It is hardly news that these are unhappy times for the American professor. Thanks to a combination of factors—tighter university budgets, deferred retirements, the demands of affirmative action—good jobs have all but dried up in many academic fields. Colleges increasingly staff their classrooms by drawing on a poorly-compensated proletariat of “adjuncts”: hapless Ph.D.’s who have not yet given up on the possibility of securing a full-time position, or even a coveted tenure-track post.
Of late, a new grievance has been added to the list. As one educator recently lamented in the Christian Science Monitor, colleges these days have become “youth resorts,” complete with “pools, hockey rinks, catered meals, student centers, [and] television rooms.” Worse, complains another in the Chronicle of Higher Education, our institutions of higher learning are more eager to please students than to instruct them. Because of a new emphasis on student-friendly pedagogy, the professor has become “a congenial traffic officer, . . . a ‘guide on the side’ rather than a ‘sage on the stage.’ ” As the New York Times reported earlier this year, the signs of this trend include not only grade inflation—of Weimar-like proportions—but the growing importance of student evaluations in assessing professors for retention and promotion.
On many American campuses, it would now seem, the kids are in charge. But this is no accident. “Democratizing” the university was, after all, a chief aim of the campus protests of the 1960’s, led in many instances by the same men and women who today constitute the professoriate. And it is also no surprise that, faced with the unpleasant consequences of their youthful desires, some of these tenured radicals should now be having second thoughts. Unfortunately, these second thoughts stop far short of where they should lead.
A prime example of the phenomenon I have in mind is an extraordinarily revealing article by Mark Edmundson, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, which appeared late last year in Harper’s. Disturbed by his most recent experience with the anonymous, standardized evaluation forms that his students fill out at the end of each semester, Edmundson writes with soul-baring candor about the state of his profession and liberal-arts education in general.
It is not that Edmundson himself fears bad evaluations. On the contrary, he assures us, he knows that once his students have finished rating him on a scale of 1 to 5 and scribbled some remarks about his abilities in various categories, he will find yet again that, by their standards, he is a success: his course will be commended as “enjoyable,” and he will be praised for being “interesting,” for his “relaxed and tolerant ways,” for his “sense of humor and capacity to connect the arcana of the subject matter with current culture.”
Indeed, it is this very success that distresses him, smacking as it does of “calm consumer expertise” on their side, salesmanship and hucksterism on his. The very forms on which his students register their reactions are “reminiscent of the sheets circulated after the TV pilot has just played to its sample audience in Burbank.” They reflect the “serene belief” that the function of a teacher, not to mention the function of what he teaches, is “to divert, entertain, and interest.”
This “ethos of consumerism,” Edmundson argues, pervades the contemporary university, where faculty and administration relations with students are invariably conducted in “a solicitous, nearly servile tone.” Before they are even admitted as freshmen, students are “flooded with advertising, pictures, testimonials, videocassettes, CD-ROM’s,” all designed to lure them to campus. Once safely enrolled, they are kept satisfied by permissive grading (especially in the humanities), easy requirements for majors, and the option of withdrawing from a class well after the semester has begun. Students are “shocked,” says Edmundson, “if their professors don’t reflexively suck up to them.”
The result has been to create an academic Lake Wobegone, a place, Edmundson writes, “where almost no one fail[s], everything [is] enjoyable, and everyone [is] nice.” The only thing lost amid all this complacency is “an education that matters.”
And what has brought us to this pass? Demography, Edmundson avers, bears some of the blame. Having expanded to accommodate the postwar baby boom, universities now find themselves in fierce competition to attract the members of a smaller college-age population; as a consequence, today’s students are buyers in a buyer’s market.
The chief culprit, however, is not demography but “American culture writ large”—a culture that has become “ever more devoted to consumption and entertainment, to the using and using up of goods and images.” Edmundson admits that the capitalist system is not the only factor at work here. Some responsibility also falls on the radicals of his own 1960’s generation, whose idealistic search for pleasure and gratification devolved into a mere quest for commodities, thus stoking the very system they so ardently wished to overturn.
