Adrift in the Slow Lane of Learning

For many college students, their years of “higher education” don’t involve much education at all. Sure, they take a lot of courses and usually pass with As and Bs, but that is no guarantee that they have learned much. Between the inflation of grades and the watering down of the curriculum, students can get degrees without much intellectual effort.

As a University of North Carolina student who worked for the Pope Center several years ago remarked, “People would be amazed if they knew how easy it is to graduate without learning anything.”

Why is that the case?

In a paper published by the American Enterprise Institute, Emory University professor Mark Bauerlein offers one explanation: many professors are so busy with their research that they neglect their undergraduate students. “Professors on the Production Line, Students on Their Own” is a strong indictment of the research mania that grips many American colleges and universities.

In a nutshell, here is the problem. The publishing requirements for an up-and-coming professor to obtain tenure have been increasing—more articles in scholarly journals and more books. Failure to keep up with the competition can mean the difference between a good, secure career and the personal and professional disaster of not getting tenure. The job market for the flotsam and jetsam of the tenure system is very poor.

Therefore, faculty members seeking tenure subordinate just about everything to the need to produce and publish research. Undergraduates are treated with indifference or even mild hostility. There’s nothing to be gained from doing a great job of teaching them—and precious time to be lost. This helps to explain why, for example, college English classes usually demand less written work than in the past and why their papers are graded perfunctorily. Reading and carefully grading papers is very time-consuming.

Encouraging students to take a deep interest in the subject could result in time-wasting discussions. That’s why, Bauerlein says, “professors don’t impart the conviction that learning should take place inside and outside of class.”

Professor Murray Sperber coined the phrase “faculty/student non-aggression pact” to describe an implicit deal between the harried, tenure-seeking professor and his students. The professor doesn’t assign much work and grades very easily; in return, he doesn’t want students intruding on his research time. Bauerlein argues that this “pact” is not what most students want or expect. He points to the National Survey of Student Engagement, showing that most students enter college believing that they will have to do significantly more work than it turns out they actually have to.

So if students were challenged more, they would probably put more time and effort into their studies, just as Patricia Cerrito found with her students when she went to a “mastery learning” format in her algebra and statistics classes. But many professors don’t want to challenge students and devote time to working with them. Once students get acclimated to the pleasant terms of the “pact,” they are happy to adjust to campus life that’s more “beer and circus” than difficult work.

Bauerlein regards this situation as terribly wasteful. Smart students who should spend their college years rapidly accumulating knowledge and skills from their professors often just coast along; it’s the difference between rowing hard and just drifting with the current. And professors who could be inspiring and developing young minds are for the most part wasting their time doing research that is of little or no consequence.

He sums up the problem this way: “That four-fifths of first-year students and two-thirds of seniors make so little contact with their teachers, while feeling more or less comfortable with them, indicates that something worse than neglect has happened. The absence of teachers outside the classroom has been normalized. Students don’t even know they’re being shortchanged.”

Can anything be done?

Bauerlein argues that colleges and universities are trapped in the current system. That’s because the all-consuming quest for institutional prestige is tied up with faculty prestige, which in turn depends on research. If a school were to just hire people who were great teachers in the classroom but published no academic books and articles, its U.S. News ranking would fall.

One idea he proposes is that foundations that make academic research grants should also make grants to encourage and reward teaching excellence. If decision-makers at such foundations read his paper and are persuaded that the nation is more in need of good teaching than yet another book or article on some scholarly niche, they could begin to tilt the scales in the right direction.

Another idea he proposes is that research university departments should hire faculty based on teaching expertise, not research output. Bauerlein specifically mentions language and literature departments (his own field), but there is no reason why other academic departments can’t do that. In fact, at least one major university, Penn State, is already hiring economics professors who are only expected to teach—and are expected to do that very well. Professor Dirk Mateer wrote about his experience as a teaching specialist there in this Pope Center article published last March.

“No publishing pressures, no research demands, just solid teaching and close mentoring,” is how Bauerlein describes the ideal situation. If university presidents were convinced that shifting away from research and toward teaching would help students and give them much more for the money, they might promote this change even if lowers their supposed prestige.

One more suggestion Bauerlein makes is that a group of top universities (he suggests at least three state flagship schools) could announce that they are lowering their tenure requirements. Instead of requiring a book, they could ratchet down to reviewing a maximum of 100 pages of scholarship. If several universities put up a united front in the battle against counter-productive research requirements, they could sell the change as “advanced practice” rather a lowering of standards.

Most colleges and universities are resistant to change. Long-standing policies, just like personal habits, are hard to break. But when people recognize that a habit is truly a bad one, they at least can begin to change. What Mark Bauerlein has said in this paper is that the university habit of hiring and promoting strictly on the basis of published research is the equivalent of smoking three packs a day.

Is anyone listening?