I was all set to pretend that Mark Bauerlein’s badly flawed elegy for students that used to seek him out as a mentor didn’t exist — but then my mother brought it up and asked me what I thought about it. And since Mother’s Day was this weekend, I will honor my mother and tell her what I think.

So, to distill Bauerlein’s essay to its essential points:

  1. Today’s students aren’t much interested in viewing professors as thinkers and mentors: “they enroll in courses and complete assignments, but further engagement is minimal.”
  2. It didn’t used to be this way. Why, back in the 1960s, Todd Gitlin told me that he “revered” his professors even when he was a leading student activist at that time.
  3. Who or what is to blame for the current state of affairs? I believe the list includes grade inflation, “kids these days,” and “professors pressed for research time.”

The result is sad, according to Bauerlein:

When college is more about career than ideas, when paycheck matters more than wisdom, the role of professors changes. We may be 50-year-olds at the front of the room with decades of reading, writing, travel, archives or labs under our belts, with 80 courses taught, but students don’t lie in bed mulling over what we said. They have no urge to become disciples….
As a result, most undergraduates never know that stage of development when a learned mind enthralled them and they progressed toward a fuller identity through admiration of and struggle with a role model.

Well, this all reads as pretty damning. If only it were true.

First off, let’s puncture Bauerlein’s hagiography of previous generations of students. As L.D. Burnett points out over at the U.S. Intellectual History blog:

Far from preserving the professoriate from criticism, the student activists of the 1960s condemned professors and administrators alike as sell-outs, sacrificing educational ideals for crass material gains. So the 1960s were hardly the golden age of student awe for the professoriate that Bauerlein has made them out to be.

Furthermore, as Michael Munger Kevin Grier points out, Bauerlein’s efforts to compare today’s students with prior generations elides some important facts:

[W]hat about the simple fact that many more people and different types of people go to college now than in 1968?
In other words, perhaps we should consider that the change in the volume and composition of college students caused both phenomena that Bauerlein decries (to the extent that they even exist at all).
In 1972, 25% of people between the ages of 18-24 were enrolled in degree granting institutions. In 2012 the percentage was 41%. Colleges moved from a preserve of the elite to embrace a much wider economic and social demographic. Hispanic enrollment rates went from 13% to 37%, while rates for African-Americans went from 18% to 36%.

[The expanding student pool, by the way, also helps explain Todd Gitlin’s puzzlement at the rising anxiety level of students. More students overall = a greater number of anxious students.]

Indeed, Bauerlein’s essay has received a mountain-sized level of critique from professors who point out that Bauerlein’s experiences at Emory might be different from, say, the Harvard of East Des Moines.

We teach heavy loads, are still expected to produce scholarly work, and often have even heavier service requirements given the type of institutions in which we labor. We are not just teachers, but mentors, advisors, life coaches, confidants, chaperones, and more to our students. This may not match the idealized picture of eager undergraduates waiting outside the Lit prof’s door, ready for a stimulating gab session on Modernism. But that vision’s a pipe dream for 98% of faculty and students on American college campuses, and I wonder if reminiscences of such idealized settings haven’t gotten more romanticized by those less pleased about today. Just because our mentorship, our “moral authority,” and our inspiration don’t take place in a gothic building where even the ivy has ivy doesn’t mean they’re not happening. Our academia is one where both students and faculty are pulled in myriad directions by both personal and professional commitments. Remarkably, in spite of all that, professors in this academia matter urgently, deeply, and personally to a majority of our students in one way or another. For some, we are an intellectual inspiration. For others, we listen when others don’t, or affirm where others haven’t. For others, we open doors that they didn’t know existed. For professors to have this kind of “a point” in the environment in which we and our students find ourselves is testament to us and them. But it’s being ignored in much of the discourse surrounding higher education of late, because it isn’t happening where elite academics are looking. And that’s a damn shame.

So maybe Bauerlein’s critique is limited to elite schools that capture so much media ink. Except that I’m lucky enough to teach at a place with ivy and quasi-Gothic architecture, and I still don’t know what Bauerlein is talking about. I’ve started teaching undergraduates again, and I’d say that my out-of-class conversations with them are more wide-ranging and frequent than with the graduate students. That’s just my experience, but it’s just as valid as Bauerlein’s remembrances.

In essence, Bauerlein’s lament is a bad sequel to William Deresiewicz’s “Excellent Sheep,” which was a poorly-supported argument as well.

But at this point, enough people have skewered Bauerlein’s argument to make further elaboration cruel. Instead, perhaps a focus on the publisher of Bauerlein’s essay might be more appropriate.

Inside Higher Ed’s Matt Reed points out,”I wouldn’t give Bauerlein’s piece much thought, except that it’s in a venue that carries weight.”And Erik Loomis elaborates:

It’s not that a professor at Emory knows nothing about how higher education operates for 90 percent of the professors (not to mention the legions of adjuncts and non-tenure track faculty) and 90 percent of the students that bothers me. He’s in his elite bubble. It’s that people like this then decide to pontificate about the state of higher education and that publications like the Times are happy to publish said pontifications.

As a keen observer of the War on College, this is hardly the first time The New York Times Sunday Review section has published something remarkably off-base about academia. And one can forgive some of the Times’s peccadilloes on this subject. Of course The New York Times will publish essays about elite schools. Of course publishing something like Bauerlein’s essay is one of those trolling exercises that will prompt vigorous replies like this one.

I just wish that the Times would occasionally publish an alternative perspective on these issues. Because the problem is that off-base op-eds like these are the only source of information that general readers like my mother have about the current state of higher education. And an essay like Bauerlein’s bolsters every preconceived negative narrative that an over-the-age-of-35 college graduate can have about the current state of higher education.