The Quiet Scandal of College Teaching

In 1925, student delegates from twenty colleges met at Wesleyan University to discuss a growing concern on America’s campuses: the poor quality of teaching. They decried dry-as-dust professors who filled up blackboards with irrelevant facts while students doodled, read novels, or dozed off. At larger schools, “section men” — soon to be known as teaching assistants — led aimless discussions or simply lectured, in a dull imitation of their elders. What was the point of going to college, the students assembled at Wesleyan asked, if you didn’t learn anything in class? “It is not that college boys have ceased to have a good time on the campus,” wrote a correspondent from the Boston Globe, one of several national newspapers that covered the conference. “It is rather that an increasing proportion of them are wondering what college is all about and why they are there.” The keynote address was delivered by James Harvey Robinson, a historian and one of the founders of the New School for Social Research, who dismissed most college teachers as “insufferable bores.” He urged the students to “stand up and kick” against poor instruction, because “college belongs to them.” Belongs, indeed. In a higher education system financed mostly by tuition dollars, the customer is king. Colleges and universities have become full-service lifestyle stations, competing for students and catering to their every material need. Become your best self, the brochures proclaim; find the real you. But if you look at the pictures, you will see that everyone is somehow finding their best selves in really nice gyms, dormitories, and dining halls. Of course, there is enormous variation across our 4,700 degree-granting institutions; almost half of the student population attend community colleges, for example, which are almost never residential. But every school must fill the coffers and balance the

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