The Forum

Intellectual Atrophy in the College Classroom

March 18, 2015

What makes a great professor? Students today might tell you that a great professor is one that grades lightly, requires little, and sticks to comfortable intellectual territory. New York Times’ columnist Frank Bruni, however, says he benefitted from a different approach. Professor Anne Hall—now a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania—was the person Bruni said came to mind when he was asked to describe a “transformative educational experience.” He spoke with her about her engaging (though demanding) approach to instruction.

Professor Hall points to how rare it is for colleagues to share her high academic standards and concern for students’ development as scholars. “There’s a lot of capitalizing on what is fashionable.” Academe, she worries, has forgotten (or perhaps, has willingly cast aside) the search for truth and meaning. “She didn’t want to single out any particular course for derision but encouraged me to look at what Penn is offering this semester,” wrote Bruni.

How has this culture of mediocrity established itself among the professoriate and their charges? In part, this has occurred because professors have let it. “A professor standing up to grade inflation is in a lonely place,” said Hall.

But that place didn’t become lonely on its own. Professors are unwilling to insist on high standards because mediocrity is not only permitted, but encouraged by university policy. First, many professors are too focused on research to even realize the disservice they are doing to students. Because funding and prestige is tied to research prowess rather than instruction, professors are incentivized to spend their time as far from undergraduates as they can get.

But Professor Hall also points to another problem. “The student became the customer who’s always right.” No longer does the student arrive with an expectation of great discovery through difficult work—Hall makes an analogy to athletic training, saying the purpose of college is “developing the muscle of thoughtfulness.”

They arrive expecting the entertainment they were advertised—the result of a system that rewards schools for prestige instead of merit and a pitched competition for enrollments. Many schools are more concerned about getting students in the door than what happens to them afterwards. An institution that appeals to students on the flashiness of its amenities and the raucousness of its parties is not an institution that can effectively train scholars.

Unlike Hall, most professors have accepted this status quo. Why insist on excellence, when it will only garner negative reactions on student feedback assessments? Why work to overcome this mindset when success won’t be rewarded? Thank goodness for the Anne Halls still left in academe, and for the scholars they are training. We’ll need those tough minds to get out of this mess.


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