A Letter to a Young Scholar

(Editor’s note: This is an actual letter to a student, very slightly adapted for publication.)

Dear Jonathan,

First of all, Jonathan, congratulations on completing your lower division coursework and your acceptance to Berkeley! Go Bears!

You emailed me suggesting an office visit to discuss a college teaching career. That would be fantastic, but first I want to suggest a little summer reading so that you can better acquaint yourself with the higher education landscape in 2012. You see, higher education is undergoing some fundamental and painful changes; nobody knows what it all means or how it will turn out. 

Well, that’s not entirely true. We do know one thing: it’s not working. But no one seems to be sure why, and consequently, no one knows how to fix it.    

Anyone considering a career in college teaching should first read Professor Glenn Reynolds’s broadside The Higher Education Bubble, a concise, thorough primer on why higher education is a mess. Reynolds contends (and my experience confirms) that higher education is too expensive, creates too much debt, and at the same time offers less and less meaningful content. The problem, Reynolds says, is not money; it’s value, and “The solution is to improve the product, not to increase the subsidy.” 

What he means, in part, is that once the political left completed its “long march” through higher education and installed liberalism as the academy’s orthodoxy, there followed a proliferation of dumbed down, politicized, postmodernist courses, majors, and “disciplines.” The dirty little secret everyone knows is that college majors ending with “Studies” are neither rigorous nor academic (Women’s Studies, Cultural Studies, Communication Studies, American Studies, Peace and Conflict Studies, etc.). Often, these are “consciousness-raising” grievance or victim disciplines intended to create political loyalties. 

To better understand this situation, I suggest that you preorder Bruce Bawer’s book The Victims’ Revolution: The Rise of Identity Studies and the Closing of the Liberal Mind, out in early September. I talked with Bruce when he was researching his book, and he was deeply concerned about the corrosive effects of multiculturalism and identity politics on academia. As a teacher you will have to deal with the consequences of that corrosion. At least Bruce’s closely argued book will give you a floor plan of the funhouse.

To teach in community college, after your B.A., you will need an M.A.; to teach in most four-year schools, you will need a Ph.D. As you are one of the brightest and most capable students in my career, the academics involved will not present a serious challenge. 

More difficult will be negotiating the minefield of what is called “advocacy teaching.” Over and over, former students of mine report their frustration with agenda-driven courses. In her valuable book Teaching Literature, Elaine Showalter notes that “During the 1960s and 1970s, teaching literature became an explicitly political act for radical and minority groups in the university.” It still is. 

Acquiring the credentials to teach will require patience, care, and circumspection. When you want to engage in debate, you will need to be careful. Remember what Ward Connerly said, “Colleges are the worst places, often, to have a civil discussion about any issue.” Choose your courses and teachers wisely.   

Now, let’s say you are lucky enough to be called for a job interview. Unless you are interviewing at a small private liberal arts or religious college, those on the hiring committee will almost certainly be part of academia’s political monoculture, high-minded altruists who form their worldview from inside the bubble of the New York Times, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, NPR, and public television.

That means you will be expected, at some point in your interview, to declare or imply your fealty to “diversity,” “social justice,” and “anthropogenic global warming.” In fact, this very college requires that every applicant for a teaching position submit, along with his application, a “diversity statement” that documents his “sensitivity.”

You may find this requirement puzzling because you know that once upon a time, a professor’s politics remained behind a veil of professionalism and objectivity. But once postmodern philosophy declared objectivity impossible, messianic progressivism became acceptable and even desirable. As you know, I hew to the 1915 AAUP Declaration that, in the classroom “[the professor] should, if he is fit for his position, be a person of a fair and judicial mind; he should, in dealing with [controversial] subjects, set forth justly, without suppression or innuendo, the divergent opinions of other investigators . . . .” 

This approach has fallen out of favor.  I was appalled when a loan officer at my bank complained that Howard Zinn’s Marxist history text, A People’s History of the United States, was required reading in six different classes she took at a nearby state college. And at a Rotary talk I gave, I was embarrassed when one parent said her son refused to return to college because every course he had taken for three semesters was politicized. 

