have no need for them to give me anything, save the satisfaction of knowing that they learned something and are continuing on successfully in their academic and professional careers. Which is not to say that if one of them did bake me something I wouldn’t eat it.

  4. You say:

    “Far from preserving the professoriate from criticism, the student activists of the 1960s condemned professors and administrators alike as sell-outs, sacrificing educational ideals for crass material gains.”

    No, that’s not correct. As Gitlin made plain to me in a lengthy conversation, there were profs who were sellouts (he singled out Kissinger at Harvard when he was there), but they were outnumbered by profs who were not, such as David Riesman and Roger Albritten, with whom Gitlin shared hamburgers and heated conversation. If the faculty weren’t generally on the side of the students, or at least sympathetic to them, during the upheavals, the university wouldn’t have changed so quickly.

    Finally, I note that you are a graduate student. May I offer you some counsel. It is certainly the case that popular intellectual discourse has slipped into banter and smartalecky-ness. It’s a way of getting noticed, and people take pleasure in cheap shots. We have to accept that in headlines and book titles (like one of my own). But once we get into the meat, you should leave the pseudo-witticisms behind (“du jour,” “ain’t,” . . . and Bloom’s book was not “breathless”). Knowingness is not wisdom They detract from a serious argument, and only level you with the mob of scribbling women and men.

    • Prof. Bauerlein,

      I’m curious what your response is to Burnett’s substantial point and not her choice of prose. How do you respond to the critique that you do not account for the larger economic and structural changes in higher ed? And are you worried that your critique here becomes ammunition for the further defunding and belt-tightening of institutions that lack the endowment of, say, Emory University? To what extent can your argument be put to use to substantiate bills like the one in North Carolina that would require professors to teach 4 courses a semester at a research university or the one in Iowa that would allow students to vote to fire their least favorite professor?Because it seems to me that those are the real questions. I’ve yet to see you answer them in any comment on either Burnett or Gannon’s rejoinders to your column.

      • Exactly. Please address the profound and polite criticisms of your piece instead of publicly reprimanding her for her writing style.

    • Forgive me for I ain’t nothing but a simple graduate student, and therefore rely on pseudo-witticisms, but your comment is quite the du jour. In fact, I would argue it is as breathless as Bloom’s breathless work… you know the one where he spends several hundred pages yelling at kids to get off his lawn. If you don’t have time to study it, I have a really short NYT’s piece that was published this past week that did the same thing. I could recommend it to you.

      Other than that, perhaps if you stopped using elitist arguments and worrying why you don’t have more disciples (a bizarre thing for an academic to want) you could take a moment and see the elitist nature of your thoughts. On second thought, nah. Its more fun to act like you are the smartest person in the room and then mansplain to a graduate student why you are so much smarter.

      Keep it up! With an attitude like that the undergraduates are going to be knocking down your door!

    • Professor Bauerlein,

      That has to be some posing as you, right? It’s hard to believe that you thought this would advance your position in the least. It makes you look completely tone deaf, unreasonable, and incapable of receiving criticism.

      Plus, you forgot to place a period between the last two sentences. Clearly you are a complete failure as a human being.

    • Is it because she’s a grad student that you hope she won’t catch your reference to “scribbling women?” Because this grad student feels wholly comfortable ascribing that phrasing to sexism on your part. And it ain’t remotely cute.

    • I am an auto mechanic, have my own garage. Back in the good old days, customers didn’t just used to bring me their cars to be fixed, drop them off, come back and pick them up and pay me for the repairs. No, that’s only the young jerks today who don’t look to me, their car mechanic, as a fount of wisdom on all things; for some reason I can’t fathom except it has to do with their own shallow nature, they don’t want to be the disciple of an auto mechanic. Imagine!

      God, I long for the old days when customers would just come to my garage to hang out and talk. They’d ask my advice on cars, sure, but more than that: they’d want to hear what I could tell them about how to run their lives. I gave such good advice, too, and told them to read great car magazines and also Men’s Health. Now the people just view getting their car fixed as a gross exchange of money for services.

