COLLEGES IN CHANGE

1950 ------ 2000



When I try to survey in my mind the time span of education 1950 --- COLLEGE --- 2000 I have to say that just about everything has changed. I started with my first position at mid-century, when the colleges were just coming out of the wartime restrictions on money, staff and students, and already the smaller ones were on the edge of extinction. The old universities were relying on old money well placed for cautious interest, but there was little hint of their coming expansion into the new world as scientific forerunner for government and industry, with research labs for the new order. There was a dictum that if you could do something you should, but if you couldn't, you could always teach. Few wanted to get into the teaching world since pay with a new Ph.D. was only twice the proverbial earnings of thirty five dollars a week for a clerk or typist. But there were advantages, people always added.

The obvious advantages of long summer vacation to think travel and write, were largely illusory since the salary for the summer went into aestivation. I remember a college where the whole faculty went into the pea cannery for the summer with a bit over a dollar an hour out of respect for higher learning. School buildings then were from the grim construction era of the twenties if not the previous century, generally dark and depressing but sufficient for the few students who could pay the light tuition fees out of their family's savings. After the war the GI Bill put a flow of money into the world of education but it was all short term and died in a few years, with education after 1955 slipping back again to its old habits.

But teaching then was in a comfortable world. The students were interested and respectful, the teacher could teach just as he wanted without worry about a Dean popping into to check if he was keeping tight to the printed curriculum. Teachers felt important even though not well paid, because they saw themselves as the core of the educational process. They were the men and a few women who were perpetuating the ancient traditions of learning and knowledge. The college Administration with its few Deans and clerk accountants seemed off to the side, not the running staff of the college, and nobody knew anything about the Trustees as the businessmen who were legally in charge of the operation. They stayed in the background, the Administration was in a penumbral shade, and the teachers stood at their podium in the classroom as the palpable working force of the school.

One man I knew asked me if he should do his taxwork on the basis of being self-employed; of course he was wrong but there was that sort of feeling of independence in the air. As teachers we were doing our work out of our learning and experience and we didn't have to answer to anyone much. We did have the Communist fright of that time and some who refused to sign a list in the President's office lost their jobs and their right to teach; but many of us couldn't believe the purges were going to last, so we crossed our fingers, signed and forgot about it. We did have that one hurdle to survival, the rest fell into place comfortably. We invited our students to the house for Sunday afternoon tea, we had small classes of a dozen or less and many taught tutorials as a part of the long tradition of American Education.

Little did we think this was all doing to change in the next decades. The progressive thinking in the colleges said that there would be a need in the expanding post-war business world for well read and well rounded people who could talk effectively and explain in details things which others needed to know. Positions in personnel and later in management would give opportunities to B.A. students who had only a general sense of the history and structure of this new expanding world, to now advance into business careers. The college diploma was now the ticket to a good job, leaving the high school grads to the blue-collar world . A better college led to better jobs and a hierarchy of values was established on the basis of reputation rather than what was actually learned. This became a snob factor which has never completely disappeared.

So it was a shock somewhere after 1985 that the world began to take a different view about education. It was suddenly a question of: Education for What. The colleges didn't react quickly and let a decade's worth of well rounded graduates find that the well rounded positions were no longer available. Education now had to be aligned with a need in the economic marketplace, those with math skills for the new Computer Age profited well, with science majors orienting themselves to positions in industry and business. But the B.A. was somehow no longer the password to success, without further education it was not better than the old HS diploma; so new degrees like the MBA were touted as a necessary step to a worthwhile job application. A generation of articulate Humanities majors versed in English and American Literature found itself unemployable after the turn of the new millennium, some had to retrain themselves and add new fields, others never recovered from their college's advertised expectations.

Everything in the world has become expensive. Few people think of buying a new car for cash, and nobody pays for a child's education out of salary or savings. Everything is on long loans, which make many things possible for us, but always at greatly increased costs. And as colleges in America charged more, they felt they had to offer more. Athletic programs with enormous facilties and enlarging staffs. Research programs paid for by grants from government or business foundations, if not businesses themselves. Insurance to protect the colleges from suits by students who had been assaulted, or hurt, or unjustly treated, or simply offended. And with today's court awards no college could be without insurance. Furthermore the campus itself must be updated, with new buildings well air-conditioned in a setting of traditional college lawns and trees. A college must look in some part like an elegant hotel, the sort of place where upper middle-class parents would want their kids to live.

So the college took on the matter of raising its own funds by canvassing alums heavily and seeking foundation support for what they could not afford on their own. Rather than restrict activities and curtail costs, the American way has always been to go out and get more money, and colleges knew that expansion is the right way to go. After all, who wants to go to a stark set of brick buildings where the focus was on what the teachers teach and the sole emphasis is on knowledge? That may be sufficient for Belgium or for Spain, but for America, really?



In a world where national politics are thrust on the citizen's daily attention, it would seem no surprise that the academic world is also home to political shenanigans and political abuse. At mid-century, the level of academic politics was quite low, probably because of the small salaries and minor rewards for advancement in Academe. Many of us taught in schools where there was no real tenure system in place, we lived under an assumptive tenure which was hardly mentioned unless someone were clearly delinquent and his contract was under question. But somewhere in the middle of the last quarter of the century as colleges began to increase in size, in importance and pay levels, people began to notice who was a likely person to help advance the new teacher. Deans who before had been largely monitors of student excesses and misdemeanors, became key persons in the Administration and commanded increasing respect and attention by their official presence. A core of important people in each college arose with the usual hierarchical ladder and those who intended to advance learned the art of pleasing a superior without seeming overly attentive. It became usual to address an academic superior as Sir or Dr. and avoid a confrontation even in situations where issues and ethics were involved. Those who were quick learners advanced quickly.

