The View from the Ivory Tower

Image from www.nickagin.com

Illustration by Leslie Herman

The viral post on Huff Post Education, “Message to my Freshman Students,” really got to me, and not in a good way. As an educator, it’s easy to blame a lack of learning on the students, but it’s more honest to carry some of it ourselves. Dr. Parsons’ dualism, and tenured arrogance struck a nerve. I am not saying there aren’t major issues with student behavior and responsibility, but like most ancient institutions, universities have to adapt to the reality of the modern world in order to thrive. I don’t have all the answers for how to do that, but it is NOT by listening to the advice of gentlemen, like the one I am responding to.


This blog is definitely out of the norm for my usual postings, but I hope you will bear with me. I feel so strongly about this professor’s “Message to My Freshman Students,” that I simply must respond, publicly and passionately, to his myopic vision. As high school graduation nears, I am afraid that too many well-meaning elders, whether they are parents, principals, or teachers, will forward his speech to their college-bound graduates, as an indication of what they can expect next fall. I surely hope they are mistaken, though I am a little discouraged by the 35k Facebook shares it’s garnered. But truly, it’s been my experience that Dr. Parsons’ perspective is that of a waning number of professors whose extended time in their Ivory Towers has led to a rather distorted view of their profession.

The first half of his speech is dedicated to encouraging his young students to take responsibility for their own learning. In order to pass, they have to show up for class, pay attention, listen carefully, do the reading, and complete the assignments, on time and well. I agree 100%. Students are responsible for their own learning and the freshman year usually presents some challenges in that arena. However, he also makes it very clear that he is not their “teacher,” someone whose “job is to make sure that you learn.” He is their professor and as such, he feels “It is no part of my job to make you learn.” Furthermore, “I have no obligation whatsoever to make sure that you pass or make any particular grade at all,” only “to lead you to the fountain of knowledge.”

This is where Dr. Parsons and I part ways.

He says nothing about a drinking vessel, a cupped hand, or the accessibility of the water in that fountain, but, Parsons magnanimously concedes, “Whether you drink deeply or only gargle is entirely up to you.” All of his wisdom can be yours, if you simply listen to him lecture you. Listen is the operative word. Listen carefully, critically and comprehensively, even if you have never been taught to listen in this way before. Parsons is a self-proclaimed, old-fashioned, “chalk and talk” man, more comfortable hearing the sound of his own voice than that of his ill-prepared and entitled students. Although that may sound harsh, I can sympathize with his point. Why not let the smartest person in the room do all of the talking?

Clearly, because it doesn’t work. It isn’t how his new students have learned for the first twelve years of their education. It isn’t how many students learn best, if at all. It is rarely the most effective way to deliver significant, but difficult information to anyone. Working at a university doesn’t give anyone a pass on keeping up with current pedagogy, or at least it shouldn’t. Parsons dismisses the constructive criticism and classroom coaching he’s been exposed to by calling it “Hogwash!”

Dr. Parsons is very clear about his loyalty to the ancient traditions of academia: “I have absorbed deeply the norms and values of an ancient academic culture and they are now a part of me.” Students, who are newcomers to this strange and exacting culture, need to get on board right away. Difficulty in assimilating is the fault of the immigrant, obviously, and few concessions should be made. He sees no need to update, or improve academia’s ancient methods, even though we no longer live in the ancient world. The “fountain of knowledge” he so generously offers, once students have paid their ever higher and less affordable tuition, can be found for free in the library, on the internet, in the form of MOOC, in podcasts, (like the excellent, philosophical The Partially Examined Life), and cheaply through used books and textbooks on Amazon.

Parsons’ attitude illustrates why higher education is coming under such fire these days. More and more young people and their parents are questioning whether to take on a huge amount of debt to pay for a liberal arts degree. The bottom line is that for a university education to be of value (beyond the certificate), professors have to be a “value-added” proposition. They cannot merely sit like disembodied heads on thrones, unaccountable for the young heads that roll around them. I can think of no other position where an educator (or any employee for that matter) can state, “I am not held responsible for your failures. On the contrary, I get paid the same whether you get an ‘F’ or an ‘A.’”

Therein lies the problem.

In Dr. Parsons’ mind, professors are paid to know what they know, and write about it, not to ease the path of the young women and men who find themselves struggling in his Introduction to Philosophy course, a subject matter that Parsons’ himself calls, “an abstruse and difficult field… [full of] seemingly arcane and incomprehensible topics.” Fortunately, I believe most professors are far less cavalier with the joint contributions they are asked to make to both their field of study and the education of the next generation.

