The American University

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
Greencastle, Indiana

back to top