A common feeling among my peers, best summed up by Kate Blanchard in the Chronicle, is one of mild depression upon receiving tenure. The dynamics of my despair were shaped by an intense course load, significant pressure to spend substantial time mentoring my students, a marked decline in my students in even basic writing skills, an even sharper decline in critical thinking ability and the knowledge that I was participating in giving them an huge debt load by the end of college. The work is hard, the rewards few, but more importantly I am giving my students this huge debt and for what. I teach religion, that most useless of disciplines, at a denominational school that only serves 14% of that denominations members. My aspirations for my students upon their graduation; voluntary service. I want them to give something back to the world after their four years of “luxury”. It’s genuinely hard to give something back when you are in significant debt. I know this.
And so I listen to Rick Santorum brand me and my students as elitists on the stump, to David Levy indict my hard work in the Washington Post, and to Peter Morici brand my work as a liberal art-ist as useless on Marketplace Money. They are all deeply wrong, but until now; until the last cases of plagiarism have been caught and sent and away empty, my grades handed in, my students bundled off for the summer, and my own relationship with my pillow restored; until now I have not had the energy to think about why.
In the midst of my depression I asked a senior college administrator at midwest college with a better reputation than my own what he thinks about my predicament. He gave a good answer. With the demise of the public square, the failure of the media and newspapers in particular, he said that the small liberal arts college is the last hope of American democracy. It is the last place in which people can be formed into citizens who care about others and in that caring work towards the common weal.
He might be right, and, that answer helped my anomie. But I know that there are other, cheaper, more productive places which encourage a similar growth. They may not steward the special approach to time that the small college, or the university generally offers. (I mean here the ability to consider an idea carefully, at length and without regard to a bottom line.) But these places do exist for those who want to find them.
The thing that we do that does not happen elsewhere is the encouragement of students, en masse, to think. This is not as easy as it sounds. The last thing I had to grade this spring was the exam from my introductory religion course. The common refrain in this set of handwritten essays was that in this course students had been encouraged to think differently, or more broadly, or deeper, or in a more focused way on what they thought that they knew about the Bible. I realized that the important thing about these exams was not the content that students remembered (in most cases very little), the synthesis or analysis present (oh, for a world in which we still cared even a bit about logic), or even that they thought differently, broadly or deeply (very few were actually able to show evidence of this). The important thing was that this course made them think. It was a beginning in attuning their mind to deeper desires, a reference to D.H. Lawrence. “we [have] a double set of desires, the shallow and the profound, the personal, superficial, temporary desires, and the inner, impersonal, great desires that are fulfilled in long periods of time. The desires of the moment are easy to recognise, but the others, the deeper ones, are difficult. It is the business of our Chief Thinkers to tell us of our deeper desires, not to keep shrilling our little desires in our ears.”
This beginning in thinking that happened for my students, and it happens reliably, if only in small ways, is a beginning in recognizing that the world is not quite what it seems to be, and that what passes for politics and economics in this world is only a pale glimmer of what real discussions and production could be. I am deeply grateful to my students for trying to catch what ever part of this that they can each year. I hope more try.
I do not harbor any illusions that education will save the world, that my students will change it, or that we aren’t going to be extinct in a 100 years. I am not in control of these things. But in a world in which presidential candidates call education snobbery, out of touch former university chancellors attack 80 hour work weeks as relaxed, and respected economists who teach at universities openly attack thought, I know that in my work, slowly, some people are learning to think, deeply, and might question, for a little while, the shrill echo in their ear.