The Age of the Scholar-Teacher

The failure of the teaching profession to attract competent people in numbers has been a matter of grave concern to our educational leaders. CHARLES R. BEYE,who is currently teaching at Stanford University, tells from his own academic experience some of Ihe factors which he believes contribute to the present situation.

THE central theme in the current threnody on the state of American education seems to be the great want of genuinely good teachers. Relevant to this is the fact that in order to secure tenure in a reputable American university one must engage actively in some sort of scholarship, producing tangible — that is, published — results. What our tradition demands, then, is scholar-teachers. These are not created overnight, and, indeed, generally fail ever to come into being, which is well known to anyone in the academic profession. Why this should be so is relatively obscure, but from my own experience I should say that it derives in large part from a failure on the part of universities today to understand the relationship of scholarship to teaching, or to see that the scholar-teacher is an organic whole. In the early years, the all-important years of graduate study and the instructorship, the young person is almost forced to misconceive his future role in the profession.

I began teaching while I was still in graduate school. My position was tutor, in the English sense of the word, to three groups of undergraduates, with whom I met one hour a week. This meant three hours a week of teaching, and since each group was studying a different author, I made three preparations. But here we arrive at an ambiguity which at the time was hard for me to resolve — namely, preparation. Was I to read rapidly over the assigned passage — I should mention that my field was Greek and Latin — and limit the tutorial hour to the immediate grammatical problems and whatever flotsam and jetsam of literary notions were floating in my head? Or was I to read up on the literary works involved and the genres they represented?

The authors whom we attacked in tutorial were not the special interests in my own graduate study; they had little relation to the subject of my dissertation, which I had not yet begun. If I made a significant preparation for the tutorials, I would be taking time away from the professional specialization in which I would later be examined and which would provide the initial prop to my career. On the other hand, many of the students in these tutorials asked bright, penetrating questions for which I ought to have had answers. For the brightest group I prepared carefully and changed my graduate program so as to include the author we were discussing among my specialities; for the less bright group, who were nevertheless clever and eager, I prepared somewhat, but resorted frequently to uttering enormous generalities, big, beautiful thoughts, lots of them, which by virtue of their scope and number were unassailable in the course of one hour and too ephemeral to be remembered in the following week. For the least bright group, I provided lots of sherry and wit and no preparation. Somehow I got through the term and accomplished enough of my own work to get through the examinations. There was a certain enchantment in learning that cleverness can become its own reward.

While working on my dissertation and the four special fields in which I should be finally examined, I was a full-time teacher, first at a small college, later at a large Ivy League university. At small colleges one teaches a wide variety of subjects for many hours. My training had been in literature; my dissertation was concerned with a literary matter. In my first year, the major course which I taught was ancient history. I couldn’t now begin to count the nights I spent until dawn desperately studying the Cambridge Ancient History for the subject of my lectures. In the earnestness of youth, you see, I had decided to prepare the subject. I have known others who, when faced with a similar situation, turned the course into a history of ancient art, or ancient literature, or archaeology, or a selection of wisecracks, or whatever their specialty happened to be. This is instinctive self-preservation.

In a sense, I have never regretted the effort. I have learned much that I otherwise would not know, and I keep up with history in an amateurish fashion. At the time, however, it forced me to set aside all the work which was to get me the Ph.D.

— and larger salaries, teaching offers, and advancement. Many of my advisers called me frivolous and irresponsible; I was made to feel guilty for attempting to teach as well as I was able when other activities more important to my future were kept waiting.

Somehow, in the course of two years of teaching history, linguistics, surveys of ancient literature, Roman drama, and Roman satire, not to mention subjects about which I happened to know something precise, I set to work upon my dissertation, which had to do with things Homeric. My 120hour work week was fairly well organized, and aside from a constant daze and hysterical blinking of the eyes, I managed to keep the whole charade going; the students were even learning, because, if nothing else, I tried to be engaging and provocative.

