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.