It is only 2 p.m. on a mild afternoon in February, but the hallways are quiet and dim. Dozens of students stroll and chatter and text on the quad outside, but here in the Humanities Building at UCLA, the air is still. It’s a pleasing brick structure in the Romanesque Revival style, four stories high at the center of campus. Passages are wide and ceilings low, benches and administrative rooms on one side, faculty offices on the other, all in soft Mediterranean tones. It has a small library and fourteen classrooms outfitted with the latest audio and video tools, but few teachers and students are in sight. The English department spreads over three floors, and by my count only one out of eight office doors is open. The department has 1,400 majors, and barely a half-dozen of them wait for a chance to speak with a professor. In my slow circuit up and down the corridors, I hear just three lively exchanges between student and teacher.
It didn’t used to be so. When I started the English major in Westwood in 1980, it seemed that half the office doors were open each afternoon in Rolfe Hall where the department was then located. Here and there you had to step over the outstretched legs of undergraduates on the floor waiting for consultations. Some of the professors were off-putting, a few downright mean, but even so they were a presence in the hallways. Classrooms were nearby in the other wing, the English Reading Room beneath them on the ground floor, the department office on the bridge between, and an auditorium where the required English 10 A-B-C series met (Beowulf to Joyce) but a few yards away. It made for a coherent experience.
The campus was huge, 40,000 students, but English managed to occupy its own territory with familiar faces. People shuffled back and forth all day. After class, you entered the Reading Room to study, attended another class upstairs an hour later, broke for a snack in the courtyard, and gazed into the teachers’ windows where you imagined them poring over works and ideas they would present that week. They were the seat of knowledge, the core of the discipline. They had the learning we hoped to have, or had to get if we wanted a good grade. Requirements were stiff and the quarter system a grind, the average grade a B- (so we’d heard), but the eminence of the professors validated our struggles. Sometimes when you knocked on one’s door, he gave a glance of irritation, but a shy request for a clarification of Keats dispelled it. We knew and they knew that these one-to-one exchanges were the heart of liberal education.
I haven’t seen very much of that lately, especially at research universities. Whenever I visit a college campus and have an hour to spare, I wander the halls and mark the scattered signs of life. Each edifice promises a life of the mind, of many minds, unfolding within, but the evidence almost always proves disappointing. Occasionally a face peeps out and stares as I smile and proceed. It’s as if a passerby were an odd presence. Where is everybody? Why aren’t sophomores jamming the doorways, probing for answers (“Haven’t Paolo and Francesca suffered enough?”) and seeking advantage (“Can you look at my opening paragraph?”)?
My impressions seem to be accurate. Last year, more than 300,000 freshmen and seniors filled out the National Survey of Student Engagement, an ongoing research project housed at Indiana University, answering queries about how they spend their time and what they expect from college. One standard item asks students how often they “Discussed course topics, ideas, or concepts with a faculty member outside of class.” One would think that they would flock to teachers for clarity on these cardinal matters. Even if they aren’t curious about them, they have a stake in understanding them. How well they do so determines their GPA. But in 2014, 32 percent of freshmen stated that they “never” took the opportunity and 43 percent only “sometimes.” For seniors, three years of college lowered that disengagement rate only a bit. One-fourth of seniors chose “never,” 40 percent “sometimes.”
Keep in mind that these totals apply to all of a student’s classes and instructors, not to each one. “Sometimes” could mean ten minutes with one teacher one week, eight minutes with another two weeks later, and two or three visits to the other two teachers during the whole semester. For fully two-thirds of college students, that is, interaction with teachers beyond the two-and-a-half hours per class per week ranges from perfunctory to nonexistent. Given the price of admission and the unique nature of undergraduate life (they’ll never experience anything like it ever again), that disengagement seems a wasteful oversight. All of the research on student achievement and retention confirms the value of individual time with teachers. Whether careerist and canny or genuinely inquisitive, the eighteen- to twenty-three-year-olds must know that a twelve-minute tutorial can help them complete assignments and raise their grades, not to mention clarify their thoughts.