      O tempore! O motors! What will a brilliant car mechanic like me do without disciples?

  5. Don’t take his counsel! You pointed out the unoriginality and elitism of his intervention. Don’t let his “father-knows-best” arrogance get to you. Thank you for your work.

  6. Prof. Bauerlein, completely missing the thrust of an argument, and writing a response that resembles Robert Southey’s response to Charlotte Bronte, is not wisdom.

  7. Ugh. A tenured full professor at Emory dismisses the arguments of a prolific graduate student, with a full draft of her dissertation on the general topic of classroom wars and higher education now complete. And he does so simply because he (the professor) once had a “lengthy conversation” with Todd Gitlin about life at UCLA 30 years ago. That is the only piece of evidence he cites in his rebuttal. And he ends his critique with the offhand comment that he thinks that her prose is a little too purple. Layers and layers of bad cliches.

    • Yes, that’s the kicker. LD’s critique of Bauerlein is based on actual research–the thorough, grubby, empirical kind–not one interview with one person.

    • I fully agree with the basic point of MPG’s comment here (as my remarks downthread indicate), but FTR the Gitlin conversation would have been: (1) not about UCLA and (2) about a period closer to 45 or 50 years ago than 30 years ago.

    • It is amazingly lazy: this must be true because Todd Gitlin said so! So there!

      • Isn’t it sort of intuitively (for lack of a better word) obvious that both students and profs fell on a spectrum of attitudes in the 60s re the best way to protest the Vietnam War and/or whether to protest it at all? It really isn’t surprising that at Harvard in the 60s Gitlin wd have found both what he wd have considered “sell out” professors (e.g. Kissinger or S. Huntington) and others who were opposed to the war and much more sympathetic to the student protestors. And even a few professors whose politics were radicalized. The problem is that Bauerlein overgeneralizes from what Gitlin told him, not that what Gitlin told him isn’t ‘true’. It is true, IMO, and indeed rather banal. But still it’s one person’s experience at one univ. and not necessarily universal. And
        it doesn’t negate L.D.’s point that one can find plenty of expressions of student distrust/dislike of the professoriate, as in The Port Huron Statement.

  8. I keep wondering just how many students he has. If I tried to do conferences with the 120+ I have every semester, I’d never sleep. Also, does he not take into consideration that some students cannot MAKE said conferences, because of work, family or other obligations? The presumption that he, and only he, can dispense knowledge, is pompous and a bit…creepy.

  9. Wait, what? Gitlin had hamburgers with two college professors? From Harvard? Wow!

    Well that settles it then.

    • Indeed. The detail about hamburgers is highly significant in itself. Clearly, we cannot dismiss him as elitist.

      • Right. Of course. Because anyone who has ever attended a so-called ‘elite’ university is, by definition, an elitist himself or herself. QED.

  10. Dear Professor Bauerlein,

    I see that you’re a professor at Emory. Judging from your op-ed, you have completely lost touch with the reality of undergraduate education outside of your office, and maybe inside, too. How are those evaluations going?

    The next time you try to address the unwashed among us, students included, start with questions rather than cliches about the 60s or anything else–don’t condescend to the people who inhabit the real world beyond your door, try to learn from them.

    And while you’re at it, kiss my ass.

    Sincerely yours,

    James Livingston
    Professor of History
    Rutgers University-New Brunswick

  11. Before we judge the op-ed too harshly, let’s consider the possibility that this was only the first in a series of pieces the Times is going to run. From that perspective, note that Bauerlein recommends close 1-1 contact with students. Perhaps that would be 30 minutes per week per student.

    Who can object to that? All we need to implement it is a vast expansion in the professoriate. So I await Bauerlein’s follow up op-ed proposing to expand the number of professors in the county by a factor of two to four (perhaps more) and a workable proposal for funding this expansion in the current political climate.

  12. Well then. Bauerlein’s response here really just is the most condescending mansplain I’ve seen from a male academic in, oh, at least a week.

  13. Prof. Bauerlein,

    Thank you for taking the time to respond to this post.

