Thursday, March 05, 2009

Assistant professors are junior for a reason 

What more can I say?

A new national survey of faculty members shows that the proportion of professors who believe it is very important to teach undergraduates to become "agents of social change" is substantially larger than the proportion who believe it is important to teach students the classic works of Western civilization.

According to the survey, 57.8 percent of professors believe it is important to encourage undergraduates to become agents of social change, whereas only 34.7 percent said teaching them the classics is very important. Observers say the difference results from influences as diverse as conservative criticisms of curriculum and Barack Obama's call for social activism during his presidential campaign.

The survey found that, on the issue of classics and change, professors' opinions also vary by rank. Full professors are more likely than assistant professors to say teaching the classics is important, and assistant professors are more likely than full professors to say encouraging undergraduates to become socially involved is important.

Source, based on this survey. As George Stigler once said, the typical college catalog would not stop Diogenes in his search for an honest man. Ben Rogge, economist and former dean at Wabash College, used that quote in an excellent commencment speech, The Promise of the College, on what students should expect from university studies. Included was this caution:
One of the ways in which colleges (and college faculties in particular) have become corrupt in recent years has been the way in which they have sought to woo their students to their personal causes by assuring the students that they, the young, are possessed of a mystical wisdom, a godlike, compassionate understanding of life denied to all over age twenty-two, except of course those few adults who share the vision. This I believe to be nonsense.

Young people, and I mean you, are capable of being intelligent, courageous, selfless, and dedicated, but are not usually marked by the qualities of wisdom, tolerance, kindness and true compassion. I cannot urge you too strongly to beware of all adults who flatter you and tell you of your wisdom: we seek but to enlist you in our causes, whether of the left or the right or the middle, and we do not honestly believe you to be wise�nor are you, as a matter of fact.

To know more, yet to know how little you know�is that all there is to it?

Yes, that's about it. To know more may not be much and it may not be directly useful in the way the world measures usefulness, but at least it's something. To know more is at least to live an examined rather than an unexamined life; to live in an examined world rather than an unexamined world. In a world in which most human beings are said to live lives of quiet desperation, surely there is something to be said for this increased awareness, this increased perception of shades of meaning, of shades of beauty and ugliness and dissonance, of shades of dignity and integrity and vulgarity and hypocrisy.