What is clearly not at fault for the crisis of liberal-arts education, in Edmundson’s view, is the “democratization” the radicals of the 60’s brought to student-faculty relations—something he does not even so much as mention. He does, however, discuss another related development that also came in with the 1960’s and their aftermath: the “peculiar ideas” that travel under the banners of multiculturalism, deconstruction, feminism, and queer theory. Indeed, Edmundson is himself among the promoters of these new ideas, having edited a collection of essays, Wild Orchids and Trotsky (1993), intended to showcase outstanding examples of just such cutting-edge scholarship.
Edmundson concedes that many of the new theories have been taken too far and have had a leveling effect both on learning itself and on students’ attitudes toward the educational enterprise. Multiculturalism has degenerated into uncritical ethnic celebration. So-called “cultural studies” have brought the tawdriest effusions of popular culture into the classroom. And thanks to deconstruction, students of literature have been turned into “sophisticated debunkers,” rejecting all claims of greatness and genius. Still, he hastens to conclude, these unfortunate developments are not the real source of the problem. “It’s not that a left-wing professorial coup has taken over the university,” he writes. Rather, on American campuses “left-liberal politics have collided with the ethos of consumerism,” and the “consumer ethos is winning.”
For anyone with experience in today’s colleges, much in Edmundson’s account will strike a deep chord of recognition. Consumerism has become the controlling ethos of the university, and he captures its spirit with vulgar precision when he says that professors have had to learn “never to piss the customers off.”
And yet customers and the consumer mentality were not invented yesterday; they have always been with us, and so have those who decry their effects on the human spirit. To go back no farther than the late 40’s and early 50’s, works like The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and The Lonely Crowd warned Americans that they were in danger of losing their souls to things and goods, to status and acquisition. In those days, however, the universities somehow remained largely untouched by what Carlyle called the culture of “profit and loss,” managing for the most part to form a refuge for pursuing the life of the mind.
Edmundson himself provides a glimpse of these institutions as they once were, recalling with fondness the no-nonsense college catalogues he perused as a high-schooler, with their implicit and unapologetic assumption that the university operated on teachers’ terms. Those teachers believed, not without reason, that they were introducing students to what was best and most lasting in their cultural tradition, works that embodied such truth and beauty as human beings are capable of approximating. Instruction in this tradition was regarded as both morally and intellectually edifying—as well as a necessary prerequisite to testing, challenging, and refining what had been handed down over the generations.
But this is—precisely—the understanding of liberal education that students were rebelling against in the 1960’s when they demanded a curriculum more “relevant” to their own experience, an experience they understood to consist by and large of oppression at the hands of authority. The old books—the “canon”—were part and parcel of that authority. Only by casting them aside, or by learning to read them through the lens of the new, liberationist credos, could one begin to call oneself educated. In the course of the 1970’s, with the arrival at American universities of various pseudo-sophisticated theories imported from France and Germany, the slogans of the 1960’s became transformed into the now-familiar vocabulary of the undergraduate seminar: Eurocentrism, logocentrism, phallocentrism, marginality, alterity, hegemony, indeterminacy, and all the rest. Today it is commonplace in the humanities to hear morality, language, even reason itself dismissed as tools of elite privilege, while the word truth is almost universally consigned to question-begging quotation marks.
In the classroom, this revolution has had predictable consequences. Taught that there are no truths above them, and no timeless works with which they must be acquainted, students now simply search for what pleases, much as they might at the local shopping mall. Since nothing is or can be defended as priceless, everything has its price, and sooner or later, everything goes on sale.
Edmundson, invoking a favored shibboleth of today’s academic radicals, lamely proposes that today’s teachers learn to “subvert” the new consumerist attitudes of their students. That is hardly likely to happen unless teachers have something to fill the void, unless they can direct students to books and thinkers whom they firmly believe to be intrinsically worthy of attention, and unless they are prepared to defend that belief. Until that day arrives, students will go on playing the role that has been assigned to them by their elders, including professors like Mark Edmundson who are frank enough to acknowledge the wasteland they inhabit but cannot bring themselves to repudiate the ideas—their ideas—that have so plainly brought it about.