True Learning Starts With Real Mentorship

There’s a chasm between the purpose of a liberal arts education and how many colleges and universities actually operate. Throughout academia, excessive value is placed on efficiency, research publications, and prestige—things that are, at best, ancillary to a liberal education’s central purpose of growing in wisdom and pursuing truth.

Consequently, instead of focusing on nurturing students’ intellectual and moral development, much of the modern academy functions as a business that sells a product (credentials) to consumers (students), with professors dedicating most of their time to pursuing their own narrow research interests.

Many professors are content with this arrangement. And why wouldn’t they be?

Higher education’s current structure doesn’t incentivize professors to be excellent and attentive teachers. Instead, academics’ job stability and professional prestige is much more dependent on producing a steady output of “original” research than on mentoring students—no matter how obscure or arcane their subject of inquiry might be.

Some professors, however, prefer academic settings that prioritize teaching over research. One such professor is Zena Hitz, a classical philosopher at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland. She is the author of Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life, which came out in May 2020.

On November 17, Hitz was a guest speaker at an online event co-sponsored by Duke University’s Arete Initiative at the Kenan Institute for Ethics and by Yale University’s Elm Institute. The Elm Institute’s scholar-in-residence, Peter Wicks, moderated the conversation.

Wicks began the event by asking Hitz to elaborate on her conception of the “intellectual life.” In response, Hitz said that the intellectual life is about thinking, pondering, reading, contemplating—using one’s mind—for its own sake. In other words, the act of learning is “something grand or lofty” and intrinsically worthwhile, not merely a means to an end.

Unlike many scholars, Hitz experienced two very different models of education in her academic formation. Her experiences prompted her to think deeply about the nature of the intellectual life and how the modern-day academy often inhibits its development.

As an undergraduate, Hitz attended St. John’s College (where she now teaches). St. John’s is a “great books” college where students’ education is dedicated to reading a common curriculum of the great works of the Western canon, as well as studying language, science, mathematics, and music. There, professors are called “tutors” and their primary role is to help facilitate students’ understanding of the material.

According to the college’s website, “there are no large classes, teaching assistants, or introductory lectures; conversation among students and faculty is the heart of every class at St. John’s.”

Hitz recounted how St. John’s nurtured the love of learning and reading that she’d had throughout her childhood, “but in a much more strict way.” The education she received at the college helped her develop good intellectual habits such as persevering through difficult readings and asking a lot of questions.

She concluded that schools like St. John’s foster true learning by placing a heavy emphasis on mentorship and student-led inquiry.

After graduating, Hitz studied classics and philosophy at Cambridge University and the University of Chicago, and completed her PhD at Princeton University. She later went on to teach at McGill University, Auburn University, and the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.

Unfortunately, Hitz found that St. John’s student-centered and intellectually rigorous approach to education was somewhat of an anomaly in the higher ed landscape.

At the other universities, for example, there were significant pressures on professors to dedicate the bulk of their time to resume-building, not working with students.

On the one hand, Hitz said she enjoyed her professional training as a philosopher because it allowed her to delve deeper into her field. Yet, at the same time, she disliked how she became a part of an institution that didn’t seem to sufficiently value “learning for its own sake.”

Hitz said that her work as a scholar seemed to be more about climbing the “professional status ladder” and appearing impressive, instead of earnestly engaging in “that core human activity of seeking to learn and understand for its own sake.” She admitted that she became so wrapped up in achieving professional prestige that she started to forget about the fundamental questions that drew her to the profession in the first place.

Hitz also expressed dissatisfaction with the large class sizes she encountered at several universities, explaining that “the large lecture hall was not suited to the type of learning that I had received as an undergraduate, that [I wanted to] pass on to my students:”

Most of what I was doing was [condensing] knowledge into bullet points and spitting them out. And when students spat them back to me I would give them either a B+ or A- depending on how well they did it.

To Hitz, teaching students in that fashion didn’t seem conducive to a genuine intellectual life—for either the instructor or the students. Somewhat disillusioned, she left academia for a period of time. But after a few years, she came back and began teaching at St. John’s College.

Higher education’s current structure doesn’t incentivize professors to be excellent and attentive teachers.

Although St. John’s provided Hitz with the rich intellectual atmosphere that she craved, she emphasized that it isn’t the only institution where one can receive a meaningful education. She noted that there are other “safe havens” in the university community, such as some small liberal arts colleges, that facilitate intellectual development and are outside of the “achievement machine” built into many universities.

Another “safe haven” Hitz pointed to was the co-host of the event, the Elm Institute. Located near Yale University, the Elm Institute is “an intellectual and cultural venture dedicated to examining and cultivating the ideas, values, and practices that sustain flourishing societies.”

As for mainline colleges and universities, Hitz noted that not all hope is lost. She said that “there’s tons of real learning” that’s offered in universities, it’s just that it’s “hidden and hard to find.”

“Unfortunately, it’s sort of a matter of luck and hearsay as to how you find your way into those pockets, but they’re there,” she said.

In conclusion, Hitz offered a few recommendations on how colleges and universities can be more faithful to their educational mission. First, she said it would be wise for universities to shift away from their over-emphasis on research and focus more on teaching and interacting with students. One way institutions can do this is by incentivizing good teaching, such as offering more teaching awards.

Furthermore, Hitz stressed that teachers need to model the intellectual habits they want to see their students develop. She believes that the most important thing professors can model for their students is to learn in front of them, in the classroom—to “model learning, not just expertise.”

“To share with your students the questions that, to you, feel open, so that they can see that not everything is sound bites and slogans and digestible pieces—bullet-points for the Powerpoint presentation,” she said. In addition, they should model “a certain kind of seriousness, a commitment to certain kinds of ideals.”

Doing so, in Hitz’ view, won’t only benefit students, it will enrich professors’ own intellectual life and academic pursuits.

Shannon Watkins is senior writer at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.