A Century of Decline and Ascent in Higher Education

Colleges and universities across the United States are opening for the 2014-2015 academic year, in an era when much seems to be new in higher education. I can recall the wisdom of one of my own professors, who would say, "When you're told that something is new and unknown, reach back for something older and forgotten, and see if it's true." American writer Willa Cather provides a portrait of public university life in The Professor's House, published in 1925. How dated is 90 years ago, in the lifespan of the American university? What's new in higher education, and what's not?

Cather's titular professor, a century ago, rails against:

"...the new commercialism, the aim to 'show results' that was undermining and vulgarizing education. The State Legislature and the board of regents seemed determined to make a trade school of the university. Candidates for the degree of Bachelor of Arts were allowed credits for commercial studies; courses in book-keeping, experimental farming, domestic science, dress-making, and what not. Every year the regents tried to diminish the number or credits required in science and the humanities.

Despite the professor's sense of a bleak present, all is not lost in higher education in 1925. Cather's novel centers on the relationship between the professor and his student, a young man who will eventually be killed in the first world war, but whose intersection with the professor seems to save both their lives from ending in meaninglessness. The professor, in 1925, despairs of higher education but is sustained by the memory of his best student.

To describe the birth of an intellectual, the emergence of a young mind out of the world of material necessity and into to the world of ideas, Cather created a scene of the student's ascent onto a Southwestern American mesa, and a discovery there of an entirely new way of being, an ascent into "a world above the world," as she terms it. When the student finds himself in this world, he claims that "This was the first time I ever saw it as a whole. It all came together in my understanding, as a series of experiments do when you begin to see where they are leading." All teachers look for this quality in their best students, the ones for whom knowledge is salvation. "For me," the student says, the subject matter was no longer a kind of game "but a religious emotion. ... What that night began lasted all summer. ... It was the first time I'd ever studied methodically, or intelligently. ... It was my high tide," he concludes. "Every morning ... I awakened with the feeling that I had found everything."

Many who have had similar experiences as young intellectuals in college have kept the memory alive as days of self-discovery, powerful enough to fuel a lifetime of college reunions. And professors today are always looking for that spark -- that beginning -- in their students, for the onset of an intellectual existence.

The other portrait in the novel is that of the title's character, an aging college professor with a sense that the university is in decline. He is often at odds with family and colleagues, taken to task by his wife for being "intolerant" -- not of anyone or anything in particular, but for the material predicaments of existence generally. "Well, the habit of living with ideas grows on one," the professor tells his wife, in response to accusations about his behavior. For the professor, the "vivid consciousness" of ideas is "the realest of his lives," dating back to his first conception of himself as a sentient being, so much so that "all the years between had been accidental and ordered from the outside," and not from within, where his real life resides. "His career, his wife, his family, were not his life at all, but a chain of events which had happened to him." Cather's professor quarrels with colleagues on his campus, mostly over relative perspectives on declining academic standards, and over questions of methodology. As a result of his idealism, people let him down with preternatural cruelty.

This novel has always appealed to me -- it appeals to my sense that historical time is something altogether distinct from biographical spans of attention. When I first began reading it regularly I related to the visionary student who had devoted himself to the world of ideas; I am now equally likely to sidle up to the aging professor who notes that ideas (and ideals) live a lot longer than those charged with bringing them into being. What the professor does is at once to transfer that love of ideas to the student, and to receive from the student's success the will to continue onward, despite the overwhelming evidence of decline. Because our students will always be the counter-narrative to the nagging conviction that the world is going to hell.

Good teachers everywhere know that education is a human-and a humanistic -- phenomenon. It may be assisted and flipped and supported by technology, for one, but it is the human factor that creates thinking men and women, that instills habits of mind that sustain a lifetime of learning. This is what we do especially well in the liberal arts and sciences, when we insist on the human factor, on human relationships as the centerpiece of the educational endeavor. Students who feel valued, who sense that someone cares that they succeed, who see that their professor takes their minds and their abilities with great seriousness-these are students who will glimpse that "world above the world" and, if inclined, will go there. And yes, professors will play the lonely and sometimes defeating role of the ones who insist that this is not the first time the world has see this, that, or the other trending hot new idea.

We'll make better sense of the newest ideas if we manage to keep foremost in mind the human component in education. We'll attend to ineffable factors, like the emotional context of our classrooms, the inclusiveness of our gestures, the openness of our lessons to failure as well as success, the atmosphere of unfettered discovery that we establish as the pre-requisite to learning. That way we'll survive the very latest "new commercialism, the aim to 'show results' that was undermining and vulgarizing education," and at the same time, help maintain our higher charge to bring students to "the world above the world."


Adapted from remarks to the faculty at UNC Asheville at the start of the academic year, 2014-15.

All quotations from Willa Cather, The Professor's House (NY: Vintage Classics, 1990).