Modern University Professor: Does He Fiddle as Rome Burns?

Reprinted from The Nation

Since the Russians sallied past the stratosphere, and the American education lobbies learned that they could equate their own legitimate interests with the national defense, Americans have eyed the plight of the secondary schools. James Bryant Conant has completed his study. Parents berate their school boards for inadequately preparing their children for college.

Professor Williams twists the knife a little deeper. He warns parents that American colleges are educationally inadequate for their children. The essence of his argument: "Students in our universities are not learning as they should and the teacher is at fault."

Professor Williams is right. Even at the best colleges, learning evokes little student excitement; few undergraduates understand the ideological foundations of Western Civilization; few find purpose or direction. Williams maintains that American colleges have not changed their attitudes or methods in at least the last forty years, even though the world has experienced drastic changes. He justifiably asks: "If Nero became infamous for fiddling while Rome burned, what will be the future reputation of the modern college professor?"

Williams can be easily criticized: his writing is sensational; he is too general; he has done relatively little research; he yields to the human desire to find a tangible villain, and discovers it always in the college teacher. Still, Williams is basically right. American colleges are selling their students short.

However, the indictment is not a blanket one: "This does not mean that the universities are complete failures; it merely means that they are far more unsuccessful, according to their own standards, than they are generally willing to admit." In large part, Williams attributes the failure of self-analysis to the limitations of the professorial personality.

The section of the book devoted to dissection of this personality will particularly offend academic readers. The professor finds himself described as "a moderate conservative in politics, clothes, and morals... satisfied with the world as well as himself... (diplaying) a deep sense of inferiority, fear, and maladjustment overlain by an almost fantastic sense of superiority... 'a harmless drudge'." Williams rightly says that he might have called his book: "Some of My Best Friends Were Professors."

But Williams has complaints other than those arising from the academic personality. He has little use for the grading system, and especially for the university's tendency to equate academic standards with the number of low grades given--"the domineering element in the student's relation to his education is--the grade." He expresses his skepticism of: admissions examinations, small classes, general education, restricted college enrollments, long presidential tenures, professor-administrators, and the "publish or perish" theory. On the credit side, he thinks that the high schools are better than they were thirty years ago. He debunks the professors who deplore the lack of pre-college preparation, and correctly declares that all the non-scientist college entrant needs is the ability to read and write competent English.

Williams asks that the universities cure themselves by rigorous self-criticism and emphasis on better teaching. He requests that the university try to inspire four ideals in its students: the democratic, the scientific, the Christian, and the joy of learning. The presentation of these ideals is certainly neglected and needed in American colleges. Williams may often stroke with too broad a brush and with too vivid color, but any perceptive student can tell you that his criticisms are legitimate and vital.