Pleasure Principle: Focusing on the Good in Education
Many readers of The Pleasures of Academe will sympathize with author James Axtell’s first sentence: “I couldn’t wait to go to college and I couldn’t stand to leave at graduation.”Despite the common sentiment, however, few people remain to become professors. And while many Americans have opinions about what is wrong or right with higher education — like costs, curricula and faculty — few know as much about the inside of academe as this author. And only a handful of higher education’s critics can speak with such firsthand knowledge about both the value and problems of our universities and colleges. In fact, after briefly discussing a fairly comprehensive list of the problems, Axtell unabashedly admits that he focuses primarily on what he calls, “the good news about academic life… (creating) the most positive book that’s been written about higher education in 25 years.” A collection of essays culled from early and recent lectures, the book provides useful insights on disparate topics. They range from the many responsibilities of professors and the important connection between research and teaching to heated debates over multiculturalism and the humanities and defining “interdisciplinary” in the social sciences. While some may consider the book to be aimed at an audience external to the academy, Axtell provides excellent insights, hard questions and even useful statistics to which we on the inside should give serious attention. Consider, for example, his analysis of major changes over the past 30 years:nBetween the late ’50s and early ’70s, the number of doctorates tripled to 30,000 per year and the number of programs doubled, with degrees spread proportionately across disciplines. nThe demographics of doctoral students also changed considerably, with women representing 40 percent of the total and almost half of the humanities. Yet, while a third are foreign nationals, only 8.3 percent are minorities — excluding Asians. nAnd while teaching loads have gone down in most four-year institutions — 40 percent of faculty are teaching fewer than 9 credits per week — standards for tenure have risen considerably, with growing numbers of faculty finding it harder than ever to find financial support for their research. Throughout the book, Axtell adeptly draws upon his own experiences as a student and subsequently as a scholar to bring life to trends he views as critical to understanding the current state of America’s colleges and universities. For example, he recounts his own scholarship in ethnohistory — the marriage of anthropology and history — as a way of showing how a number of scholars have crossed disciplinary boundaries to study interesting questions. As for institutional identity, one of the problems we see in higher education is that universities too frequently simply imitate other colleges with more prestige. Axtell argues, appropriately, for schools to think about what they are, whom they serve, their strengths and appropriate aspirations. This kind of self-analysis requires not only discipline but also a healthy environment with strong faculty leaders, administrators and students who can engage in substantive discussion about these issues.Perhaps the chapter, “Encountering the Other,” is the most important part of the book. It is devoted to the responsibility of universities in educating their students and preparing them for life in this century. Given the rapidly changing demographic of the nation, our success as a society will depend largely on the extent to which people understand that discovering and understanding others ultimately means discovering and understanding ourselves. Axtell posits that to discover, appreciate and understand another, one must recognize two things. First, that each person “is and feels as much a first person subject, an ‘I’,” as the next. Second, the beliefs and values of other people must be respected and explained in their own terms, leading to fewer quick and negative judgments of others. Finally, Axtell contends that the perceived crisis in higher education is a myth and that the general public frequently misunderstands the role and work of faculty. Nevertheless, we know that any substantive analysis of faculty effectiveness reveals impressive evidence of professionals committed to high standards and dedicated to educating students. We see proof of their success in the number of well-prepared graduates entering the job market as well as graduate and professional schools, employers’ satisfaction and even mass migration to U.S. institutions of many of the best minds from around the world. Is the system perfect? No. Is it strong and getting better? Absolutely.
— Dr. Freeman Hrabowski III is President of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County
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