    Thank you as well for sketching out some details from your extended conversation with Todd Gitlin. In publishing this account here, you have provided historians and other scholars with a text that might prove useful in the future for someone’s scholarship or research. That is no small gift.

    Unfortunately, you withheld that gift from your readers at the New York Times. They – we – did not have access to Gitlin’s more qualified and nuanced assessment of student attitudes toward professors in the 1960s. However we do have access to a number of additional sources from and about the 1960s that reveal your characterization of student/professor relations in that period to be highly questionable. (I cited just one source, because it was literally sitting on my desk within easy reach, but if you need a bibliography on the student protest movements of the 1960s – or, for that matter, on the history of higher education — I’d be happy to provide one.)

    I can certainly understand your choice to simplify rather than to clarify Gitlin’s claims – every declension narrative needs its prelapsarian state. For that reason, I can understand your choice to cite data from the American Freshman Survey from 1967 and compare that to the most recent data, without looking at any time in between – and especially without looking at the data for the 1980s, which flatly contradict your picture of that period as one of high student idealism compared to today.

    Fortunately, the good folks at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education have provided a handy summary of the trends evident in the first 25 years of the AFS, from 1966 to 1990. Our readers can find that .pdf here:

    The American Freshman: 25 Year Trends, by Eric L. Dey, Alexander W. Astin, and William S. Korn.

    For the purposes of this discussion, the most immediately relevant section of the report is the summary of trends in “Student Values” (page 22 of the report; page 31 of the .pdf file). I quote from the report:

    Although many of the value statements have waxed and waned in popularity since the 1960s, two of the items have shown especially consistent and contrasting trends. The item showing the strongest upward trend is “being very well-off financially.” Between 1970 and 1987, student endorsement of this value increased from a low of 39.1 percent to an all-time high of 75.6 percent of the entering freshmen. Over the same period, the value showing the most precipitous decline in student endorsement is “developing a meaningful philosophy of life.” (See Figure 17.) Although the latter was the most popular value in 1967, endorsed by 82.9 percent of the entering freshmen, it has been regularly decreasing throughout most of the history of the CIRP. It continued a steady decline until 1987, when it reached its low point of 39.4 percent. Since 1987, however, the trends have reversed: Interest in developing a meaningful philosophy of life has been increasing gradually while wanting to be very well-off financially has become slightly less popular. It may be that this recent reversal, coupled with the sharply declining interest in business careers and majors, are early signals of a shift away from a materialistic philosophy.

    I can certainly understand why insights like those afforded here would not make their way into your essay, since your purpose was quite evidently not to give a fair account of the past, but simply a polemically useful one. Certainly, no one is asking you to be an historian in the pages of the NYT or anywhere else. But if you’re going to claim an historical basis for your argument, you need to get the history as right as you can, or your argument will suffer for it. Was this really the best you could do?

    Again, I thank you for participating in our conversation here. We value rigorous and honest intellectual exchange, and we’re always glad to see a good discussion develop in the comment threads on one of our posts. So I am very grateful, as I’m sure my colleagues are as well, that you have stopped by.

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, this little lady has some scribbling to do. This chapter ain’t gonna revise itself, you know.

  14. While a conversation with Todd Gitlin might be proof enough for Mark Bauerlein that the 1960s were the golden age of professor-student relations, the rest of us might do well to look at other sources to get an idea of the productive and unproductive forms of anti-authoritarian antagonism and indifference that characterized the Golden Age of prof-student relations for which Bauerlein pines. Female students exposing their breasts to Theodor Adorno in Frankfurt is one example. David Brown’s biography of Richard Hofstadter offers a picture of Cold War professors feeling quite distant from the campus unrest that roiled Columbia University in 1968. Thank you, L.D. for posting this response to Bauerlein’s NY Times piece. I for one rolled my eyes lazily at his “I’m a superprofessor and spend every waking moment in my office with my students and that is the solution to structural and system problems produced by economic anxiety, ballooning class sizes, standardized testing as well as out of control student loan debt. If I had $48K of student loan debt, which many of our students, I would have a really hard time conversing at my leisure with some tweedy guy in his office hours. But maybe that’s just me. — And I’m a full professor who thinks that L.D.’s style and content are much more appealing than Bauerlein’s NY Times’ copyedited condescension.