I understand Parsons’ frustration with unprepared and immature freshman. I’ve taught them off and on for the last twenty years, and encountered much of the behavior he points out, but I suspect it is his own ego and sense of entitlement that is driving the second half of his essay. Ironically, it is actually that kind of ego and entitlement that drove me away from an academic career many years ago. By the time I finished graduate school at the age of twenty-three, with a 100+ page master’s thesis under my belt, I knew the academic party line and I wanted no part of it. Though crude, I called it mental masturbation. Hopefully it’s changing, but it said in essence, live in your head. Specialize; know more and more about less and less, and publish for your peers, not the public. Parsons actually summed it up beautifully in another essay when he wrote, “The more you learn, the better it is. There is no such thing as too much knowledge.”

Dr. Parsons, I respectfully disagree.

Knowledge is valuable and necessary. I have pursued my natural curiosity all of my life and education is a priority in my home, but there is such a thing as too much knowledge. It becomes too much when we extol intellectual knowledge while denigrating other types of knowing, and when we privilege people who are “in the know,” over those who aren’t. It becomes too much when what we know becomes more important than who we are and how we treat others. Knowledge, as you know, is transcendent when it is used to elevate our common humanity, but can be dangerous when it becomes an end in and of itself.

So my speech for college freshman shares the same premise as Dr. Parsons’. My main advice to them would be to step up their learning game and take responsibility for their education, but the difference is that I believe I have a responsibility too. As the “educated” one, I have something of value, something a majority of my students want: knowledge, practical skills and application. I also have a job description and it is not simply to be a “lecturer,” although that is still, ironically, the archaic title used by some universities for their teaching professionals. My job requires me to inspire, engage and ultimately educate my students to the best of both of our abilities.

Despite my many objections to Dr. Parsons’ arrogant delivery, we do agree on a final point as well. The last line in his speech is this: “For your professor, a course is an opportunity for you to make your world richer and yourself stronger.” Amen to that, Professor, just don’t forget that the opportunity is yours as well.

Ouch!

Ouch!                                                            by Nickagin.com

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9 thoughts on “The View from the Ivory Tower

  1. Ally, I know Keara is going to Long Beach State and I really hate to tell you this, but my experience there was academically truly terrible, for exactly the reasons stated in your blog. I really hope that the university has changed since I left which is admittedly almost 35 years.

    Most of us I had no interest in our own graduation because all of the people sitting on that stage had no connection with any of the graduates, much less me. Not a single member of the faculty of Long Beach State could have acknowledged me by name had they seen me at the engineering school graduation ceremony. (My father was shocked when years later I reminded him him that Neither he nor I attended my graduation)

    What I recall from the faculty was a bunch of very smart people who just wanted to show off by crushing their students intellectually. At that time Long Beach, along with most all of the CSU campuses, had a failure rate of more than 50%. At my sister’s graduation at San Diego State the president congratulated the students as the one third of the entering freshman who achieved graduation.

    America’s jewels are its universities but in many ways they succeed despite the faculties and because of the students.

    Very nice to spend this last weekend at La Casa with Finn and your dad. it was a fabulous weekend.

    Sent from my iPad

    • Mike, I am so glad you wrote and I appreciate your perspective. I hope a lot has changed over the last 40 years and I think it has in many ways and for many reasons, ironically in part, because universities are using more and more adjunct and part-time professors, to do most of the teaching. Talk about a humbling profession! You have virtually all of the education of a full-time professor and none of the job security, or ability to rest on your laurels. You have to teach well!
      Keara will be at CSULB in the fall, and I know she will encounter exactly what you and I describe, but she is also going into the College of the Arts, which focuses on hands on learning and application. Both of my kids, though very capable and intelligent, lean on the side of ‘doing’ as opposed to ‘thinking,’ probably something I drilled into them somehow, without even meaning to.
      I loved your point that universities succeed because of the kids, and despite the faculty. Never thought of it that way, but well said!

  2. Ali, you are a badass and I love you for it.
    My brothers and sisters have a variety of college and higher degrees. My dad was a college professor as well. What I learned from their experience is that college students often learn in spite of their professors, rather than because of them. My dad had 30 years of practical business experience and was President/CEO of a major ad agency in Chicago before he switched to teaching. He quickly learned that the academic world was far more cut-throat and petty than anything he experienced before. His students loved him; his peers looked down on him.
    I think the American higher education system is at a turning point. College costs too much and delivers too little return on that investment. Modern technology and online learning will gradually render the traditional classroom obsolete. I once heard someone say that Harvard is a good school because of its students, not its teachers. Perhaps the education system of the future will be student-driven, based on shared knowledge rather than lectures from the smartest guy on the room.

    • Thanks so much for the compliment and your contribution to the conversation. I think that’s one of the first time’s I’ve ever been called a “bad ass.” I agree with you that we are a at a turning point, which is always devastating to some, especially those who are so invested in things remaining the same. Perhaps there is a way to allow philosophers and other academics to do the research they love, without inflicting them on the lower-division student body, or inflating their ego!

