by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Matthew Stewart writes for the Martin Center about a new book that probes the history of questions about good college teaching.
Each generation returns the same complaints: college teachers drone, college teachers lack creativity and spark, nay, they often lack even rudimentary pedagogical awareness. And since the ascendance of what William James coined the “PhD Octopus” of credentialism and narrowed specialization, far too many see their work with students as an impediment to their research. Look at the very idioms used to describe professorial work. Professors routinely refer to scholarship as “my work,” and teaching as “my load,” a burden to be endured. Jonathan Zimmerman, professor of history of education at the University of Pennsylvania, makes these and other observations in his book The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America.
Unfortunately, due to incentives that favor research over instruction, the problems Zimmerman highlights aren’t likely to change.
Zimmerman’s study is the product of extensive primary-source research, including college and university archives, special collections, and personal papers. He has also read the reports, white papers and “what-is-to-be-done?” books about the supposedly dreadful state of college teaching. There are histories of the university aplenty, but as far as I am aware this is the only comprehensive history of college teaching.
Zimmerman organizes the book chronologically, designating six eras, beginning with the nineteenth century, when colleges were still closely tied to churches and a large proportion of teachers were men of the cloth. Recitation was the chief mode of instruction. It required students to repeat texts verbatim, or at least to provide literal-minded summaries.
Unsurprisingly, students expressed anxiety and boredom, a combination of emotions bound to lead to resentment, if not cynicism, over the long haul. After students finished parroting the assigned readings, professors sometimes concluded the class by reading straight from the text.