  15. L.D. Burnett in the post:

    [According to Bauerlein], student esteem for the professoriate continued up into the early 1980s, and then, for some reason, students decided to value education as a means to post-college employment over education as the pursuit of wisdom.

    Haven’t read the Bauerlein op-ed, but assuming L.D.’s summary here is accurate, which I’m sure it is, Bauerlein’s argument strikes me as very dubious. I was an undergraduate in the late 1970s and I seem to recall there was a fair amount said at the time about how careerism was trumping “the pursuit of wisdom” among undergraduates. In fact, David Riesman remarked in the late 1970s — i.e., before Bauerlein’s magic date of the early 1980s — that he saw undergraduates (at least at the institution where he taught) engaged in “a desperate struggle for post-baccalaureate preferment” (or words close to that). Translated into more daily English: many undergrads were in a cutthroat competition to get grades good enough to get them into the top-ranked law and medical and business schools. Again, this observation was made before Bauerlein’s date of the early 1980s (only a few years before, to be sure, but still before). My sense as a student at the time was that Riesman’s observation had a large kernel of truth (with the caveat that it obviously did not apply to all undergraduates).

    In his comment in this thread, Bauerlein cites a “lengthy conversation” with Gitlin about the ’60s. As others have already noted, there are tons of accounts, memoiristic and otherwise, of that period that would have given Bauerlein a fuller picture than one conversation and that would have broadened the focus beyond one leading activist’s view of one university. Indeed there are studies of the ’60s upheavals at various universities based on archival research and hundreds (if not thousands) of interviews. Did Bauerlein read any of them? Apparently not.

    I could say more, but I think I’ll leave it at that.

  16. p.s. Just read Bauerlein’s NYT piece, albeit quickly. The basic pt about the need for more faculty-student interaction outside of class is unobjectionable, taken on its own.

    But Baeurlein overgeneralizes from his own experience, something easy to do, I suppose, in an op-ed piece. He takes the early 1980s as a benchmark date because that’s when he himself was an undergrad at UCLA and English majors apparently crowded the halls waiting to speak to professors in their office hours. But how typical was that, either of the time period or the school or other places? We don’t know. It could have been common. It could have been an aberration. There’s no way of knowing from this op-ed piece.

    There’s also no mention by Bauerlein of the obvious fact that, while being a committed teacher and adviser and all that is swell and some professors are that, for the last three-quarters of a century (at least) what gets people tenure at research universities is primarily … their research. Some professors no doubt love teaching and advising and consider that a key part of their job and that’s great, but ultimately it’s considered secondary by administrators of research univs. and, mostly, by the structure of peer rewards for professors. I don’t care how many Centers for Teaching and Learning or Centers for Teaching Excellence or Centers for this-that-and-the-other are established. The basic priorities, as far as I’m aware, have not really changed.

  17. Good for your LD. I remember the fear we had as we walked across what was called the “Bridge of Sighs” between the classroom and professor office building at Cornell in the 60s because they were all male, mostly aloof, barely stayed in contact with us. I remember, too, my confrontation with the esteemed Clinton Rossiter when I was part of SDS organizing of draft card burning. He said I was “ruining his university.” I asked back: “so Professor Rossiter, whose university do you think this is?” Ah the good old days. Not to mention of course that those of us who have spent the decades in liberal arts colleges have a very different kind of relationship with our students. Keep up your work!

  18. Susan Reverby:
    I remember, too, my confrontation with the esteemed Clinton Rossiter when I was part of SDS organizing of draft card burning. He said I was “ruining his university.” I asked back: “so Professor Rossiter, whose university do you think this is?” Ah the good old days.