We can’t assign it to personal reasons, say, meek or confused students and too many grim or derelict professors. Another survey project, the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, administers the College Student Survey, which also charts attitudes and habits. The 2009 version likewise found meager hours of faculty interaction, but more than three-quarters of students reported “average” or “high” satisfaction with college, and 70 percent had “average” or “high” satisfaction with course work. A good portion of them fall into the group with minimal or no contact with professors outside of class, but they aren’t bothered by it. It’s part of what higher education researcher George Kuh terms the “disengagement compact” whereby teachers and students agree not to work one another too hard, and still decent grades are given and tuition paid. You don’t hear many students complaining in this or any other large survey that teachers ignore them.
Over the years, stories of tenured profs taking it easy have steadily appeared, such as a 2012 Washington Post op-ed entitled “Do College Professors Work Hard Enough?” that noted the twenty-two weeks of vacation they enjoy. But those accounts generally don’t highlight neglected students. The last story I found in the Chronicle of Higher Education that emphasized professors ditching students once class time ends came out in 2001. Evidently, students don’t consider engagement with teachers outside of class an essential part of their education, and nobody seems terribly concerned about it. By all appearances, for many undergraduates, maybe most of them, faculty don’t matter.
“I revered many of my teachers.” That’s what Todd Gitlin told me earlier this year when we met at the New York Public Library. He’s now a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University. Back in the 1960s, Gitlin was a fiery working-class kid at Harvard before becoming president of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and witnessing up close the years of hope and days of rage, as he put it in his chronicle of the times. I got in touch with him to ask whether student unrest back then included avoidance or disregard of the faculty.
Not at all, he insisted. “You had a real belief in liberal education and in the teacher as a moral exemplar.” Even during the fiercest antiwar actions, nobody targeted professors. “Our animus,” Gitlin explained, “was toward the research university in that it was integrated with Cold War designs.” A few professors cooperated in the military-industrial technocracy, yes, and Gitlin remembered Henry Kissinger as an imposing presence at Harvard. But more typical were figures such as sociologist David Riesman (who taught only undergraduates) and philosopher Rogers Albritton, with whom Gitlin talked politics over hamburgers. Then as now, it was often during incidental conversations held after the bell rang, away from the demands of the syllabus, that the transfer of insight started and a student’s emulation grew. “There were real intellectuals in the university, and we wanted to be intellectually stimulated,” he said. “We wanted oratory. We wanted, too, for ideas and arguments to mean something, to be part of working out a moral life.”
Of course, Gitlin’s prominence and his subsequent career as writer, journalist, and commentator make him hardly representative of the baby boomers who flooded higher education in the 1960s. But in this regard, the hunger for moral truth, he was ordinary. To seek wisdom and self-knowledge was an unremarkable distinction. Yet another research project, the American Freshman Survey, which has followed students since the mid-1960s, asks entering freshmen about “objectives considered to be essential or very important.” In 1967, 86 percent of respondents checked “developing a meaningful philosophy of life,” twice as many as selected “being very well off financially.” That aspiration led students to approach professors as potential guides, masters, and even oracles.
Today, however, the portion of youths prioritizing “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” has fallen by half to 45 percent, while the proportion selecting “being very well off financially” has soared to 82 percent. Still further, the American Freshman Survey asks about “keeping up to date with political affairs.” In 1966, 60 percent chose that objective for their college years, a high figure partly due to the Vietnam War. Once the war ended, the rate fell to the mid-forties. Then, during the 90s, it took an eighteen-point dive to the high twenties. We saw a boost after 9/11 and the Iraq invasion, but the portion of students interested in politics still sits at only 35 percent. If Gitlin is any indication—politics was a regular topic of his out-of-class conversations—falling political curiosity and rising faculty-student disengagement go together.
We can identify many causes for these changes: rising tuition makes students think more about job prospects than humanitas; research burdens discourage profs from mentoring undergraduates; online learning; adjunct hiring; the four-year party culture. After my UCLA tour, I emailed a professor who joined the department in the 1970s and remains active there. He, too, remembered the bustling halls and marked the current quietude, but noted some new circumstances. More students have part-time jobs, he said; traffic in LA makes teachers depart early, and the dual-appointment status of many professors leads them to split their time between English and other departments. That sounds right, but whatever relative impact these factors have, the implications for the professors are clear. In the eyes of undergraduates, they have a new and reduced status.
