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Teaching the Tide By Dianne Perkins. Illustrations by Michael HawthorneGo Back to the Table of Contents
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More official sanction of the low status of Core courses is the allegation that they demand less scholarly expertise in a given field than upper-division courses. This is true. Yet it is equally true that they demand far more work: their enrollments are high and their writing requirements stringent. They demand, more importantly, a pedagogical esprit borne of intellectual breadth that the academy needs to recognize, cultivate, and reward in the teaching of Freshmen and Sophomores. Indeed, the specialized scholarly interests of the typical Ph.D. may contract--render too myopic--his approach to such Core courses as surveys of Great Books, whose interdisciplinary reach encompasses literature, science, political philosophy, even theology. Success in teaching such courses is more likely to derive, as William James recognized, from a sprightly intellectual cosmopolitanism, a passion for ideas in the broadest sense, and an acute receptivity to the arts than from a Ph.D. per se. Add to these qualifications a commitment to teaching Freshmen and Sophomores and the ability to frame issues in a way that engages them--and a Ph.D. in medieval history or nuclear physics may not be the best candidate for such teaching. That Core courses don’t demand scholarly expertise in a narrow field hardly means, in short, that “nearly anyone can teach them”--as some administrators have temerity to suggest. Precisely the opposite: relatively few instructors, however credentialed, possess the temperament and intellectual gifts to animate such courses, particularly when they are recruited to the task by default--which is to say, resentfully. And to teach Core courses on “a rotating basis” (once a year or so), as tenured faculty tend to, nearly precludes their mastery. For as in all endeavors, but especially teaching, practice refines performance--particularly in Great Books courses, where only repeated teaching, from semester to semester, forges that intimate familiarity with a course’s texts that commands a classroom.

The very courses, in sum, that introduce students to the American university--which should be staffed by full-time instructors who excel at teaching them--are farmed out instead to inexperienced grad students, exploited part-timers, and resentful, rotating senior faculty. And inexperience, exploitation, and resentment do not martial commanding presences in the classroom, but the tendency to be--as students will attest--abjectly accommodating, harried and haphazard, perfunctory and condescending.

Who pays the price of the Core’s careless staffing? Primarily, students--and at a juncture that taints their initial perception of the university, reinforcing their suspicion of liberal education. Arriving as Freshmen in the tight job market of the nineties with few articulated goals beyond the vocational, they are denied, by careless staffing of the Core--and its consequently perfunctory, listless teaching--what might be their life’s sole encounter with the transforming power of liberal studies. The poignance of their disappointment with “the college experience”--marked in a listless, dispirited demeanor, a nearly universal cynicism about “required courses”--is more acutely mirrored by older students who have returned to college not just for a degree, but personal enrichment. A thirty-six-year-old veteran I encountered on one campus, eyes clouded by disillusion, wondered if he would return for his Junior year. “I’d already read a lot in the Service; I came here hoping to amplify my experiences. I was just looking for some personal insight, some inspiration. I’ve found it in nearly none of my courses.” Even younger, less directed students, such as those who have yet to declare a major, aware of an oppressive emptiness in their lives--and in the vocational options contemporary culture seems to offer--enter the university with the vague hope that it might, like some spiritual lighthouse, cast some illumination--proffer some rumination--to set their drifting lives on discernible course. In this, generally, they are disappointed.

For in allocating more funds to designer dormitories, to arcades and arenas, than to the quality of its instruction in the Core, administrators capitulate to America’s vision of youth as essentially a time of frivolity. But historically, youth also marks the inception of passion--as the careers of Blake, Shelley, and Keats; Danton, Trotsky, and Tubman; Wheatley and Whitman; Berlioz and Beethoven, and a host of others, show. In offering our Freshmen and Sophomores courses taught not by the best and brightest, but that expedient trilogy--the inexperienced, the exploited, and the displaced elite--we fail to engage them, to ignite their interest in life at its highest levels, to tap their capacity for “high seriousness.” Such a failure is inexcusable. And its consequences corrode our entire culture.

May the words of Michael Meade, author of Men and the Water of Life, ring with instructive laceration:

I remember it so clearly. Fourteen years old and in high school. I was so diappointed I could have killed myself or somebody else... it’s like, you come to the edge of a culture, the edge of a village, or the edge of your own knowledge. And you’re waiting for someone to meet you there at the edge and say, Here’s what it’s about, here’s who you are, here’s how you fit into this tribe, this community... Here’s how we’re going to help you with the wounds you’re already carrying... I really could not believe no one was meeting usthere. And people think gangs and things are stupid;they’re not... Sure, we’re angry at the school and at the rules. But that wasn’t it. We were so disappointed. They didn’t get how serious we were, they didn’t get how desperate and how willing we were to take up the struggle of life. And I think when culture doesn’t meet its young people’s intensity and willingness to take up the struggle of life, the young people take up death instead of life.

And to take up “death instead of life” may be not to commit mayhem, but to sink into the oblivion of death-in-life--into that blunted affect, that subtle self-destruction, that we witness as legion among today’s undergraduates. The antidote Meade begs in his interview with Marilyn Polak is “... the rediscovery of... what it is to be a mentor, male or female... figuring out how to engage young people in intense, meaningful ways...” This prescription is precisely, alongside intellectual tasks, the urgent but unmet mission of undergraduate instruction in America.

So pivotal is the quality of an instructor’s presence in the classroom as to render inflated the curricular wars of the past decade: the calm before the storm. Curricular issues, to be sure, need attention; too many colleges lack any semblance of a coherent curriculum. And questions beyond whose textual canon should prevail-- Western or otherwise--remain unaddressed by committees who, as Russell Jacoby affirms in Dogmatic Wisdom, drag their heels for years on such vital matters--fulfilling Kierkegaard’s prophetic plaint, “The entire age becomes a committee.” But whatever curriculum is finally set in ink defers--as Jacoby astutely notes--to an instructor’s proclivities in the classroom. Universities, he charges, have yet to acknowledge an elementary truth: “Teachers dominate curricula, and not the reverse. The curriculum or course description matters less than the fitness, intelligence, and inclinations of the teacher. A brilliant curriculum with a feeble teacher is a feeble experience; a feeble curriculum with a brilliant teacher may be a brilliant experience.”

Teaching, in short--that largely unteachable yet discernible art--kindles or kills any course or curriculum. It comprises the heart of the university as students experience it. No athletic arenas, no flashy facilities, can compensate for the fifteen hours a week, fifteen weeks a semester, that full-time students are subject to its spell. Let administrators remember, amidst a rising wave of cosmetic restructuring, the tentacled evasions of endless committee meetings, the resurgent tides of media hype, a simple old axiom students know to be true: Anything worth doing is worth doing well. A university is as good--and only as good--as the quality of each instructor it sets before its students.


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