The Death of the Mentor

In the best of all possible worlds, my students end the semester with renewed interest in learning. Having developed a commitment to improving their communication skills, their writing eclipses what they produced at the start of the term. They might be able to catch a few more literary allusions, but that’s not absolutely necessary. Oh, and they all earn A’s.

That’s the ideal—for my English courses.

Different courses serve different purposes. My model would be completely inappropriate for Mechanical Drawing—and vice versa. Learning is different in differing situations. And, in the best educational situations, each teacher is unique, too, offering vision, possibility and practicality different even from their colleagues and useful in differing degrees to different students. The strength of American higher education has always been recognition of the value of variety and encouragement of the role of the professor as individual mentor.

Yet we are now deep in a process of reducing all college learning to a single formula of specified “outcomes” and contractual syllabi that assumes all teaching and learning is the same, that only the content is different. In what is, in many ways, an attempt to reduce the importance of individual members of the faculty by standardizing their “product,” we are diminishing the value of education. This process has led to a situation where, in the words of Mark Bauerlein, “while they’re content with teachers, students aren’t much interested in them as thinkers and mentors. They enroll in courses and complete assignments, but further engagement is minimal.” Students recognize that they, themselves, have been reduced to cogs—and that their professors have been, too.

There is a myriad of reasons for this, including over-reliance on adjuncts leading to reduction of tenure-track lines and increased “service” responsibilities for full-time faculty. A return to “publish or perish” made possible by the intense competition for the few jobs certainly hasn’t helped. Nor has the diminution of faculty self-governance that has turned college teachers from independent professionals into “employees.”

Bauerlein writes that you “can’t become a moral authority if you rarely challenge students in class and engage them beyond it.” True. But you can’t develop the moral authority to challenge and engage if your own position is vulnerable. As parts in a machine rather than unique professionals, today’s professors can be easily swapped out—even in the middle of a semester. Even tenured faculty view their jobs with an unease that did not exist in what Bauerlein sees as the halcyon days of the sixties, seventies and eighties.

Administrators have become the power on campus in a way they never were and were never meant to be. Accreditation and budget issues have become their weapons, cowing faculty into acquiescence and regimentation. Old lines about “faculty involvement” have become laughable as they are spoken today, passed off without challenge before intimidated bodies of junior faculty and their senior colleagues who have become interested in doing little more than protecting what little they already have. As Bauerlein says (though from different reasoning), as “a result, most undergraduates never know that stage of development when a learned mind enthralled them and they progressed toward a fuller identity through admiration of and struggle with a role model.”

Bauerlein places responsibility for today’s situation in academia on the faculty. He says we have “become accreditors” but implies that’s our own fault.


We can take some of the blame, certainly, but it’s also the fault of a declining vision of the value of education, one conflating it with training. It’s the fault of a society that has reduced the future to jobs, not careers, and human possibilities to the quantifiable (to money, in particular). It’s the fault of administrators whose vision of education centers on “products” and corporate models, who see faculty as people they should control instead of support. It’s the fault of parents so competitive, so worried about their children that they push them to “succeed” without ever considering just what the word means. It’s the fault of politicians who see college campuses as convenient targets that can’t effectively shoot back.

Again: “You can’t become a moral authority if you rarely challenge students in class and engage them beyond it.” Certainly not. But you cannot challenge anyone without support and trust behind you, and these are sorely lacking on college campuses today.

2 thoughts on “The Death of the Mentor

  1. In the piece I wrote for Academe at your request, and which went live in February of 2013, there are three paragraphs that effectively warned about the phenomenon now being seen in post-secondary education. Allow me to share them again:

    If you, as a higher education professional, are concerned about the quality of students arriving at your institution, you have a responsibility to step up and speak out. You need to inform those creating the policies about the damage they are doing to our young people, and how they are undermining those institutions in which you labor to make a difference in the minds and the lives of the young people you teach as well as in the fields in which you do your research.

    You should have a further selfish motivation. Those who have imposed the mindless and destructive patterns of misuse of tests to drive policy in K–12 education are already moving to impose it on higher education, at least in the case of the departments and schools of education that prepare teachers: they want to “rate” those departments by the test scores of the students taught by their graduates.

    If you, as someone who teaches in the liberal arts or engineering or business, think that this development does not concern you, think again. It is not just that schools and colleges of education are major sources of revenue for colleges and universities—they are in fact often cash cows, which is why so many institutions lobby to be able initially to certify teachers and then to offer the courses (and degrees) required for continuing certification. If strictures like these can be imposed on schools and colleges of education, the time will be short before similar kinds of measure are imposed on other schools, including liberal arts, engineering, business, and conceivably even professional schools like medicine and law. If you teach either in a medical school or in programs that offer courses required as part of the pre-med curriculum, do you want the fatality rates of patients treated by the doctors whom you have taught to be used to judge your performance? If you think that won’t happen because you work at a private institution, remember that it is the rare private university that does not receive some form of funding from governments, local to national. Research grants are one example; the scholarships and loans used by students to attend your institution are another.

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