Professor of the year. For Ralph Ketcham, teaching is `a general calling,' not just a vocation. And he wants his students to fit their own professionalism into a larger context of citizenship.
Boston — ASK Ralph Ketcham about political special-interest groups or piecemeal undergraduate curricula and you'll get a discussion of Federalist 10 and 51 on the issue of ``faction.'' Quoting The Federalist papers is as natural as breathing for Professor Ketcham. He has been reading, writing, thinking about, and teaching what they mean most of his adult life.
A professor of political science, history, and public affairs at Syracuse University since 1953, Ketcham was named professor of the year last week by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, an umbrella group for universities and colleges. He was picked from a field of more than 400 nominations. Selection criteria included ability as a teacher, service to one's institution and profession, achievement in teaching and scholarship, and achievement by former students.
Asked what he thinks makes for good teaching, Ketcham responds with an experience. It is a seminar room full of students who are different from one another in terms of talent and ethnicity but who have been meeting together over time on the subject of early American political thought.
Suddenly, but naturally, the ideas of the course jell in the class discussions (not necessarily led by him). ``This is the essence of teaching,'' says Ketcham. ``The tragedy is when it doesn't happen. I want it to happen always.''
Ketcham views teaching as ``a general calling'' in the Puritan tradition of avocation. It is not just a vocation. He sees the concern on the part of today's students to get basically a vocational education that leads to a profession as one of his greatest challenges. He wants students to fit their professionalism into a larger context of citizenship.
But he is not sure this drive to professionalism has peaked or even reached a plateau. A new spirit of the times hasn't crystallized, and he doesn't think students fully realize that a college education is more than utilitarian.
The heightened attention being given to the university in an information economy only emphasizes the responsibility professors have to be on the leading edge of new and old knowledge, he says.
The new economy is not creating a condition of ``undue power to the professoriat''; rather, it increases the attention paid to where research happens, says Ketcham. Professors have basically the same role they have held for the last 100 years, he says.
``The word citizen has rich meaning for me,'' he says. ``Training for good citizenship starts with first grade and continues right on through the university.... I hope, I perceive, we are moving toward renewing this emphasis,'' he says. He faults colleges for not working hard enough at preparing classes for the wide range of students who now come to college.
It is necessary for colleges to fight specialization at the undergraduate level, he says. They must be ``more profound about our history, ourselves as a people, and our country.'' Students must experience a community of learners that can trace itself from Aristotle to the current situation by having some ``dynamic of interests'' that all can define as the ``good life,'' he says.
Helping students define their roles as citizens is the only way an understanding of the good life beyond private interests will emerge, Ketcham believes. And there is no better place to start than in students' own college experiences.
This is especially true in establishing the basic course requirements at a college. Such courses become the foundation for a ``community of learners,'' he says. Faculty and students grappling with various academic factions over the content of these courses lay bare the essence of what it takes to create such a community of learners.
``Problems need to be confronted from the standpoint of everybody starting with his or her own perspective, but trying to understand a little bit of a larger or public perspective,'' he says. If shown the reasons, students will make sense out of the fact that rules can contribute to a common purpose.
What he tries to teach his students is that though we can't do away with factions, we must ``stop celebrating them.'' Failure to check factions results in neither good government nor good education but ``chaos,'' he says.
And it is through the issue of citizenship that Ketcham thinks colleges can redress the modern university's abandonment of its ``true'' mission, the education of rational, independent thinkers capable of asking, ``What is the good life in a democracy?,'' the crisis that Alan Bloom heralds in his best-selling book ``Closing of the American Mind.'' (A better title would be ``Trivializing the American Mind,'' Ketcham says.)
Ketcham is in complete agreement with Bloom on the assessment that today's students don't seem to read as much as in the past, nor is what they are reading as demanding. There is no question that the reading levels of students are down, he says, quickly adding that this is not to castigate students. Radio and TV have changed the epistemology, the way students learn, he says.
``I just haven't seen enough effort made by students to read at a more profound level.... King Lear tells profoundly more about family quarrels than some pop-psychology article,'' he says. It is the responsibility and role of a professor to make the ``profound translation'' for a student, from a work or idea of the past to the present.
Recently Ketcham was invited by the New York State Board of Regents to help develop the curriculum for a high school civics course. Beginning in the fall of 1988, New York State will require that all high school seniors take a course in government.
He sees students as having experienced for the last seven years a philosophy of government in the White House that says the best government is the least government. Far too many have not experienced what he considers to be a true Jeffersonian-Aristotelian sense of the positive contribution government can make in a democratic society.