by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Shannon Watkins of the Martin Center writes about the role of mentorship in learning.
There’s a chasm between the purpose of a liberal arts education and how many colleges and universities actually operate. Throughout academia, excessive value is placed on efficiency, research publications, and prestige—things that are, at best, ancillary to a liberal education’s central purpose of growing in wisdom and pursuing truth.
Consequently, instead of focusing on nurturing students’ intellectual and moral development, much of the modern academy functions as a business that sells a product (credentials) to consumers (students), with professors dedicating most of their time to pursuing their own narrow research interests.
Many professors are content with this arrangement. And why wouldn’t they be?
Higher education’s current structure doesn’t incentivize professors to be excellent and attentive teachers. Instead, academics’ job stability and professional prestige is much more dependent on producing a steady output of “original” research than on mentoring students—no matter how obscure or arcane their subject of inquiry might be.
Some professors, however, prefer academic settings that prioritize teaching over research. One such professor is Zena Hitz, a classical philosopher at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland. She is the author of Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life, which came out in May 2020. …
… As an undergraduate, Hitz attended St. John’s College (where she now teaches). St. John’s is a “great books” college where students’ education is dedicated to reading a common curriculum of the great works of the Western canon, as well as studying language, science, mathematics, and music. …
… Hitz recounted how St. John’s nurtured the love of learning and reading that she’d had throughout her childhood, “but in a much more strict way.” The education she received at the college helped her develop good intellectual habits such as persevering through difficult readings and asking a lot of questions.
She concluded that schools like St. John’s foster true learning by placing a heavy emphasis on mentorship and student-led inquiry.