This is of course part of human nature, but what about the increasing downside of the situation? A longtime teacher who was adequate for his position but not too interesting to the students, could be demoted to library staff and later dismissed easily. Appeals were not usual and if a President dismissed an Assistant Prof. on his own, there was no appointed mechanism for an appeal board. Then there was the silent process of social ostracism. If a teacher were in question, people understood that he was to be avoided, even a best friend could be warned to keep distant until the situation were resolved. Only a fool would raise an issue to vote in Faculty Meeting against something the Administration wanted, a sure formula for long-term financial and rank disapprobation. In a time when minorities were unheard of in most private colleges, a President could say that he hired the best man for the job, a famous clue for minority prejudice. But this could work in reverse when minority teachers did arrive. No official would think of criticizing a black or Hispanic professor who was weak in teaching for fear of legal contest and the national academic press.

Towards the millennium, things became regularized as tenure contracts were considered binding and appeals were done by the rules; but the earlier stages of getting accepted in an academic community still followed the same route as getting approved in your church, in your club or in your friendship group. Where stakes are high people have a tendency to be cautious, and those who on entering the teaching profession thought that they would be able to stand up for their principles and be counted ---- were consistently proved wrong. As stakes in Academe become higher, so do the attendant dangers!



At some point one has to ask what Learning really is, and how it begins to transmute into something called Knowledge. Colleges offer a setting where what is taught is actually secondary to the process of learning, which is the student's own response and his personal side of the educational interface. Heraclitus said eons ago that much learning does not produce wisdom, a word we hardly would dare to use in accrediting graduation with a college's imprimatur. The four years of college study are nothing but a preface to a lifetime of continual discovery, but that is often just a wishful hope.

Most college grads will never read as many books in a decade as they read in a college semester. And now that we are firmly into the computer age in which students read on-line selections and abridgments and reviews rather than whole books, the sources of information are getting thinner and thinner. Failing to read slow and deep, we no longer read the small print on our medicines, our contracts or on our politicians' agenda. TV shows and blockbuster movies rely on half-second recognition in a sequence of images, and there is no longer much need for words or even a script. We have lost our ability to concentrate on specifics.

Whether this is the end of what we have always called Learning, or the preface to a new way of dealing with data as a way to configure our new global world, is unclear. In l955 I could sit in my office in the afternoon hours of a fall day and talk privately with three students about the meaning of what we had been studying, our aims and ultimate purposes. This was a special low-key probing, the kind of personal interchange which takes time to mature. One student was preparing to be a writer and very serious about his short stories, which are now well known. Another studied Sappho in Greek with me, later became a leader in the San Francisco lesbian rights movement. Another told me about this new thing called the transistor, which I already sensed was going to start the great transformation in some new ways, and we decided to get more information for ourselves. The world seemed very quiet outside the office building while we inside were active in our afternoon search for threads to follow. This activity for us was internal, each following his own ideas as part of those which were our discussion. We were able to concentrate because there was little outside to draw our minds away from the central effort of learning how to think well.

Something has clearly been lost in the matter of concentration; while at the same time something has been gained in our enlargement of scope with an implosion of such complex data that we now turn to the computer to tell us what the difficult parts mean. We have been sliding away from a firm and knowable world which we assumed we could understand by hard thinking. to a deconstructed world where we respond to information on an arbitrary and even interactive level. Divine providence was once secure if not totally knowable, but now we are more concerned with the options and choices with their relative benefits and pitfalls. We have learned to scrap and replace our careers, our relationships, our cabinet of convictions, and we seem to be responding to split second thinking for our most important matters.

I think part of this dilemma-ridden new world of insecure existence comes from the complexified learning in the college years. Given a dining table set with vast options for the appetite, we tend to flutter in making our choices and decisions. But whether there is a way of reverting with one portion of a compartmented mind to a more concentrated, if at the same time narrower world view, is by no means to clear to me. History does not catalog what has been lost and what gained in a century of change, the only thing that counts is that change has been effected and there is no way, outside the TV fantasies, for rolling time backward.

Is there reason to regret? If I were to recast my own life in these fifty years since I first started to teach, I would have to admit that there are many things which I would do differently. In those days the teacher could feel he was a sole operator in his classroom, the focus was on what he thought and did in that fifty minute session. But the day of the Lone Ranger is long gone and it is gone for the teacher too, who must now recognize that he is part of the teamwork of his discipline, and of the teamwork of the college faculty. And there is the committee teamwork which tests personal cooperation, and the teamwork of the teachers who assemble at year's end in a distant city to assess where they are and what new aspects of the field are being discovered. One does not fly solo any more.

This is entirely different from the teacher's former privacy rethinking an hour's lecturing to a class, or musing in the library over new discoveries to add to the roster of important issues, or standing with students long hours at the lab bench waiting for a compound to change state. Once these things were essentials to the teacher's development of a private mentality and a personal intellectual identity and for this, quiet and privacy are absolute necessities. Much of this quiet has disappeared as we have assumed multiple responsibilities - - - to our students, to our contracts, to our fields and colleagues, always with less time for the ultimate responsibility to ourselves. But there is no turning back, we live with the outline of the road by which we have come to be here. And there is finally no time or space for anyone who is thoughtful to nurture a personal box full of regrets.




William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris