Making it a Business
My son, who T.A.s at a state university, gives me the numbers on the first papers he had to correct--vastly more Ds and Fs than As and Bs--and I'm shocked. "Good night, they're making you a Nazi," I tell him. I haven't graded papers in those proportions for years.
He says the prof he's under claims that unless students get the message that sloppy laziness isn't tolerated, they'll give you sloppy laziness. I don't think I disagree. The class is Intro to Film, and my son claims that his prof says a goodly percentage of people think a class like that is simply fun: "Hey, just watch movies all semester--how bad can that be?" Well, bad, or so says the prof, who doesn't like their dinking around. One of the first orders of business, he says, is clearing the air. Nothing does that like bad grades. Get rid of the loafers. They'll quit the class and make everyone else's life better. So goes the argument.
I've been thinking about that idea for days--and nights--because that method of operation is anathema around here, for the most part. At a small college, where one of the only assurances that there will be life next year is signing up enough warm bodies to occupy the seats, tending the students' needs seems paramount. If we don't have the kids, we don't have a job. Nobody says "Get rid of the loafers."
Maybe that's why the institution where I teach is run--or so it seems--more and more like a business. It is a business--if we don't have customers, our doors close. At state universities a different kind of ethic is possible, simply because keeping customers happy isn't a requirement.
I'm very uneasy with the idea of an institution of higher learning being, first and foremost, a business. I'm uneasy because what really sits at the heart of this institution is the absolute importance of ideas, at least in my estimation. We're not a trade school, although we function more and more like one, as do many colleges and universities today. We're a place where thoughtful people go to learn how to negotiate the landscape of this world by thoughtful pursuit of nothing less than truth itself.
At a Christian college that mission statement has to be shaped by the necessity of recognizing the Creator in every aspect of life itself, but that peculiar commitment doesn't in radically modify the central goal--that a college has to be an environment where ideas thrive, right and wrong, where a marketplace of ideas exists and students learn--if nothing else--the importance of weighing ideas and finding their way. That's why education that isn't dangerous isn't education at all at this level.
Everything I'm saying sounds sadly old-fashioned to many today, even to many associated with higher education. Such notions are remnants of a time when the humanities were essential in colleges and universities. Today, the humanities--literature, history, art, music, philosophy--are all struggling, in part because higher education is, more and more, a business. (See "Canon Wars Take a Toll," below). Education is certainly a business here, where student-teacher ratios are used to determine what areas suffer bloody personnel cuts.
A friend wrote a hot-tempered e-mail criticizing the drift of things in this institution, and now the administration is threatening depositing a letter of reprimand in his personal and professional file, a letter that, thereby, indicates the administration's disapproval. All of this is happening despite the fact that, almost inevitably, a majority of the faculty agree with his analysis, many of them even approving of the content of the note. All of this is happening despite the fact that almost all faculty feel that some kind of free speech code is being undermined by the desire of the administation to muscle out dissent in all forms.
But, another friend says, a business doesn't tolerate that kind of dissent. He'd be gone.
I don't know if that's true, but even though I've got limited time left at this institution, until I go I'll argue vehemently that this institution, on the basis of its particular calling as a place where ideas must have importance, is not only a business. We may very well prepare students for vocations outside the institution, but our first order of "business" is honoring the importance of ideas, even of dissent--maybe even most importantly of dissent. There are many--me among them--who would argue that the greatest problem facing Christian education today, at all levels, is its failure to be as counter-cultural as Christ would have us be as his children.
I've been here for more than thirty years. Maybe the institution I've served for that long has become too much a business. I believe it's in the interest of the institution itself to consider that possibility. We are a business; we have a bottom line. But when we're only a business, then we're only a business whose job is turning out products, goods and services. Maybe that's exactly what we are, what we've become. Maybe I'm a dinosaur.