Given the recent attacks on higher education, and the humanities in particular, Mark Bauerlein’s query (“What’s the Point of a Professor?”) is timely.
Reflecting on his own undergraduate education Bauerlein claims, “In our hunger for guidance, we were ordinary. The American Freshman Survey, which has followed students since 1966, proves the point. One prompt in the questionnaire asks entering freshmen about ‘objectives considered to be essential or very important.’ In 1967, 86 percent of respondents checked ‘developing a meaningful philosophy of life,’ more than double the number who said ‘being very well off financially.’ Naturally, students looked to professors for moral and worldly understanding.” This obviously no longer describes undergraduate attitudes. As Bauerlein notes, “finding meaning and making money have traded places. The first has plummeted to 45 percent; the second has soared to 82 percent.”
These changing attitudes have been at the root of the challenges to higher education and they threaten to transform it into a worker program. The stakes couldn’t be higher, but rather than address the larger issues that are driving the changes that he laments, Bauerlein lays the burden of turning the tide on professors. While I agree that we “can’t become a moral authority if you rarely challenge students in class and engage them beyond it,” this alone will not restore the prestige of professors or higher education.
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