That’s a big change. On opening day in fall 1980, my first semester in the major, a middle-aged professor, Yale Ph.D. and well-published, stated in clipped phrases the course requirements and readings, including an aside on promptness that went generally unnoticed. At the next class meeting as the hour began, he shut the door and started lecturing to thirty students with pencils ready. Five minutes later, the door opened and a smiling sophomore slipped in and headed toward an open seat. He looked at her and cleared his throat before she got halfway there. She halted and glanced back at him.
“I’m sorry,” he said slowly. Pause. “The class has already started.” Pause. “You have to leave.” Her mouth opened, we lowered our eyes, she turned and disappeared. The professor picked up right where he left off and we took notes.
That fellow’s punctiliousness was extreme, but his claim to authority was commonplace—as was our undergraduate acceptance of it. Back then we believed that college teachers possessed the authority of knowledge, something worthy of respect, even veneration. Or, if you didn’t respect it, you felt at odds with the atmosphere of the campus and so you kept quiet. The class meeting was a quasi-sacrament of transmission. The teacher was conveying more than information and more than techniques of literary interpretation. To some, at least (perhaps one-fourth of the class), he was inducting us into a fraternity of higher thought, making us novices in a guild of learning. Our Shakespeare teacher could carry off his edicts not simply because of a campus rule or his own will. He knew Shakespeare, and he considered that knowing precious enough to require full attendance from the first minute to the last.
The deserted hallways I found at UCLA this year reveal a different academic culture, one the surveys suggest is widespread. It’s not that students disrespect their teachers. Rather, the interest has shifted. They all recognize the teacher’s formal authority. Nobody disputes the assignments. They dutifully take notes. Papers are written with no protest. But the acknowledgement is thin. The fifty-year-old figure at the front of the room represents three decades of reading, writing, travel, archival digging or lab work, conference lectures, and eighty courses taught. He has spent five to eight years in graduate school becoming a field expert, published learned monographs, and built a career in a hypercompetitive world. But to students, he is one of many people who raise the hoops they know they must jump through. They come to class two or three times a week, and they log three or four hours of homework, doing what the syllabus tells them to do. Some are motivated and diligent, others bored and delinquent, but the professor’s influence doesn’t amount to much with either group. He is an expert, but more importantly a functionary in the academic machine of credentialing.
No, students today don’t lie in bed at night thinking about what he said, and they don’t look him up in Google Scholar to see what he’s published. That kind of faculty greatness is gone. Class is not an induction of eager minds into a teacher’s vision; it’s not even an invitation into a fraternity of intellectual and moral ambition. It is a requirement to fulfill and a body of information to retain. Assistance with their assignments is all that matters. Authority is narrowed to the giving of grades. The teacher is an accreditor.
One of the ironic features of this decline of faculty greatness is that during the same time that a professor’s status shrank to his role as a grader, the significance of grades themselves tumbled. This was an activity over which professors had control, and yet they devalued it. Grades only mean something if they discriminate higher from average from lower. The yardstick has to show an evenly spread or modest bell-curve distribution. That was, indeed, the case in 1960, when college grades fell out as:
15 percent A;
32 percent B;
35 percent C;
12 percent D;
6 percent F.
The average lay between B and C, and the two extremes, A and D–F, didn’t much differ in size. An A placed you in a small group, the eighty-fifth percentile and up, while a C set you in the largest group, properly so as it marked the center of the measuring stick. Over the next five decades, a recalibration transpired. According to researchers Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy, the number of B grades stayed about the same, but the number of C grades plummeted seventeen percentage points and D’s dropped by more than half. What grade made up for the declines? The A level, which gained an astounding twenty-eight points, nearly tripling in prevalence to 43 percent. An A is now the most common grade on campus by far.
There is only one way to justify this leap in A grades: Students have gotten smarter and they work harder. But when we refer to independent tests and to surveys of homework hours, we find no evidence for greater talent and effort. Overall SAT scores took a plunge during the 1960s and 70s and have remained fairly level ever since. SAT reading scores are at the lowest point in fifty years, while reading scores for seventeen-year-olds on the National Assessment of Education Progress have been about the same since the early 70s. Furthermore, college students today study about ten fewer hours per week than they did in 1960.
