What happens when we replace rage with complacency and radical caring with a benign, yet dangerous, indifference?
We are facing a measured turn in higher education where the old, radical lions — liberal and conservative professors with tenure — who were baked and seared in the radical ’60s, are now retiring and are being replaced with tasteless, wan, and passionless instructors with no vested interest in change or dynamic learning.
The New York Times recently reported this pox academe:
Baby boomers, hired in large numbers during a huge expansion in higher education that continued into the ’70s, are being replaced by younger professors who many of the nearly 50 academics interviewed by The New York Times believe are different from their predecessors — less ideologically polarized and more politically moderate.
“There’s definitely something happening,” said Peter W. Wood, executive director of the National Association of Scholars, which was created in 1987 to counter attacks on Western culture and values. “I hear from quite a few faculty members and graduate students from around the country. They are not really interested in fighting the battles that have been fought over the last 20 years.”
Individual colleges and organizations like the American Association of University Professors are already bracing for what has been labeled the graying of the faculty. More than 54 percent of full-time faculty members in the United States were older than 50 in 2005, compared with 22.5 percent in 1969. How many will actually retire in the next decade or so depends on personal preferences and health, as well as how their pensions fare in the financial markets.
Yet already there are signs that the intense passions and polemics that roiled campuses during the past couple of decades have begun to fade. At Stanford a divided anthropology department reunited last year after a bitter split in 1998 broke it into two entities, one focusing on culture, the other on biology. At Amherst, where military recruiters were kicked out in 1987, students crammed into a lecture hall this year to listen as alumni who served in Iraq urged them to join the military.
If a university professor is passionless and has no true experience tempered in the real world where lives are at stake and the future of the universe is held in the balance of their decision-making — what do they really have to teach anyone?
Learning is more about experience than memorization and relies upon altruism and not propaganda.
We must require our educational arbiters to be more about divining perception than honoring emotion.
The university experience should be testing, teasing, radical, contemptuous and, above all, cynical in its essence.
To risk anything less is to mock the true purpose of the university aesthetic: Shattering expectation and driving home the unbreakable idea that conflict is a necessary part of living and that the sign of an educated mind is its ability to hold equal, but opposite, arguments in the same moment and finding value in each even if you agree with neither.