Why We Teach

I noticed on the calendar today that this week there are early interviews for students planning to apply to Teach for America this year. Teach for America was a popular choice for graduates from many universities even before the jobs situation deteriorated so dramatically, and it continues to attract some of our most thoughtful and engaged students. Liberal arts colleges have contributed more than their fair share of teachers to schools at all levels. Bard College has been especially innovative in this area, most notably with Simon's Rock and Bard High School Early College (BHSEC). The Scripps College Academy offers a free year-round college-readiness program for high-achieving young women in the greater Los Angeles area who may lack the resources necessary to prepare for success in top colleges and universities. Wesleyan's Graduate Liberal Studies program has provided hundreds of teachers in central Connecticut with advanced degrees. There are dozens of programs around the country sponsored by selective colleges eager to help students and teachers acquire the tools necessary for getting the most out of higher education. We certainly need new ideas for improving our schools -- as well as a better understanding of how our education system now reproduces inequality rather than offering an escape from it. Liberal arts colleges can help in these areas by connecting their on-campus educational mission of enhancing life-long learning to the practical challenges faced by public schools in their towns or regions.

Recently, a spate of commentators have complained about university professors merely chasing specialized awards and not spending enough of their time and energy on undergraduates. Although there is certainly some truth to this at universities with large graduate programs, this picture of the professor protected from teaching neglects the thousands of college teachers who spend countless hours advising, grading, and mentoring in addition to preparing lectures and leading seminars. I'm thinking of the art history department at Williams College, famous not only for providing its students with a great classroom experience, but also for helping graduates over decades to develop rewarding careers as leaders at museums from Massachusetts to California. And I'm thinking of a Wesleyan film prof of whom screenwriter Joss Whedon said, "I've had two great teachers in my life -- one was my mother, the other was Jeanine Basinger." Not every prof gets to see things like that in print, but we all take pride in them.

I'd like to think that one of the core reasons so many students in the liberal arts go on to careers in education is that they are inspired by the energy and dedication of their teachers. Whether they are studying computational biology or ethnomusicology, postmodern Christian thought or microeconomics, our students are enlivened by the work of their professors. And as their teachers, we are enlivened by the creativity, inquisitiveness and intellectual verve of our students. Of course, most of our students don't go on to become teachers, but I do think they go on to find a way to put into practice the lessons learned on campus: to help those around them to develop their talents and to expand their horizons.

Although as a university president I spent much of my time in meetings, my colleagues tell me that I'm happiest just after I come back from the classroom. There is nothing quite like having to respond to the skeptical questions of bright undergraduates. Now as our fall term comes to an end, I'm already beginning to wonder who will be in my spring course...

Emerson wrote that colleges "serve us when they aim not to drill, but to create; when they gather from far every ray of various genius to their hospitable halls, and by the concentrated fires, set the hearts of their youth on flame." That's why we teach. To see those fires and to feel their warmth.