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Put the Emphasis on Teaching

November 16, 1992



CRITICISM of American higher education reached a crescendo in the 1980s, and continues on, as a report in the Monitor today notes. Americans' faith in the power of academia to form students, offer low prices, and define the knowledge worth knowing began to sink.

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The respected Carnegie Foundation issued a withering report in 1987, calling colleges "deeply troubled institutions." The main problem, Carnegie concluded, was "disconnection": teachers disconnected from students; students disconnected from the "community of learning"; administrators unaware of student life; scholarship and research disconnected from the larger public.

As the Monitor report indicates, in the 1990s changes are afoot because of practical conditions - recession, a smaller student pool, rising costs.

The mission of US higher education has long been ill-defined. Recent college grads may recognize this scene: "Let me describe a typical university classroom. It is a large hall in which are gathered 50 to 400 students. The professor spreads out his lecture notes, talks, often not especially well, for 50 minutes, and then walks out.... To have lively and stimulating contact with a teacher, the classes are divided [and put] under the care of a graduate student whose principal concern is not with his studen ts but with finishing his degree."

Yet the scene is from Page Smith's essay "The Sins of Higher Education," written in 1954. The mass nature of universities, the impersonal and clinical way students engage in what ought to be a higher endeavor, the "publish or perish" syndrome among faculty - all are still evident and in some cases worse. For example, there are now 1,000 journals of literature costing an average of $235 per year, though a recent Modern Language Association president found only 5 percent of the articles "worth publishing."

Are students underwriting the high costs of scholarship, and is that scholarship any good? The question deserves more attention. As the Monitor series suggests, efforts to give much more weight to the actual teaching of undergraduates must be broadened - as with a University of Connecticut initiative to make teaching a criterion in hiring professors.

Bringing the teaching emphasis of small colleges into the larger university system will more directly help America's students.