A fascinating Fall 2002 issue! But someone
must rain on Alan Ehrenhalt's "Last Word." We're all
sorry about Mr. Ehrenhalt's intimidating undergraduate experience
(at Brandeis in the 1960s). Still, any of us who had liberal
arts experiences in those days must wonder if his memory of
those repressive "stern deans with crew cuts" may
have wandered from reality. Certainly there were professors
with considerable capacity to shiver the timbers of 18-year-olds.
With little exception, however, the faculty were a caring and
encouraging group. And who among us now-doddering alumni doesn't
consider some of the most intimidating scholars among those
most positively influential in our lives since?
"Authority" over undergraduates can
be seen in two forms: that which dictates proper behavior or
that which is earned of experience and wisdom that empowers
the holder to guide his students through their curriculum. What
remains debatable is whether exercising behavioral authority
from the administrative and teaching functions of the university
enhances the academic experience and intellectual growth of
students. At Oberlin it may be so. At few other universities
has the result been encouraging.
Mr. Ehrenhalt and his daughter may count their
blessings that she is, in fact, at Oberlin. He should realize,
as I'll bet Elizabeth well knows, that Oberlin, for all its
"taking risks and getting to know each other," is
a place where students work long and hard. Whatever the cultural
and social trappings of the place, the students are more likely
(as my own daughter experienced) to sleep over in the library
than in a lover's dorm room. I'd venture that most value their
professors for their remarkable quality of teaching than for
knowing the lyrics of "American Pie" or abandoning
their classes to student-designed discussions of "whatever
turns us on!" If there is any real threat to the American
university today, it is not a failure to "tear down the
old cultural wall." That wall, if there was one, was never
a barrier to learning and growth. The threat is that contemporary
faculty members, driven to earn student approval ratings and
to earn tenure by publishing obscure research papers, are likely
to spend less time challenging students to think and achieve.
They place more effort in trying to be a "nice guy"
while aching to get back to the office.
Ernest Henninger, former parent