Back to School: Research and Teaching

Research and teaching are what I do for a living, and I’m delighted to work at a university whose President, Steve Knapp, knows their value.  In a courteous review in yesterday’s N.Y. Times, Dr. Knapp demolishes the dusty themes in a new book by the curmudgeons, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, Higher Education?  The book bears clichés and canards against the modern university, primarily denying the value of research and rehearsing laments about its opposition to teaching.  Dr. Knapp’s polite piece delightfully debunks these specious critiques. 

Dr. Knapp notes the book’s strengths: it is “lucid, passionate and wide-ranging,” “well-structured and strongly argued,” and poses “searching and sometimes troubling questions” about today’s university operations and purposes.   Questions involve topics, some within university control some not, like the narrowness of academic specialization, the greediness of some faculty, and the frivolity of some student/parent demands for extras.   The book usefullly identifies well-known laudable goals, like reducing student debt, “engaging students,” “mak[ing] students use their minds,” and “end[ing] the exploitation of adjuncts.”

Dr. Knapp notes that the book’s primary target, though, is research.  The book makes the suggestion that, once upon a time, universities saw their role solely as education, and today they see it as all about publishing research.  The authors heap heavy scorn on the notion that research actually helps teaching or is necessary to good teaching.   Their most extreme proposals are that universities “spin off” medical schools and research centers, end paid sabbaticals, and abolish tenure.  Dr. Knapp notes that the authors, who should know what they’re talking about, Hacker being a noted academic and Dreifus a long-time adjunct professor, rely on “sometimes sweeping generalizations.” 

Among the book’s flaws, on the anti-tenure bandwagon, Dr. Knapp notes: “Like many critics of tenure, though, they have a keen eye for abuses of power but are remarkably sanguine about the capacity of the First Amendment to shield scholars from pressure exerted by those with the power to fire them.”

Most profoundly, despite other insights in the book, on the question of research, Knapp writes that the authors’ “insight and imagination appear to fail them.”  Concerning the wild idea of divesting a medical school from a university, Dr. Knapp writes how odd it is coming from these critics of the narrowness and greediness of academics:

[S]ome of the most searching inquiry — and most exciting teaching, including the teaching of undergraduates — [occurs] at the intersection of medicine and other fields, not just engineering and physics but also fields like anthropology and history.  [S]ome of our most engaged undergraduates are fascinated by fields like global health, which brings medicine and the social and human sciences together in ways more rich and subtle than students of my generation could have imagined. And where are the humanities more alive . . . than in seminars in bioethics that expose undergraduates to searing and quite possibly unanswerable questions about the beginning and end of life?

Dr. Knapp makes a similar point about the wild idea of divesting research centers from universities, wondering if the authors have:

spoken with undergraduates who have enjoyed the privilege of assisting a top investigator in an active, federally financed laboratory.  [T]he best of those students, far from shutting themselves away in a narrow specialization, are very likely spending their time outside the lab in life-expanding service activities that, again, were quite beyond the ken of undergraduates in earlier generations.

The book appears thus to belong to a category of screeds that bash research and tenure in the university.  Reading Dr. Knapp’s review reminds me of the value of the two parts of my job.  I’ll probably read the book anyway, since it appears to have some redeeming virtues and I’d like to see the argument against reserach spelled out.  But I won’t buy the book.  I’ll borrow it from George Washington University’s library, where it’ll no doubt be acquired for the sake of storing knowledge for research.

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1 Response

  1. best decision i ever made to leave teaching.