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I Never Left the Classroom (Part I): An Introduction to the 7 Deadly Sins of the Modern American University

Luis Martinez-Fernandez on

"I Never Left the Classroom." Someday I hope to publish a book with that title. In effect, from 1978, when I became a college freshman, until present day, as a professor at a large U.S. state research university, I have always been a student or a faculty member.

Those 40-odd years in the classroom -- including the past 14 months in the "Alice in Wonderland"-ish Zoom environment -- have given me a long-term perspective on higher education and what anthropologists call "participant observation" experiences on the changing roles, values and culture of American higher education.

While the term "ivory tower" (Merriam Webster: "a secluded place that affords the means of treating practical issues with an impractical often escapist attitude") is generally meant as criticism, I argue that a healthy dose of seclusion and impracticality, even escapism, are needed more than any time before, given society's overriding obsession with the practical -- the utilitarian, the vocational, the profitable, the quantifiable, the STEMish, the faddish and the crude.

Lest I be misinterpreted, I am not calling for a return to the 1970s, much less the Middle Ages, when the first universities emerged. I confess that I engage in these friendly, from-the-inside criticisms with some trepidation knowing that they may be used by the sworn enemies of higher education.

A few years ago, I presented the conference paper "The Seven Deadly Sins of the Modern American University." While I have since identified at least twice as many additional transgressions, these were the original seven: STEMism, bureaucratism, metricsism, assessmentism, grantism, credentialism and footballism.

1) STEMism: The extreme fixation on researching, publishing and teaching science, technology, engineering and mathematics is threatening to reduce universities to tech centers tasked with training students in narrow utilitarian fields while neglecting and marginalizing the humanistic core of a university education. STEM without the flower is just a stem.

2) Bureaucratism: Over the past few decades, universities have taken on a whole range of new responsibilities beyond their core missions of teaching and research, some necessary, others actual hinderances to learning and scholarship. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, between 1980-1981 and 2014-2015, the proportion of expenditures in university instructional costs dropped from 41% to 29%. Administrative costs, other studies reflect, have since surpassed teaching-related expenses.

3-5) Metricsism, Assessmentism and Grantism: All are interrelated, compounding obsessions that devaluate the importance of the intangible, unmeasurable and transcendental. Metricists -- I don't mean scholars of poetic metrics -- believe that almost everything can be reduced to numbers by which universities must live and die. Mr. Bean Counter, can you tell me how to quantify the value of inspiring or transforming the life of one student? How many points does that get me in my yearly faculty report?

 

The assessmentist -- the root of the word is a giveaway -- is equally obsessed with numbers but delights in using buzzwords such as "institutional effectiveness" and "accountability." All institutions, particularly those that receive public funds, should strive for effectiveness, and all members of a university community should be accountable, but assessmentism means an unending quest for data, much of it nonsensical, gathered to justify bureaucratic sprawl and satisfy politicians, donors, sports fans and others. Much of this data is gathered through inopportune, time-consuming surveys -- "it only takes 20 minutes to complete." I, for one, have unilaterally declared a moratorium on surveys. That one, by the way, took more like 40 minutes. Let's take the "a--" out of "assessment"!

Grantism is yet another numerical fetish. The number and monetary value of research grants has replaced the actual importance of research and publications. Just thumb through any glossy university yearly report and you will see the exaggerated value placed on the amount of grant money received by that particular institution. Some refer to the group of most-grant-money-getting professors as a millionaires club; as a historian, I belong to a paupers club.

6) Credentialism: Call me recalcitrant if you wish, but I am not giving up the belief that universities are, at their core, places of teaching and learning. Most everyone needs a job, and universities provide professional credentials necessary to pursue a variety of employment opportunities. But most faculty believe that we are educating students for more than a diploma and paycheck -- to become fulfilled, socially conscious citizens who see learning as a lifelong trajectory.

And to close, No. 8: footballism. I'll be brief and paraphrase philosopher Rodney Dangerfield: I went to a football game the other night and a university sprung out.

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Readers can reach Luis Martinez-Fernandez at LMF_Column@yahoo.com. To find out more about Luis Martinez-Fernandez and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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