As for the learning that actually takes place in college, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s 2011 study Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses compared scores for freshmen and seniors on the Collegiate Learning Assessment. Their conclusion resounded throughout the college world: “Many students are only minimally improving their skills in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing during their journeys through higher education.” A freshman in the fiftieth percentile would, at the end of sophomore year, only score in the fifty-seventh percentile among the incoming freshmen class. “Three semesters of college education thus have a barely noticeable impact on students’ skills.” The students haven’t changed, only the standards. The inference Rojstaczer and Healy draw is stark: “It is likely that at many selective and highly selective schools, undergraduate GPAs are now so saturated at the high end that they have little use as a motivator of students and as an evaluation tool for graduate and professional schools and employers.”
Rojstaczer and Healy raise and dismiss several explanations for the lowering of standards, choosing instead the redefinition of students as “consumers,” not “acolytes.” That goes along with what I’ve heard from administrators from the 90s onward. Several years ago at Emory University, where I teach, a campus life dean addressed new students after they’d moved in and delivered a subversive message: Don’t throw yourselves too much into coursework—there is so much more to do here! Around the same time, another dean commonly referred to professors as “content-providers.”
Students have gotten the message. A post from the Berkeley student newspaper crossed my screen recently with the heading “10 things to do that are better than your reading.” It’s an advice column for fellow undergrads languishing at their desks with dense textbooks they’d rather not open. The options include “Buy a new planner,” “Decorate your room,” “People-watch at Café Strada,” “Read your Facebook newsfeed,” and “Water your plants.” The last item tells readers to pick up the books, “Turn back to the first page, prepare to read, then look at the page numbers again and decide against it.” This from the university of Oppenheimer, Miłosz, and Tarski!
Of course, the column is tongue in cheek, and students have always procrastinated. But the general trend is clear. The leisure options don’t include “Go ask your prof what she does for fun,” or “Find something your prof wrote and plan how to quote it in class,” or even “Grab two other students and ask your prof to grab a burger and a beer tonight.” Rojstaczer and Healy don’t say so, perhaps because it’s so obvious, but if grades become less meaningful, so do the graders. A hefty number (61 percent) of students in the 2005 College Student Survey reported that teachers treated them “like a colleague/peer.” That sounds positive and encouraging, the sanguine inference being that the approach prompts twenty-year-olds to see themselves as fellow thinkers and do better work. But we know this isn’t true. Undergraduates aren’t colleagues or peers of professors, and treating them as such doesn’t raise them to higher intellectual standing. It lowers the standing of the teacher, who no longer has the authority to discipline and correct his “peers.” This explains another remarkable finding in the survey: only 8 percent of undergraduates received frequent “negative feedback about their academic work.” Today’s faculty steer clear of anything that might make their “colleagues” unhappy.
Many educators believe that this leveling process should continue. The old hierarchy of master and pupil strikes them as oppressive. In one online journal, one contributor declared, “The idea that colleges exist to recruit groupies for faculty is creepy, patriarchal, and wrong.” In fact, the author went on, it gets the whole higher ed formula backward: “Colleges employ faculty, and staff, and yes, even administrators, to create an environment in which students can be empowered to go off on their own quests. . . . But ultimately, their roles are in service to the students. The heroes of the story are the students.” When the student is self-sufficient, the sage is unneeded. This is perhaps a significant reason why we’re no longer in the age of the mentor, at least not in higher education. Our culture’s ideal of empowerment discourages discipleship, making us think that students’ devotion to their teachers simply makes them groupies.
At the time of Paul de Man’s death in 1983, no humanities scholar working in the United States was more admired—but his prestige diminished quickly. The news in 1987 that he had written essays, including a few anti-Semitic ones, for a collaborationist journal in Belgium during World War II hastened his eclipse. Apart from that, his phenomenological approach to literature didn’t suit the political criticism and sexuality studies spreading through the disciplines in the late 80s. He had trained students and placed them in choice posts from Irvine to Cornell, but those disciples were already slipping. If you mentioned de Man in a symposium in 1979, a crisp gravitas descended upon the participants. Do the same today and people under fifty would barely notice. His star has fallen.
