The New Republic has a piece up today that, gulp, commends the higher-education reform agenda of one Mr. Rick Perry of Texas. Perry is, the writer avers, a visionary. The TNR commenters are, predictably, apoplectic. Their rage seems a bit hard to justify from where I’m sitting, but I’ll be the last one to decry the leavening effect that a touch of choking apoplexy can have on an otherwise dreary Thursday morning.
On, though, to Perry’s policy recommendations. I’m not terribly confident about his yen for super-cheap, mostly online education. Not at all. The super-cheap part is intriguing, of course, but I’ve never seen anyone approach an online course (they’re not so uncommon these days) with anything more inspiring than an “Oh shoot, I forgot I’m supposed to post something on that stupid message board” attitude. More promising, to me, are Perry’s various ideas about tying tenure and salary decisions to teaching outcomes, however those outcomes can best be measured (this is no simple matter). Over my five years of grad school, I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the offices of big-shot professors kibitzing about, well, other big-shot professors. And I’ve seen the way that they grimace at their watches, snap their laptops shut, and mutter something to the effect of “Oh shoot, I forgot I’m supposed to teach that stupid class.” Watching them dawdle off to the lectern, one’s imagination does not swell with pictures of pedagogical virtuosity.
It’s easy, and not wholly unvirtuous, to look down one’s nose at such examples of pampered professorial laziness, but having done a couple of semesters-worth of teaching myself, I can sympathize. For professors at research institutions like the ones I’ve attended, the incentive structure runs decisively away from teaching. Many, if not most of us, have chosen to attend graduate school because we really, really love to to read and think and talk and write about our disciplines in a serious, sustained, in-depth fashion. So that right there means that we will have a preference for the parts of the job that put us in conversation with others who share our interests, inclinations, and expertise. It’s just more fun to explore or spar with colleagues who can keep up. It’s also tremendously satisfying to write something that can win the respect of one’s best peers.
Contrast this with the classroom, which, if you’re teaching undergrads, and nevermind undergrad introductory courses, will be in some large part populated by people who are there because going to college is just what one does if one is ambitious, intelligent, middle class, directionless, etc. It can indeed be an electrifying experience to reach out to, and actually reach, a segment of one’s allotted undergraduate charges, but this is for many professors a rarer and harder-won pleasure than interacting with already interested colleagues. And when tenure, raises, and professional standing are tied disproportionately to one’s scholarly achievement, it becomes increasingly unlikely that the average professor in a large research institution will approach the classroom as much more than an afterthought.
I think there are serious questions to be asked about the unreflective manner in which whole (socioeconomic) classes of eighteen-year-olds are funneled into higher education, so I am prima facie skeptical about Perry’s goal of expanding college enrollment, but whether or not the current crop of college students are where they belong, they are there, and Perry is right that they are paying an outrageous amount of money for the privilege. So simple justice, among other things, would seem to dictate that we do something to maximize the probability that they will actually learn something during their college career. One reasonable step in this direction might be to convince professors that they have a stake—be it professional, financial, etc.—in seeing that their students learn. So whether or not he’s a visionary, as the TNR author would have it, Rick Perry’s educational program does indeed seem to deserve a careful hearing. And the New Republic deserves kudos for giving it something like that, much to the consternation, and cathartic relief, of its commenting readership.