Don’t take my word for it. Read David Gelernter’s new America-Lite and Stanley Fish’s Save the World on Your Own Time; also take a look at Evan Coyne Maloney’s documentary Indoctrinate U.  Greg Lukianoff, president of The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), also has a new book coming out, in October, documenting cases of speech codes, censorship, free speech zones, and First Amendment abuses on college campuses across the country.  Following on Alan Kors’s and Harvey Silverglate’s excellent The Shadow University, Lukianoff’s Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate recounts some of FIRE’s most Orwellian cases.

I am telling you all this just so you’ll know what you are walking into. That is, if there is anything left to walk into. 

As Herbert Stein famously said, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”  This seeming tautology is a valuable reminder for anyone contemplating a teaching career. Across the country, financially unsustainable college programs and departments are imploding. 

This extinction allows for some “creative destruction,” a vacuum left to be filled by online colleges, for-profit colleges, competency-based certifications, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), and so forth.  Check out Clayton Christensen’s Disrupting Class and Anya Kamenetz’s DIY U:  Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education and you’ll get a taste of what the future may be like.

By 2016, you may find that the job you trained for is already being done by software, or if it  is still being performed by humans, the college may be an intellectual “closed-shop” where only those who subscribe to progressive ideas can hope to be hired. Jobs in the humanities may be completely gone. 

One of my colleagues just emailed me to say:

I realized something yesterday: Teachers of the last 35 years have not failed in teaching. Actually they’ve done a superb job in what they wanted to teach (corporations and religious participation is bad; parents know less than counselors, etc…). Really, students have learned well what schools/teachers have focused on for a generation. It’s just the teachers haven’t focused on rhetoric and grammar and logic and mathematical reasoning. 

Despite this gloomy realization, my colleague’s email contains the seeds of hope. The feminist critic Elaine Showalter says that “Among the more abstract sources of our present anxieties is our inability to articulate a shared vision of our goal that can provide a sense of ongoing purpose and connection.” What everyone is looking for is . . . a way forward.  But maybe, as my colleague implies, we are looking in the wrong direction.

If the needed contraction occurs and is handled wisely, maybe we can move backward—back to teaching what matters. Stanley Fish writes about home schooling advocate Leigh Bortins. In her book The Core, Fish says, Bortins argues for the centrality of “grammar, the study of basic forms, logic, the skill of abstracting from particulars and rhetoric, the ability to `speak and write persuasively and eloquently about any topic while integrating allusions and examples from one field of study to explain a point in another.’ Assiduously practice, or as Bortins puts it, `overpractice’ these skills, and `a student is prepared to study anything.’” 

These subjects are still teachable. Students don’t really want their classes to be like Facebook. They want the teacher to know more than they do, and they want to be taught what they need to know. You could be a leader in this trend.

To that end, pick up a copy of Jeff Anderson’s The Skinny on Teaching:  What You Don’t Learn in Graduate School. Jeff is ex-military and dean of humanities, fine arts, and social sciences at Illinois Valley Community College.  His book is loaded with good advice for the aspiring teacher and quotations from great teachers and thinkers throughout the history of education. 

In making his argument, he says he feels compelled “to speak out on behalf of authors whose voices are almost never heard, and whose ideas are largely ignored. . . .” He says, “Our moment calls, not so much for innovation, as for recovery.” 

How refreshingly heretical! It is worth recalling that in some ways, the Renaissance was ignited not by innovation but by rediscovery. 

Our civilization seems ready for a new humanism. Remember when our class read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road? Towards the end, the dying father tells the son, “You have to carry the fire.” I would argue that the fire he speaks of is humanism and western values.  

The fire is still burning as long as even a handful of people along the road carry it inside them and pass it along. Are you ready to take up that challenge? The work is there. It will take firmness of purpose, courage, and endurance. 

I look forward to your visit, Jonathan. Enjoy the rest of your summer, and may this reading list serve you well.


David Clemens