Evelyn Barish, an Americanist long retired from CUNY, published a biography of him last year, however, marshaling evidence of larceny (de Man fled Belgium to avoid prison), bigamy (he abandoned his first wife and their three sons), and forgery. The facts are sensational, but still, they spring from well back in the last century and belong to a largely forgotten academic, a man who was once a “cultural giant” but “no longer seems to exist,” as Barish put it in the opening sentence. The details make for an interesting tale of a brilliant ne’er-do-well in Fascist Europe and postwar America. One would have expected the book to be treated as a bygone episode in twentieth-century history, or to be ignored altogether.
But the book evoked a different response. Lengthy essays appeared in the New Yorker, the New Republic, the New York Review of Books, and the Los Angeles Review of Books; shorter pieces in the Wall Street Journal, The Nation, the Times Literary Supplement, the American Spectator, the Washington Post, Harper’s, the American Scholar, and the Weekly Standard. Two essays appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education (separated by four months) and two pieces in the New York Times (separated by two days). The authors included some of the distinguished professors of our time such as Robert Alter (“Paul de Man Was a Total Fraud”), Peter Brooks (“The Strange Case of Paul de Man”), and Louis Menand (“The De Man Case”), not to mention R. Emmett Tyrrell (“I am taking immense pleasure in the revelations offered in a new book . . .”). The idiom ranged from accusatory to gratified to mystified. “How could such a rat reach the top of academia?” some people wondered, speaking as though they always knew that the author of such nihilistic, foggy criticism had to be a cheat.
The attention and emotion were disproportionate to de Man’s shrunken standing. The New York Times news story asserted that the biography “threatens to reopen the debate over his legacy,” but that never was going to happen, because there really wasn’t any legacy. As Alter observed, “the meteor has long since faded.” But people nonetheless proceeded to judge the “case.”
There was a deeper reason for the furor than the facts of de Man’s life: the very crisis of the professor as intellectual master and moral authority. De Man was the greatest mentor of the high theory days of the humanities, and the writers who added so many words to the debate about his biography came of age during that period. For better or worse, he spellbound a generation of students and scholars. Menand mentions his “mystique,” Carlin Romano notes his “nearly god-like status as a Tier 1 intellectual,” and Jonathan Freedman recalls, “All the cool kids went to de Man’s seminars in Comp Lit, adopted his attitude of gnomic superiority, even mimicked his smile.” Long ago, in After the New Criticism, Frank Lentricchia marked the de Man cult by calling him “Don Paolo, capo di tutti capi.” A distinguished professor once told me about giving a lecture at Yale in the late 70s. He spoke for forty-five minutes to faculty and grad students, then opened the floor to discussion. People were strangely reticent until de Man rose in the back to pose a question. From there, the conversation rushed forward. “You see,” he explained, “everyone was waiting for de Man to indicate where he stood. Then the rest knew what to say.”
“Even the other professors?” I asked.
The memory of that power continues to fascinate and disturb. It’s a power that has largely disappeared from academia. Aspiring critics and teachers at Yale and elsewhere found themselves in and through their engagement with de Man’s teachings and writings. I can’t think of anyone with that effect today. Many of de Man’s students proceeded to exalted careers, but his supervision over them remained the most exciting experience of their intellectual lives. They never got past it and wouldn’t even think to try. Paul de Man may not matter in present literary debates, but he still matters to people he taught and to those who came of age during his reign as the mandarin of literary criticism.
The tussle over de Man was in one sense a complex remembrance of faculty greatness, a time when a humanities professor was an authority, not a functionary. Behind the controversy was a covert wish. We long for a more heroic version of academia, even as we realize that mentors can betray us and that even the best of them should have limited power over our minds. Humanities professors today suffer a profound feeling of diminishment. The American public, administrators, and students, they believe, don’t appreciate them. De Man represents a time when they did. His nefariousness besmirches his greatness, but—o felix culpa—it allows others to talk once more, without seeming nostalgic or envious, about a figure in the humanities who altered young lives.
Mark Bauerlein is senior editor at First Things.