    I suspect that for every Clinton Rossiter or Allan Bloom there was (just to mention a few names off top of head) a Michael Walzer, Stanley Hoffmann, John Rawls — who, according to a post by Brad Baranowski at this very blog, spoke at an anti-war teach-in — or (further to the left then) Hilary Putnam. I’m sure people who have studied this period, as I haven’t, could fill out the picture.

    • So Eisenhower, new president of Columbia, gets up to speak at his first faculty meeting.
      Ike begins, “the university…”
      Isidor Isaac Rabi gets up and declaims “We are the university…”

      I also understand that after being elected POTUS, someone asked IKE if he thought it would be a tough job
      IKE replied, well, I was president of a university with a medical school…

    • Among the honorable who fought Nam, Don’t forget Dr Spock; my dad lists in the Honors section of his CV, spent time in jail with Benjamin Spock…

  19. I want to thank Professor Bauerlein for providing a response so perfect that it broke the internet. (I was unable to access this blog yesterday afternoon.) It is not often that the community links to YouTube for a Walter White clip, (remind me not to ever cross LD again), or I get to read a pithy remark by another professor to kiss his posterior.

    I wish to congratulate LD for writing a wonderful rebuttal and an even more pitch perfect response.

    But I must confess I worry about LD and the other graduate students that compose the posts at this site. Ten years from now, Professor Bauerlein will in all likelihood still be a tenured professor at Emory University doing his research, teaching his students, and drawing his salary. Our graduate students have a 75% percent chance of living the dream as adjuncts, struggling with low pay, no benefits, no support for research, etc. Some of the profession’s adjuncts will be on governmental aid such as food stamps, and since our graduate students do not possess academic pedigrees from the handful of programs that produce over 50% of the tenured professors in history, I fear their odds of having tenured full time employment may be even longer.

    I fear that our talented junior scholars might end up in the state where Professor Lacy, Professor Hartman, and myself live. Illinois is a reliably “Blue State,” and one might expect support for higher education to be greater and more insulated than in other sections of the United States. And yet, our state recently had a former gubernatorial candidate introduce legislation to privatize our system of higher education. As I am sure the readers here are also aware that the state’s flagship university recently fired Steven Salaita on the basis of a 140 character tweet.

    The profession as it is now structured eats its young at a tremendous cost. The loss of potential is enormous both to the profession and the psychic health of the discarded scholars. The leaders of our profession write about the job market and urge junior scholars to make a “Plan B,” but the prevailing fiction is the “job market” is a meritocracy and one should be like Boxer in Animal Farm and “work harder.”

    • I think you bring up the realities of a job market we grad students knowingly face. And it is alarming for precisely the reasons you say. This isn’t going to stop as some magic number, there is a larger political agenda in play to completely reorient higher education to greater money for particular administrators and make faculty poor hourly employees with even less power.

      But to me this is all the reason more to raise your voice, as LD is doing here, and fight against it. Keeping one’s head down and playing nice isn’t much of an option.

  20. “May I offer you some counsel.” So writes professor Bauerlein. I do not like it when people ask if they can give advice and then do not wait for a reply. I also do not like it when people ask if they can give advice or “counsel” and then just offer criticisms like “smart allecky”. That is not counsel, even given that “counsel” had not been requested. How does Bauerlein assess student papers?

  21. your extensive invective hides the true issue: Do professors spend less time in informal conversation with their students ?
    is there any data to support or reject this ?
    One assumes that virtually everyone in higher ed would agree, that on average, allowing for the wide variation in student needs, that conversation with professors is a good thing.

    You can offer red herrings about 60s radicalism and nostalgia, but BAUERLEIN’s point remains: if you don’t have time to talk – talk – to your students, are you really adding that much ?

    I would add, I’ve just been in a hospital for a few days with a relative (ok, thank god)
    MDs place is secure for now because they have retained a vital function – clinical decision making; you can’t pee in a hospital without an MDs order
    Teachers on the other hand have two powers, grading and letters of rec. You have largely surrendered the first, which means you are becoming disposable.

    One day, many years ago, I’m walking around SoHo, in manhattan, with my dad. He points to a building – that was the HQ of the lithographers union; they were GODS; no one messed with a lithographer.
    OH Teacher, software is improving faster then thou knowest

    • An argument without evidence is not an argument; it’s an assertion.