  3. I’m guilty. I posted Dr. Parson’s message on my facebook page…
    I absolutely feel his frustration, and yours for that matter, but think in both cases the cause is misunderstood. In my opinion, It’s not the kids and its not the lecture. First, slightly to his defense, can you imagine teaching freshmen philosophy? It’s a topic they have zero foundation in and if he is use to teaching upper division courses to philosophy majors…he’s in for a real treat with freshmen. They are the epitome of “tabula rasa” – he has to lecture A LOT to even set the stage for any meaningful conversation in his content area. Lord knows the student don’t read their textbooks!! At the same time to argue that students are incapable of listening because that is not how or what they have learned in their previous twelve years of education is also problematic.
    Our education system is failing.
    Current pedagogy is just that, a current trend – developed by some phd somewhere based on a specific student population that doesn’t universally apply (and likely espoused upon by phds that haven’t been IN a k-12 or undergraduate classroom in ages). I think the “Hogwash” he is referring to is the students “conditioned craving for constant stimulation.” Which in my humble opinion is a highly problematic issue. The emphasis in k-12 on incorporating technology has created a generation that have difficulty unplugging and listening. ALL of the research points to the fact that reading on devices is not good for content retention and yet that is the direction that is pushed. Etexts are cheaper now but what is the real educational cost down the line. Creating projects on devices is first nature to these kids and a poor substitute for showing critical thinking skills through the written word. I also think that catering to the “multiple intelligences” in the k-12 system is problematic. Students should be taught to be aware of their preferred mode of learning but they also have to learn to adapt and adjust to the realities of the world as they become adults. No Child Left Behind and the Common Core are not helping. “Doing” and “Thinking” are not mutually exclusive.
    On a globally comparative level, our education system is failing. Our kids are behind and our country is falling behind.
    I think for better or for worse the college lecture is here to stay. We can incorporate more technology (although even taking notes on devices is shown to be ineffective compared to pen to paper) or utilize a flipped classroom, but I find both of those concepts to be mediocre substitutes for teaching the critical thinking, writing, AND listening skills our students and country need for success. Students have got to learn to listen, process information, and think – all before they do. It’s our job to develop opportunities for this in whatever discipline we teach. I don’t think the answer is blindly boarding Dr. Parson’s lecture train is the complete answer in getting from point A to point B, but neither is pulling the students up the mountain tooth and nail at the cost of our own sanity. I don’t think either of those methods encourages critical thinking. We can patch the road and make all the lights green but we can’t keep the students from turning left or right when their phones vibrate in their pockets!
    Education is not about feeling good about ourselves – as students or as professors. The reality is that we will fail to reach every student. Dr. Parson’s will likely see that despite his planned speech for next year some of his students will still fail – and hopefully he will see that in some ways he has failed. (Although he probably has a TA that grades all of his tests and papers, so….??) I think on both ends, as a student and as an educator, it’s about rising to face the challenges.
    Ok, so there’s the rant from the severely jaded, former high school teacher turned jc history professor, and currently disgruntled pregnant insomniac.
    p.s. I had a GREAT experience at CSULB and I’m confident Kiki will too!! xox

    • Holly, I am so glad you wrote in! I think your voice is very important and very well-honed to this conversation and conflict. It is certainly a both/and situation. Yes, we need to be able to lecture and students need to know how to listen. And we need to teach effectively. I was mostly frustrated by Parsons’ arrogant stance, though I can’t imagine teaching Intro to Philosophy! How did he get that gig after 30 years as a professor? Yikes! The type of listening skills I think he wants don’t really develop until the 3rd or 4th year of college or grad school at the earliest. How about a list of classes we should really teach in high school, intend of the ad naseum APs?
      -Critical listening and thinking skills
      -2 years of WRITING – lit based if they insist, but WRITING!
      -Personal Finance
      -World Religions – (important I think for the ever-increasing globalization of society) – Modern Cultures too? Not just the history, but the current reality of the world’s players..Does MUN still exist?
      -Social Psychology –
      I think one of the underlying problems, and I may be way off base here, is that business culture has made a college degree a minimum requirement, even for positions that do not require those skills, even for positions that would be much better served by an internship, a trainee program, etc, forcing a virtual educational straightjacket on to so many young people who have little interest (not to say ability or maturity) into universities. Universities have welcomed so many with open arms in order to make the money they need to survive. I don’t know where that money is going either, since they aren’t hiring tenured professors, as you know, and rely on poorly-paid adjuncts to teach a majority of their lower grad classes.
      Anyway, I know we could talk for hours about this and maybe we will get a chance someday soon!
      Ali

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