It’s Harder Now to Change Students’ Lives, but No Less Important

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

August 12, 2015

When I was an undergraduate at Antioch College in the early ’80s, I took a course in philosophical anthropology. I’m still not entirely sure what "philosophical anthropology" means, but it was the best course I ever had. It did more to prepare me for graduate school and my career than any other course, and it was edge-of-your-seat, lean-across-the-table interesting. The problem is that the professor, Victor Ayoub, has retired, and committees in the modern world rarely approve courses like his.

The syllabus was about half a page in length. There were no course objectives, and the professor didn’t list his instructional activities or his grading procedures. What filled the half-page was a list of five or six books we would read during the semester and a sentence or two informing students that they would be expected to complete a research paper — the first part of which was due near the middle of the semester, with the rest being due at the end.

Professor Ayoub told us he chose the books on the list because he regarded them highly. None of the books seemed to fit any formal definitions of either philosophy or anthropology, and none were textbooks. The students were expected to pick their own research topics.

I ended up writing a 65-page paper on the influence of the French Revolution on American political thought. What the research for that paper revealed excited me and changed me. It was the longest and most thoroughly researched paper I wrote until I completed my dissertation, and it was the paper that prepared me to write my dissertation.

I mention that class because it reminds me of a student I myself once had. The first time I met him, when he was a freshman, he was diligent, focused, and inquisitive. By our second meeting, during his sophomore year, he was dutiful and lethargic. A few classes into the semester, I kept him after class and asked him what was wrong. He told me he was disappointed in college. He had been looking forward to the challenge, but it had turned out that it was easier than high school. He had lots of free time, there were fewer classes, and those few classes weren’t very demanding.

I told him that he was confusing the demands others placed on him with the demands he now needed to place on himself. I explained that when you are young, adults focus your life for you and keep you on task, but when you become an adult, it is your responsibility to focus your life and keep yourself on task. I told him that in college you don’t have "free time," you have time you need to use well, and as an adult you need to be the one pushing yourself rather than waiting for someone else to push you. He went on to double major in biology and chemistry.

When I was an undergraduate, I felt that there was a community of scholars who understand that having faith in your students was of the greatest challenges you could ask of them and one of the highest standards you could set. The philosophical-anthropology course I took was a model of adult responsibility, but most of what I see in college today is a model of hand-holding and micromanagement. We tell students which courses to take, which books to read, how they will be assessed, how they should speak to one another, and how to use a plethora of support services should something go wrong.

While I was serving on a curriculum-review committee at a midsize state university for several years, the ever-increasing routinization of the profession became clear to me. There were standards and rubrics. The committee expected paperwork, and to be acceptable it had to adhere to a standardized outline, which was to be modified ever so slightly to reflect each individual class. Follow the outline and most likely your course would be approved, deviate and most likely it would be sent back to you for revisions. Connect-the-dots for people with terminal degrees.

The forms, norms, and assessments that define higher education are becoming ever more routinized — for the students, faculty, administrators, and accrediting agencies. A Big Mac in Maine looks pretty similar to one in Oregon. The textbook being used for a class in Psychology 101 in New Jersey is probably the same one being used for a class in Psychology 101 in Iowa. Fast-food nation and higher education are becoming ever more homogeneous, and it’s not surprising that students are less engaged. Why should they be? Generic only goes so far.

How do we let students know that college is easy only for those more interested in other people’s answers than their own imagination, curiosity, and drive? That college is easy only if you are satisfied with doing what you are told? How as professors do we create opportunities for freedom and creativity in a system that is often driven by uniformity and accountability? I realize that the answer to each of these questions will be informed by circumstance, but one thing I can be sure of is that since I have known better, I can’t make excuses for offering my students something less.

I learned firsthand that a single course that inspires wonder can change the direction of someone’s life. A professor today who does everything possible in a course to resist the small, the shallow, and the routine has the opportunity to change other lives. Thirty-five years from now, a former student might even write an essay calling it the best class he ever had.

Stephen R. Herr is the former chair of the education department at Lane College. Coincidentally, Victor Ayoub, the professor he describes in this essay, is the father of Nina Ayoub, the longtime books editor at The Chronicle Review.