Free Fall From Teaching Responsibility

By , Jim Bencivenga is the Monitor's book editor.

KILLING THE SPIRIT: HIGHER EDUCATION IN AMERICA by Page Smith, New York: Viking, 316 pp., $19.95

IN his poem ``The Second Coming,'' William Butler Yeats warns of a ``rough beast,'' slouching towards Bethlehem, an anarchical force that would unleash destruction and death on the world. The image is a near universal symbol for malevolence, the dazed, dark side of the human spirit untethered from transcendent reality.

For Page Smith, historian and founding provost of the University of California at Santa Cruz, the mental spawn of this beast can be found in the narrow, overspecialized precincts of graduate schools. The modern university slouches towards ``scientific'' (empirical) research - ``mediocre, expensive, and unnecessary.'' Hostile towards teaching, research-dominated institutions of higher learning confound knowledge, killing the spirit of education and, in the process, that of their students.

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Such criticism is not new. One need only see Smith's references to William James. Critics will compare this book to Alan Bloom's, ``The Closing of the American Mind''; or William Bennett's condemnations of the professoriate when he was US secretary of education. It is much more.

Smith likens the university's all-consuming drive to conduct research as the institutional equivalent of ``Frankenstein'' where the ``essential balance between teaching and scholarship has been lost ....''

For Smith, the conclusion is inevitable: The root evil of the modern university is the preeminence of research wedded to the self-interest of academics seduced into tenured bastions from which to make ever more definitive, and therefore narrow, specialized pronouncements. Good teaching holds not only a secondary position, it is a positive liability for advancement, as if a business decided that customer service was so much overhead to dispense with.

Smith meticulously yet engagingly details the modern university's free fall from the ideal of seeking and teaching truth. The historian in him communicates awe at the way facts both squirm (are open to various interpretations) and inform (marshal themselves logically and narratively to make an irrefutable point).

And: ``The notion that research enhances teaching, although thoroughly discredited by experience and by research, is one that lingers on and is often trotted out by the ill-informed as a justification for the publish-or-perish policy.''

For Smith, ``There is no decent, adequate, respectable education, in the proper sense of that much-abused word, without personal involvement by a teacher with the needs and concerns, academic and personal, of his/her students.'' The long road of reform must start ```with the ordinary student,' not the genius, not the prospective scientist or professor of abnormal psychology but the citizen of the republic who must earn a living in addition to living a humane life.''

What is it that Smith would have the university teach the ``ordinary'' student? Love, courage, harmony of mind and body, and the capacity to celebrate.

How does one measure such learning? Not easily, and only by looking at how it has been done in the past. Herein lies the major flaw of this work. The cures it offers - reduce the size of campuses and make the professors teach; radically alter the requirements for tenure - are, if not impractical, nearly impossible to get from here to there. One is left, judging by Smith's high praise of small, liberal-arts colleges, with an invisible hand sending all students to small colleges while cutting off government research monies to the mega-campuses.

This in no way detracts from the work as an excellent history of higher education in America. It offers a grand, yet humane sweep, from the 18th century onward in a style similar to Smith's well-received eight-volume history of the United States. On nearly every page, the great, and not-so-great, thinkers have their say. ``A university is ... an Alma Mater, knowing her children one by one, not a factory, or a mint, or a treadmill,'' he quotes John Henry Newman.

Of the vaunted principle of academic freedom, Smith asks who is kidding whom about the pursuit of truth. Billions of dollars of research money flow from the federal government. Ninety percent of it comes from only three agencies, with the Defense Department by far the largest.

Smith's scholarship is classically liberal. The result is no rigid apologia for the great books of Western civilization. On the contrary, despite a suspicion of its more feverish manifestations, and fully cognizant of the potential for intellectual barrenness, Smith welcomes the twin challenge of women's studies and cultural pluralism as positive developments. Each pulls the smug rug of ``objectivity'' out from under ``reigning'' beliefs.

Once a new way of looking at that which before was ``objective truth'' suggests itself, a renewal of the teacher-student-scholar relationship can occur. Only then may renewal of the spirit follow.

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