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Lies, Damned Lies and the Public Discourse on Education

The Assault on Tenure

by M.G. PIETY

Two staggeringly inane points are being made ad nauseam in public discourse about higher education. The first is that tenure is an institution that has far outlived its usefulness (if it ever was useful). The second is that universities today need to focus on providing students with the technical skills they will need in order to effectively tackle the demands of the contemporary, technologically advanced workplace.

Kevin Carey, director of the education policy program at the New America Foundation wrote last summer in The Chronicle of Higher Education that tenure was

one of the worst deals in all of labor. The best scholars don’t need tenure, because they attract the money and prestige that universities crave. A few worthy souls use tenure to speak truth to administrative power, but for every one of those, 100 stay quiet. For the rest, tenure is a ball and chain. Professors give up hard cash for job security that ties them to a particular institution—and thus leaves them subject to administrative caprice—for life.

Carey seems to have confused tenure with indentured servitude. Tenure does not tie professors to particular institutions. A tenured professor is just as free to move to a new institution as a non-tenured one. Few will leave a tenured position for an untenured one, but that doesn’t make them less mobile than they would be if tenure were abolished. Academic stars seldom have difficulty moving from one tenured position to another, and professors who are not stars seldom move, period.

I’m uncertain what Carey means by “administrative caprice.” In my experience, the faculties most subject to administrative caprice are those at for-profit institutions. Traditional colleges and universities more often than not share the governance of the university with the tenured faculty through the agency of a faculty senate, as well as through the judicious promotion of faculty to administrative positions.

Sure academic stars don’t need tenure. One doesn’t become an academic star, though, by excelling as a teacher. One becomes an academic star by excelling as a scholar. Excellent scholars, however, are not always excellent teachers. A good university needs both. Of course if human beings were fully rational, then university administrators would realize that the long-term health of an institution depends on its good teachers as much as, if not more than, on the reputation of its scholars. No one gives money to his alma mater because of his fond memories of studying at the same institution where Dr. Famous Scholar taught. I give money every month to my alma mater even though not one of my professors was famous. They may not have been famous, but they were fantastic teachers who cared about their students and instilled in them a love of learning. Quaint, eh? That doesn’t change the fact, though, that I give money to the least famous of the institutions of higher education with which I have been affiliated and that I give it for the simple reason of the quality of instruction I received there–and I am not alone.

Carey would likely counter that he is all for good teaching. He believes making professors “at-will employees” would require them to do “a great job teaching.” But who would be the judge of this “great teaching”? What would the standards be? If it were student evaluations, that could be problematic because students are not always the best judges of good teaching. Too many tend to give their most positive evaluations of instructors who give the fewest assignments and the highest numbers of As. Many come around eventually, of course. I had a student write me last winter to thank me for giving her the skills she needed to make it through law school. She had not written that letter upon her graduation from Drexel (let alone at the end of my course), however, but upon her graduation from law school! Unfortunately, we don’t do solicit teaching evaluations from alumni for courses they took years earlier. Fortunately for me, I was tenured, so be demanding of my students without fearing that angry evaluations might cause me to lose my job.”At-will” professors are not so fortunate.

These are dark times in higher education. The intellectual backbone of a culture is the mass of university-level teachers who slave away in almost complete obscurity, not because they don’t have the intellectual stuff to make it in the highly-competitive atmosphere of “world-class scholarship,” but very often because they do not have the stomach for the nauseating degrees of self-promotion that are sometimes required to break into that world, and because they have too much conscience to abandon their students to their own, literally untutored, devices. Teaching is extraordinarily time consuming. It takes time away from research, the kind of research that brings fame and fortune. Teaching brings it own rewards, and thank heavens there are many who still value those rewards. Unfortunately, few such individuals are found among the ranks of university administrators.

As I said, however, this is not the only inanity that is being bandied about by talking empty-heads. The suggestions that universities should concentrate on providing students with technical skills is even more conspicuously ludicrous. The most obvious objection to this point is that the provision of technical skills is the purview of vo-tech (i.e., vocational-technical) schools and institutes, not universities. For the latter to suddenly begin to focus on imparting technical skills would effectively mean that we would no longer have universities. (That this may be the hidden agenda of the peculiarly American phenomenon of the anti-intellectual intellectual is understandable given that the days of their media hegemony would be threatened by even the slightest rise in the number of Americans who did not need to count on their fingers.)

There is a more profound objection, however, to the assertion that universities ought to focus on teaching technical skills: the shelf-life of those skills has become so short that any technical training a university could provide its students would be obsolete by the time of their graduation if not before. Dealing effectively and adaptively with technology is a skill acquired now in childhood. Many kids entering college are more tech savvy than their professors. Almost everything I know about computers I’ve learned from my students, not from the tech-support staffs of the various institutions with which I’ve been affiliated. One of my students just posted a comment to a class discussion in which he mentioned that one of his engineering professors had explained that what he learned in class might, or might not, apply once he was out in the workforce.

Technology is simply developing too rapidly for universities to be able to teach students the sorts of technical skills that old-farts are blustering they need. Kids don’t need to be taught how to deal with technology. They know that. They need to be taught how to think. The need to be taught how to concentrate (something that it is increasingly evident they are not learning in their ubiquitous interactions with technology). They need to be taught how to focus for extended periods of time on very complex tasks. They need to be taught how to follow extended arguments, to analyze them, to break them down, to see if they are sound, to see if the premises on which they are based are plausible, to recognize whether any of the myriad inferences involved are fallacious. They need to be taught that they are not entitled to believe whatever they want, that there are certain epistemic responsibilities that go along with having the highly-developed brain that is specific to the human species, that beliefs must be based on evidence, evidence assiduously, painstakingly, and impartially collected.

Finally, students need to be taught to trust their own educated judgment, not constantly to second guess themselves or to defer to a superior simply because that person is superior and hence in a position to fire them. They need to be taught to believe in themselves and their right to be heard, particularly when they are convinced, after much careful thought, that they are correct and that their superiors are not.

Unfortunately, young people are not being taught these things. We are preparing them to be cogs in new kind of machine that no longer includes cogs. No wonder our economy, not to mention our culture more generally, is on the skids.

M.G. Piety teaches philosophy at Drexel University. She is the editor and translator of Soren Kierkegaard’s Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs. Her latest book is: Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology. She is currently working on a book on skating entitled Sequins and Scandals: Reflections on Figure Skating, Culture, and the Philosophy of Sport, that will be out in January from Gegensatz Press. She can be reached at: mgpiety@drexel.edu