Life in the professorship is usually defined by one’s own publications or, if one climbs the administrative ladder, by securing a position as chairman or dean. But what is most important in this profession is often the most neglected: teaching students. This is particularly true of elite universities, where teaching awards for outstanding performance are viewed with suspicion. It is believed that real work is applying for scholarships and publishing peer-reviewed articles, rather than spending time designing courses, grading papers, and meeting students.
When did this shift occur and where does it come from? Surprisingly, a book written during World War II explained why this would take place. Jacques Barzun’s Teacher in America, published in 1944 and reprinted by the Liberty Fund in 1981, shares his personal experience as a professor of history at Columbia University and illustrates the successes of good teaching and failures of bad teaching. As we read his report, we find that teaching is a collaborative activity and its success affects people, processes, and institutions that are beyond an individual’s control.
For Barzun, the main purpose of the professor is to train his students and “to cultivate the lifelong discipline of the individual. . . encouraged by a reasonable opportunity to live a good life ”, which is“ synonymous with civilization ”. The aim of good teaching is to make the student into an “independent, self-driving being who can not only learn but also learn – that is, as his own boss, working to the limits of his powers”. For Barzun, teaching means not only turning the students into “independent and critical thinkers” – to use today’s educational jargon – but also imparting knowledge about one’s own civilization to the students. This representation of education differs from “schooling” which, for Barzun, involves mastering a set of predetermined materials for pursuing useful careers such as engineers and scientists. Professors should instead see themselves as part of a tradition to nurture the character and spirit of their students.
While Barzun ultimately admits the mystery of how true education takes place between teacher and student, he offers suggestions on how this can be made possible. First, Barzun reiterates Aquinas’ observation that students not only listen to the teacher’s words, but also pay attention to how he or she lives, what he or she teaches. The teacher must have a good character as he inevitably serves as a role model for the students. Second, the teacher must be patient in observing the progress – or lack thereof – in his students and realizing that education is a lifelong pursuit where it is the teacher’s job to guide students on the path of learning. Third, the teacher must exercise caution in dealing with students and adapt to constantly changing learning situations in order to guide the students towards knowledge and independence. This, in turn, requires the ability to listen and take care of someone else’s thoughts, which leads the teacher to focus only on himself and focus on the subject and the student (62). It is the realization that while the teacher plays a critical and leading role, it is only part of the classroom activity in which he or she participates in a learning community.
With regard to “forms of teaching”, Barzun names the lecture, the discussion group and the practice lesson as the main teaching methods. The lecture occurs when the professor is addressing a silent class and it requires eloquence, personality, and theatrical drama to be effective and memorable. The discussion group consists of five to no more than thirty students who ask and answer topical questions organized by the teacher. The professor must be ready to be distracted from the conversation, but also be able to pull it back to the main topic and “correct without injury, without discouraging contradiction, without pampering”. Interestingly, Barzun recommends that all introductory courses be taught this way because “only in a small group can the student learn to collect their thoughts, reveal their weaknesses, argue their beliefs, and gain that familiarity with the“ ropes ”of a particular subject, that if not learned early, it will not be learned at all ”. Finally, the tutorial is between the professor and the student (or no more than three or four), which is a free conversation for everyone and assumes knowledgeable students. Although the tutorial is simpler than the lecture or discussion group, it is more challenging as the professor has to constantly find new questions and topics, especially if the student knows the subject well (55-57).
Barzun reports on universities’ transition from a humanities and language-based curriculum to a science curriculum where the establishment of the Bachelor of Science guarantees that the holder “does not speak Latin”. Barzun’s objections do not relate to science as such, but to its elevation above all other disciplines and to its being taught in an ahistorical way that produces technicians rather than democratic citizens. Science should instead be learned in a historical context and presented as one perspective of knowledge among many, including “art, philosophy, religion and common sense”. Such an approach, according to Barzun, would shed light on how these disciplines complement, rather than compete, student education.
In addition to the rivalry with science, the humanities and languages also suffer from internal weaknesses. History has been replaced by the social sciences to show students how to reflect on the present moment rather than broadening their intellectual horizons by going back to the past. Art deals with rules and numbers so that students can appreciate them rather than revealing their meaning, beauty and transcendence. Foreign languages are learned for useful reasons rather than knowing how other cultures understand the world. and the great books are perceived as a relic of the past that is more likely to participate in shared stories, beliefs and stories of one’s own civilization.
What is remarkable about Teacher in America is how little has changed since the 1940s: Science has renamed itself STEM and is of paramount importance at the university. The humanities have practically collapsed under the weight of postmodernism. Science remains valued over teaching; academic freedom is attacked; and the university’s bureaucratization continues unabated.
In addition to the curriculum challenges, Barzun describes institutional barriers to his teaching ideas, such as: B. The fact that universities are not held accountable by the public for what they teach, the difficulty of hiring good teachers, the increase in “knowledge” and standardized exams, and the specialization of knowledge, particularly in the sciences, where the students neglect the humanities and languages. Other problems include the relationship between the deans and the faculty, the multiplication of the duties of the faculty committee, and interference with the academic freedom of the faculty.
Most threatening for Barzun, however, is the spread and appreciation of the doctorate, a testimony that is more defined by science than teaching. The incentive structure of science usually results in works of negligible quality and, more importantly, deprives students of the “enthusiasm, freshness and vigor” that young faculties can give in the classroom “in the absence of mature wisdom”. Barzun even goes so far as to advocate that faculty salaries go to those who teach rather than research.
While Barzun’s advice that “it is not good for a teacher to keep connecting with students” is even more relevant in the Age of Title IX, his comments on female students – “it is true that girls tend to be less interested as boys in theory, in ideas, in the logic of things and events ”- are suspicious and reflect the limits of time. Even so, Barzun admits that the democratization of education in America is likely to continue with the proliferation of public speaking, adult education, and university expansion programs. However, he hopes this democratization does not reach universities as he sees their more selective admissions processes as part of what enables real education.
This hope was not realized, as Barzun writes in the 1980 preface. A flood of new students who entered the university with the GI Bill and the National Defense Education Act. In addition, the value of teaching continued to decline as the federal government and large foundations poured funds into research due to its perceived social benefit. The wave of government regulations promoting women and minorities in response to the student unrest of the 1960s turned the university into a huge bureaucracy. And the overproduction of Ph.D. Students and the poor financial health of universities have only further limited the teaching opportunities for professors.
What is remarkable about Teacher in America is how little has changed since the 1940s: Science has been renamed STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) and is of paramount importance at the university. The humanities have practically collapsed under the weight of postmodernism. Science remains valued over teaching; academic freedom is attacked; and the university’s bureaucratization continues unabated. If anything, the situation may have only worsened with online technology replacing the lecture, discussion group, or tutorial. the lowering or elimination of academic admission standards; and a technocratic and therapeutic view of teaching that has replaced any normative or liberal representation.
Yet Barzun offers a vision of why one should teach that is both hopeful and realistic. He warns that anyone who wants to teach should give up any hope of “recognition” in a democratic society that defines success materially. But teaching well means participating in a company that goes beyond itself and joins a community of students and those who went before us, to bond with the past and thereby participate in our civilization. To teach well is to be free of practical and political concerns in the highest sense and to force ourselves to ask the basic questions of what it means to be human. Doing this – and doing it well – is not an easy task, but it enriches the lives of students and teachers alike. Not a place to teach