As the academic year commences, students wonder which professors will make a difference, and which won’t. Here is the story of a professor who made a difference-someone who believed that education is for the courageous, that striving to surpass ourselves defines the well-lived life-and who paid the price for doing so. But the story has a happy ending.
About ten years ago, at a university in New England, a low-keyed debate was under way on how many courses should be required for a degree. It was in the time of open admissions and easy grades and no failing grades (they just weren’t recorded, so they didn’t happen). This was (and is today) a university without requirements except for a major. You could, and can, get a degree doing pretty much anything you like, and for many, that has meant and still means, not much. To join in the discussion on whether a degree should require 28 courses, as the stud ents wanted, or 32, or even 36 or 40, this professor made up an imaginary speech. It was supposed to be an imaginary commencement speech, and it was meant to make a sim pk point: don’t trust Professor Nice-guy, run after Professor Work. The message was that Professor Nice-guy, who wants to be loved more than to teach, avoids the responsibilities of conscience and commitment. Such professors ask too little, so they teach all the wrong lessons. Students who want to be caressed but not taught are then complicit in their own easy education, accomplices in the conspiracy to cheat themselves of the reward and satisfaction of achievement through hard work, trial, learning from error: the virtues of the intellect and the academy.
This imaginary commencement speech was eventually published, though merely in the student newspaper, but one that students read. It went as follows: “We the faculty take no pride in our educational achievements with you. We have prepared you for a world that does not exist, indeed that cannot exist. You have spent four years supposing that failure leaves no record. You have learned at this university that when your work goes poorly, the painless solution is to drop out. But starting now, in the work to which you go, failure marks you. Confronting difficulty by quitting leaves you changed. Outside of this university, quitters are no heroes.
“With us you could argue about why your errors were not errors, why mediocre work really was excellent, why you could take pride in routine and slip shod presentation. Most of you, after all, can look back on honor grades for most of what you have done. So here grades can have meant little in distinguishing the excellent from the ordinary. But tomorrow, in the world to which you go, you had best not defend errors but learn from them. You will be ill-advised to demand praise for what does not deserve it and to abuse those who do not give it. “For four years we created an altogether forgiving world, in which what ever slight effort you gave was all that was demanded. When you did not keep appointments, we made new ones. When you were late to class, we ignored it. When your work came in beyond the deadline, we pretended not to care.
“Worse still, when you were boring, we acted as if you were saying something important. When you were garrulous and talked to hear yourself talk, we listened as if it mattered. When you tossed on our desks writing upon which you had not labored, we read and even responded as though you had earned a response. When you were dull, we pre tended you were smart. When you were predictable, unimaginative, and routine, we listened as if to new and wonderful things. When you demanded free lunch, we served it. That is why, on this commencement day, we have nothing in which to take pride.
“Oh yes, there is one more thing. Try not to act toward your co-workers and bosses as you have acted toward us. I mean, when they do not give you what you want but have not earned, don’t abuse them, insult them, act out with them your relationships with your parents. This too we have tolerated. It was, as I said, not to he liked. Few professors actually care whether they are liked by peer-paralyzed adolescents, fools so shallow as to imagine professors care not about education but about popularity. It was again to be rid of you. So go, unlearn the lies we taught you. To life!”
That was the imaginary address, printed in an obscure college paper at an unimportant New England college. What happened then? For a while, life got exciting for that professor-a bit too exciting. First, the student paper got hundreds of letters, all of them fuming. The students read the imaginary address as a personal letter, each responding with such anger as to enter a plea of guilty: you’re talking about me! For the next several weeks, the student paper printed violent letters attacking that professor’s message, personality, character, integrity-you name it. This in turn made headlines at graduation season: “Professor Criticizes Students,” “Students Lynch Professor.” That was the dog bites man story, in an age in which student evaluations replace professors’ grades.
What is odd is that the professor thought his obvious, good-hearted message-go for the tough professors, and don’t kid yourself-would elicit a few amused and appreciative notes. He bet someone that the paper wouldn’t gel a single letter. But of the two hundred letters that came in the first four days, 199 called the professor “insane and incompetent,” “to be fired,” “locked up in an asylum for the criminally insane,” and so on-and those were the nice ones.
The professor thought the students could see the point: Professor Feel-good cheats students, but Professor You-can do-better-and-by-the-way-get-here-on time serves them all their days. But, unfortunately, that hapless professor had gauged all too accurately the character of the students themselves: they really did like the easy ones, and loath and avoid the hard ones. The students didn’t get mad because he was wrong, they got mad because he was right-too right. So what happened to this foolish man?
On the one hand, for an allotted fifteen minutes, the professor became famous. He was called to the Donahue Show, Good Morning America, count less radio talk shows, and on and on. His little essay was reprinted in newspapers across the country and in many foreign ones as well. He received more than two thousand letters in one month, and he answered them all, even the ones 111 crayon.
But, on the other hand, the message was heard by his colleagues and his university, and they too took it personally. So while the professor thought he was talking to the world in general, his col leagues and dean and president thought he meant them in particular, and they never forgave him. His chairman called meetings and didn’t invite him. His department made an appointment in his field and didn’t ask his opinion or in form him of the appointment until it was made. Though a full professor, he was denied the right to teach the courses he wanted to teach. When he complained to his provost, the provost didn’t answer the letters. A few years later, in sheer disgust at the intellectual decline of the university, shown by mediocrity at all levels of faculty and administration, he left. In the interim, he was a marked man, an outcast and a leper. So much for academic freedom. So much for tenure.
I said the story had a happy ending, and it did. The same professor also dis covered that, in other places, more professional, with higher standards of achievement, where people think the stakes of higher education should be high, people wanted that very kind of professor the New England school had rejected: the tough guy who says what he thinks. In fact, they went looking for him, and they got him, celebrated him, used him for all the things that he could contribute.
You’ve probably already guessed the truth, but I’m that professor, and Brown University, which I left, is the university that celebrates nice-guy professors, that has no requirements and a degree that can’t be worth much because it doesn’t stand for much. And the University of South Florida is the place that wanted that same tough teacher. Would I do it again? Yes, I would, hut more knowingly, and with malice aforethought: I would know precisely what I was doing, and I would avoid the naive sense that people appreciate criticism and value tough truth. Some do, most don’t.