      If Bauerlein had been looking for evidence that, on the whole, the professoriate has less time to interact with students than it did before, he could have found it easily: see, for example, this report from the Council of Higher Education Accreditation. This report lays out the decline of tenured/tenure-track professors as a percentage of all instructors in higher education — from 78.3% of the professoriate in the magical year of 1969 to 33.5% in 2009. The report goes on to explain some of the effects of this situation on (among other things) professors’ ability to meet with students outside the classroom.

      So Bauerlein might have been able to advance a real argument — with evidence — that meaningful faculty/student interactions happen less frequently, or with more difficulty, than they used to. But Bauerlein obviously didn’t want this kind of evidence, because it points toward different problems, and suggests different conclusions, than the ones he had already settled upon before he looked at any evidence at all.

      If you’re worried about what we are losing as a culture because of changes to the university, you are not alone. Indeed, Bauerlein’s piece is tailor-made to tap into those very legitimate worries. But what is the end game of his foregone conclusion? To gin up outrage against the “lazy” professoriate.

      And what do you think the effects of that outrage are going to be? A renewed commitment to higher education as a public good, with calls for increased funding for tenure lines and better institutional support so that professors and students can return to those golden years of yore? Or do you think it more likely that some state legislator will see Bauerlein’s poorly-argued piece as “evidence” that money spent on professors’ salaries is money wasted?

  22. Hi LD —

    What a marvelous response of course, putting the spotlight back where it should be. Bauerlein’s op-ed was the standard warmed-over New York Times education stuff, full of vague declensionist handwringing instead of a hard look at where the culture of professor-student interactions bump up against the undermining of support for higher education and the vast majority of its work force economically and socially.

    One thing the Bauerlein piece did seem worth linking to is Laura Kipnis’s recent controversial polemic about teacher-student sexual relations (http://chronicle.com/article/Sexual-Paranoia-Strikes/190351/). Here’s a very different take on what’s happening to this generation of college students in relation not only to the faculty, but also the faculty and, most importantly, the self. Two different kinds of declension narratives, each yearning to return to a time now past, and both missing a sense of where the structural undermining of university life, particularly the economic well-being of the faculty beyond the thin uppercrust of “superstars,” is connected to the cultural shifts toward passivity (Bauerlein) or victimhood (Kipnis) that these articles suggest are at the center of a moral crisis in academia and higher education. Where those two voices converge and diverge seems intriguing to me.

    Thanks for the wonderful writing and important response here!


    • I can see how “the structural undermining of university life,” increase in contingent workers etc., is connected to the problems that Bauerlein is upset about (less student/faculty interaction etc), but I’m not sure what connection you (M. Kramer) see these structural factors having to the Kipnis piece. That article seems to me to be dealing with quite different issues, ones less tied to structural/economic forces and more to cultural trends.

  23. First-time reader here thanks to links, and this is exactly the response Bauerlein deserved. Thank you!

    The Bauerlein polemic aside, I am struck by a phrase in the quote you give from the Port Huron statement: “Theoretic chaos has replaced the idealistic thinking of old.” So even the student radicals of the 60s were prone to declensionist narratives about education!

  24. Ms. Burnett:

    Thank you for your cogent critique of Prfoessor Bauerlein’s awful op-ed. You are exactly the kind of teach/scholar the profession needs. I am the head of a PhD program and teach extensively in our department’s BA/BFA programs. I tell you from over 20 years of experience Prof. Bauerlein has absolutely no idea what he’s talking about. His research is poor, his experience limited, and his analysis blinkered by his privilege. I look forward to reading your work.

