Higher education, big business and the failing American democracy

Visiting professor

John Gotto, New York City Teacher of the Year (three times!) stated, "Compulsory attendance laws absolutely have to be changed. Nothing good happens from compulsory, unless you look at your fellow human beings as inferiors or serfs or slaves."

As a professor, I agree with Gotto.

Never have I had to spend so much time taking attendance and checking homework in classrooms than here at Grambling State. Does such activity increase student learning? It probably decreases it. By treating students as if they were still in high school, can professors and administrators really be doing them any good at all?

Higher education seems to have become anything but higher today, and by no means am I referring only to GSU. There must certainly be a reason. Does it profit students to make it lower education? Doubtfully. Does it profit faculty? No doubt. Does it profit the moneyed classes and corporate America? No doubt! Indeed, it implies a diminution of capacity and will to question and challenge.

In my little department, the lack of intellectual exchange and debate is astonishing. As a writer, thinker and polemicist, I find it mind-numbing to be assailed on an almost daily basis by mandatory inane paperwork and jabber about the need to take attendance, correct, collect, and grade homework, verify student lab work, and, in general, to track students, as if they were children. Why do my Ph.D. colleagues seem so willingly accepting of this situation?

Why don’t my colleagues, who like to flaunt their Doctor titles, actively seek intellectual debate and discourse? Why have they proven indifferent to me as a new colleague to things I’ve done or written or places I’ve been? I’ve asked them questions, but they seem reluctant to respond to anything other than bureaucratic concerns. Why do they seem so accommodating of everything and anything, never questioning or challenging, just passively licking the hand that feeds them monthly checks? Is that what it means to be a university professor today in America?

"Higher education does not need more proud lifer company women and men with bookkeeper mentalities and bureaucratic demeanors, afraid of thinking and speaking out whenever the slightest risk might be entailed," RISK to career, RISK to getting that grant, RISK of offending this one or that one. Academe’s corps is already overwhelmingly staffed with the fearful. In fact, given that reality, how can our institutions of higher learning possibly be, in the words of Professor Nasir Ahmed, "our best hope"? Declaring it thus is nothing short of egregious backslapping and self-congratulating, an activity in which higher education sadly excels. (Several front pages of The Gramblinite reflect the inculcation of this activity in the student body.) Excessive self-congratulating and backslapping lead to complacency and flaccidity.

How can we possibly expect professors, who dare not stand up in their own milieu to challenge our political leaders, business leaders, intellectual leaders and cultural leaders (the words are Dr. Ahmed’s)? In fact, it seems to be the business leaders, not the professors, who are calling the shots in higher education today. Higher education urgently needs more professors who actively seek debate, question, challenge, think and otherwise try to move the citizenry and student body to a higher level of engagement, as opposed to a higher level of orthodoxy and corporate indoctrination.

Hopefully, this op-ed will not provoke anger, but rather debate. Hopefully, it will not result in grownups feeling offended, but rather in their rising above paralyzing intellectual lethargy, apathy and bookkeeping duty. It ought to not be interpreted as "he doesn’t like being at this institution" or as an accusation against the entire faculty and administrators, most of whom I don’t know, so can hardly personally accuse of anything. On the contrary, I have enjoyed the diverse exchanges with my students this past semester and would definitely like to return to Grambling State next year and have officially submitted an application. BUT I shall not compromise my duty to speak out against the tsunami of inanity inundating higher education both here and elsewhere today.

Finally, this op-ed should be interpreted as a plea for less academic bureaucracy and for professors to behave less like automaton functionaries with minds concentrated on petty details. (e.g., I was requested to remove my office-hour sign, which had the new hours handwritten, and replace it with a typed one, though reminded money was not available to buy new ink cartridges.) It is a plea for professors to act more like thinking human beings with minds wide open to inquiry and hearts with the courage to speak out against stifling bureaucracy.

For more on these thoughts, you might wish to visit the Web site of The American Dissident (www.theamericandissident.org), a semiannual literary journal of critical thinking, founded in 1998.