There was an old joke in the Soviet Union that went something like, “yep, the workers’ paradise is great – we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.” The irony that this charade occurred in the homeland of the Potemkin Village was not lost on them.
The same can be said of higher education: “students pretend to work and professors pretend to teach them.” Now, what I am about to say does not of course apply to all students and all professors, but if you were to take an objective step back and examine what happens on college campuses today you’d be pretty shocked. I read a paper recently that suggested that 1/3 of college students “regularly” miss class, and that of the remaining 2/3 that they spend about 50% of their time engaged in their classes. Thus at any given time we are seeing about 1/3 of student learning capacity being used. Let me ask what I once thought was a rhetorical question. How can it be the case that so many students do so little at college and they still remain there?
There are many answers, but I propose that a large reason is that we (meaning me and my fellow academics) are complicit. Just as there are millions upon millions of slacker students there are tens upon tens of thousands of slacker professors. I am sure that none of us will ever admit to it, but take a look around what happens on your campus and then come back to me. It is of course personal and professional suicide to denounce yourself and people like yourself as slackers – but it is moral suicide not to. Look around to observe how loose many college deadlines are, how many second and third and fourth chances are provided to students, how “average” now amounts to a B+ grade, how few people feel the need to act and dress professionally (I am guilty here too – but would prefer a world where all faculty wore a shirt and tie every day), at the proliferation of services for students all under the banner of learning assistance, and so on. To suggest that college is unproductive would be too sanguine (btw, a word that a good many of my students do not know (or could not know from context) – and this is a Top 40 National Research University).
It is possible to be a full-time professor at a University today and work very, very little. Look, I understand how pay works – if it were the case that we were all asked to work harder, perhaps our salaries would increase to compensate, but my point remains relevant when we are asking students to fork over $56,000 to pay for schooling. Our academic year requires virtually no work in May, June, July, August and parts of December, January and March. Even for faculty who work very hard (as I suggest many think they do) the amount of down time in the calendar year is the envy of any worker in Europe. Many of us write papers that no one reads, teach 2 to 3 classes each year (not semester) and it is perfectly plausible that the same tests and problem sets are given year after year, and the same notes are given year after year after year. This may even be unobjectionable, much the same way that online classes could be unobjectionable – if all of the freed time not needed to write exams and quizzes and new notes would translate into more time coaching students, doing research with students, designing new ways for students to engage, learning new technologies, and so on. But I don’t see that happening. Sure, the number of hours we are actually in class is a gross underestimate of what time and effort are required to teach a course – I would be the first to vigorously take that position. In perhaps the most famous illustration of what I am talking about, a news program in Tusacaloosa, Alabama (home of the University of Alabama) once did a feature on the rise of the “stay at home dad.” I wish I were a stay at home dad, there is nothing wrong with it. Except that one of the stay at home dads featured in the news story was a full-time tenured member of the University of Alabama’s faculty.
The older and crankier I get I am increasingly coming to the view that colleges are actually reducing productivity.
Because not only are our students being trained in bad moral and intellectual habits (indeed, any effort by a professor to try to inculcate them results in them being labeled a sociopathic tyrant) but they are being taught worse. They are being taught that the very foundation of Western Civilization is corrupt, exploitive, and oppressive. In other words, our young people are being taught to attack Western Civilization at every turn, with few people standing up to defend the very foundations that have allowed us to be where we are today. Intellectuals have always made hay by embracing this kind of ideology, but in the modern university that hay is increasingly being made in an environment that does not so much understand the civilization that it is acting to undermine.
So we in the modern American University put on one hell of a show for our visiting kings. We have beautifully manicured quads, incredibly well apportioned libraries and study centers, vibrantly decorated and lit centers of learning, the best technology classrooms have ever seen, we have students with SAT scores that would crush even the best students attending the Ivies three decades ago, we have professors virtually all of whom hold PhDs from elite universities, we have convocations, invocations, and celebrations of all kinds, we regularly pay homage to those that came before us and to the inscriptions on our bricks and buildings, we have ivy crawling up many a building … and all of that not only obscures the rot that is happening within, but also keeps it warm much like the compost heaps that dot the modern college landscapes. The only difference of course is that the fruit produced from regular applications of this fertilizer is not of the nutritious variety.