    Charlotte M. Canning
    Frank C. Erwin Jr Centennial Professor in Drama

  25. Speaking as one who was an undergraduate during the halcyon days of the 1960s, I think I’m in a position to comment. Full disclosure, though: I have two adult children. I discouraged them actively from seeking collegiate pathways in artistic, humanistic or liberal arts studies; I understood that the pragmatic priorities of a modern age required them to think more about vocation than about intellectual or artistic pursuits. I never felt right about it, but I did believe it was the correct thing to do. And today, I am gratified and relieved that both of them sought careers in utilitarian and practical fields where, to use the pedestrian phrase, they could make a living. I am also flattered that they attended high quality universities where the reading and study of such “useless” fields as the liberal arts and sciences were also emphasized, and where, truly, people flunked out when they didn’t perform adequately. Regardless, let me say that the point Professor Bauerlein makes is not entirely without merit, although I think it is somewhat hyperbolic and somewhat poorly argued, particularly as it comes from a faculty member of a rather highly respected institution. He is right about some things, though. I can attest to the fact that there were a good number of students in those days who were vocationally minded, at least with regard to their education; a vastly larger group, though, were more inclined toward seeking knowledge for its own sake, for this was, after all, the way most of us had been fetched up. We were taught that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” meaning, of course, that it was our responsibility to gather a great deal of knowledge in order to avoid the dangers of life. The latter group tended to pity the former group, as we saw their efforts as scholars to be more or less squandered on their practical pursuits. They had, in the parlance of the time, “sold out.” They weren’t “tuned in.” They, on the other hand, pitied us. My roommate–a failed engineer (couldn’t pass Calc II) who became a business major–watched me lugging in bags of books from the library to read for my history classes and assured me that he would some day wave at me from his luxury car while I sold pencils on the street corner, so bereft of gainful employment would I be. I, in turn, assured him that, at the very least, I could employ those pencils to write something meaningful, or such was my plan. I have no doubt that he often wallows in the correctness of his assessment, although he has no idea what I do or how I live; it’s hard to see that from his estate in one of the richest communities in the nation. And I take no small measure in the satisfaction of knowing that he has not read a single book since he finished college. Nevertheless, among those of us majoring in history, literature, philosophy and language, value structures were still steeped in an Arnoldian notion of the classic conflict inherent in a capitalistic culture. It was Arnold’s contention, of course, that the Philistines would ultimate win out. And so it appears they did and have. After all, they control most all the money, and that means they have most all the power.(To put it another way, as an old professor of mine once did when discussing Arnold’s thesis, “It’s more like the contrast between the Greeks and the Romans. The Romans always win, but the Greeks are more interesting to watch.”) Evidence of that outcome can be easily found by surveying any number of college graduates this May and seeing how many one might discover who ever even heard of Matthew Arnold, let alone who have actually read Culture and Anarchy. Then ask how many billionaires they can name and how many of their ghost-written autobiographies they’ve read–or at least downloaded and plan someday to read or at least listen to on their headphones. Be that as it may, suffice to say that eventually that generation that prized professorial mentoring so highly and valued the notions of achievement based on meritorious performance traded in their library cards for platinum cards and gave way to the more pedestrian values that hold with the idea that merely showing up is worthy of a trophy. There is no question, still, that today’s collegian is far more interested in grades than in learning; any professor who has assigned any grade less than an A to any student, however deservedly, can attest to the howls of protest that come in response. The contemporary temper dictates, it seems, that effort, however ineffective, should be prized the same as achievement. This attitude in collegiate terms is a by-product of the scramble for a place in an increasingly competitive world where GPA is the measure of worthiness. To get into the best colleges or the best post-graduate schools, to be hired by the best companies and enjoy the best potential for advancement, one must have the best grades, regardless of whether anything was learned or not. In other words, actual accomplishment is far less important than the attempt to accomplish, regardless of result. Failure simply isn’t an option, meaning that assessment cannot include the possibility of failure as a measure of success. In the graduate school I attended, there was a plaque over the door (since removed) that read: “Success is not enough; others must fail.” Harsh as this epigraph may appear to be, it does signal the truth that without at least the possibility of failure, success is meaningless. If everyone finishes first, why bother with the race? College catalogs in the 1960s and well into the 1980s used to contain the advice: “Every hour of class time anticipates a minimum of three hours of study outside class.” Such a requirement, should it be a requirement, would be completely unacceptable to most of today’s students, even the graduate students, who seem to be of the opinion that if something isn’t taught in a class, then it’s probably not important enough to bother with. Hence, we turn to short-cuts to learning–distance teaching, on-line classrooms, low-residency degrees–a system where, metaphorically, phoning it in is sufficient, or should be, for the highest possible mark. Professor Bauerlein’s essay, though, glosses the real point. It is in the open and personal exchange of ideas, in debate and discussion, in argument and the give-and-take of discourse that learning occurs. He was doubtless recalling the days when “Teach-ins” and impromptu lectures on all sorts of abstract topics would draw crowds of people, many of whom would then decamp to the library to find out more about whatever topic was at hand. That, I think, is what he wanted to say. But he said it poorly. It is a commonplace–and it’s generally incorrect–to say that today’s student is a poorer academician than yesterday’s. But it’s also true. What’s changed, though, is not the abstract quality of intelligence or studiousness of individual students or even their commitment to knowledge but the nature and direction of scholarship and the nature of knowledge. Priorities are different today from what they were fifty years ago; they were different fifty years ago fro what they were fifty years previous to that, and one needn’t look very far into the annals of academic instructors of that by-done era to discover lamentations about the sorry quality of the scholarly individuals presently appearing in their classrooms, even a century or more ago. (I once saw a letter from a professor posted in 1902 complaining that he was appalled by the poor understanding of Greek he was finding among his freshmen students. “It’s as if they’ve never studied any Greek at all!” he declared. Today, I’ll hazard, a good number of college graduates would have some momentary hesitation in locating Greece on a globe.) Education has to be adaptable to the world in which it is supposed to prepare students to function. Such change is often painful and difficult to apprehend. At the same time, though, there is always a danger in losing something of value in the rush forward to gain some edge on the future. The prevailing philosophy in the 1960s among professional organizations, in business, in every walk of life where collegiate degrees were preferred if not demanded of the employees was that a better educated individual would make a better professional; the more one knew, even about abstruse and impractical things such as art, literature, history, philosophy, as well as life science, mathematics, and social science, the better off one would be, the better off the enterprise would be, and the better off society would be for it, as well. We may have lost that in our shifting priorities, where the notion seems today to be that one needn’t really know anything so long as one knows where and how to find it out. But that, really, is another argument.

  26. I don’t intend to respond to all of the above except to make two points.

    First, one need not belong to an elite university in order to benefit from the mentoring of a great professor. When I graduated high school in in 1998 I’d I earned a 2.7 on a 4.0 scale, without any college ed courses. I attended my first semester of higher ed at Delta Community College (the best I could do). Later I transferred to Michigan State (not a shabby school, but not an elite one either). Until then I hadn’t had any scholarly interests, but very quickly after enrolling I was captivated by a few of my history and sociology professors. Later, I dedicated my first book to one of them: Harry Reed. He wasn’t a leading scholar in his field, but he’s a brilliant guy and he played a huge role in my life at just the right moment. (I could go on about this for many thousands of words; perhaps someday I will.)

    Also, Bauerlein’s rightly and courageously points out that in the age of social media and Gawker, too many scholars (many of them younger, I’m afraid) are too quick to try to score cheap points with casually written, supposedly witty ripostes. So for instance, Wes Bishop, maybe you should “slow your roll” before you describe Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind” as two hundred pages of an old man yelling “Get off my lawn!” Otherwise people won’t take you seriously. (See how easy that was? See how it made you feel? See how little it contributed to the discussion?)

  27. Just a quick note of thanks to everyone who participated in this very lively discussion. I usually try to respond to each individual commenter on my posts — but I don’t usually get 50+ comments. So I just want to reiterate how grateful I am for all those who have responded to this post, here and elsewhere, whether in praise or criticism or some combination of both. In case you all haven’t noticed, it’s not just the history of the university that matters to me, but its future too. I realize I’m not alone in that regard — never have been. Still, every once in a while, it’s nice to get a glimpse of the great cloud of witnesses. Now back to these revisions…

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