The enormous scholarly bibliography in the area of my dissertation was somewhat frightening, but I doggedly set to. Like all neophytes at the dissertation, I was sure that mine was to set a mark in scholarship for all time. In my pretension I insisted upon being careful, thorough, and sustained. The scholar was about to be born in the rapidly cooling ashes of the teacher.

I was not permitted to remain in this paradise for long. From all sides grew the insistent demand that I get the thesis done. Hurry up. Who cares what you say? Get it done. Hurry, hurry, hurry. Don’t read all those reference books; don’t read the Homeric corpus all the way through again in Greek; put down anything. Hurry.

AT THIS point, I moved on to the university. Here I had more leisure to finish the thesis. My teaching was confined to subjects which I knew well, and for all this I am thankful. Nevertheless, I was not given a situation in which I could repair the damage and direct my attentions once again to becoming a scholar-teacher.

First of all, I was made to realize that teaching was not so important as scholarship. In my fourth year of teaching, the first year at the university, I was offered a salary less than beginning instructors with a Ph.D. receive. Teaching experience and ability counted for nothing. And it is curious to observe that the administration, in its insistence upon holding out a monetary reward for scholarship done, reflected no faith in scholarship for its own sake.

As work increased on the dissertation, I took everyone’s advice, cut corners, ignored potentially significant avenues of investigation that kept opening up, and, in short, stopped thinking and endured through to the end. But I was interested in what I was working out, and I longed to tell somebody about it. It is rather difficult in a course in beginning Greek to work in some of the more abstruse details of Homeric scholarship, but so intense was my desire that slowly the pedant replaced the teacher in the class. Obviously there should have been the opportunity for me to give a graduate seminar in a subject which I had learned so well and in such detail. It is an absurd waste of effort to have mastered something so thoroughly, only to be denied the chance to give it that loose, creative, and changing form which a seminar can provide. At this point, the scholar was frustrated in being a teacher.

As a matter of fact, ironically enough, I was engaged in a “seminar” for freshmen which covered a selection of literature from Genesis to T. S. Eliot. Why was I there? Because during the year we chanced briefly upon both Greek tragedy and ancient epic. The other selections were either relatively unknown or completely unfamiliar to me. I am sure that if I had had the time to sit down and read carefully the works of that seminar, I could have talked about most of them thoughtfully; if I had studied them sufficiently, I could have talked about most of them intelligently. But for two years I gave grudgingly a portion of heart and soul to the course, and it seemed to me the final mockery of the whole of my training.

Like all undergraduates who become enchanted with a subject, I wanted to know all of it. The graduate course of study is based on the premise that the whole of the subject is too much for anyone to know in depth. I accepted the idea that if I were to attempt to learn all ancient literature in depth, I should be attempting too much. I specialized, and the future seemed obvious. In the main I should teach, talk, and write about that which I had studied thoroughly. On the one hand I was accepting relative ignorance over vast areas, and on the other, establishing standards of excellence and creativity in the known fields, which would compensate for the foresworn excitement of the would-be polymath.

But the need for compromise was immediate, a compromise which was never really acknowledged by those who had created the need by insisting, first, that professional status could only be acquired by single-minded devoted scholarly investigation, and then, that one must somehow address himself to the teaching of a variety of subjects. The pressure from either requirement canceled out the possibility of meeting the other with any success. Finally having compromised myself to the point that the dissertation willy-nilly had been got through and I had become a teacher of the vague and irrelevant, I was introduced to a course where I was required to speak weekly on subjects totally removed from my course of study over the past decade. True, one grows proficient at teaching what he knows not, becomes the master of the glib, the half truth, the metaphysical generalization clothed in ornate language so ambiguous as to defy analysis. One loses any claim to being considered scholar or teacher, but so long as one can ignore his students’ questions or the look in their eyes, the situation is not impossible.

There seems to be a fundamental inconsistency in the career of a young academician that ought to be resolved. Certain recommendations come to mind:

Specialization is a fact of modern existence; let us ignore for a moment whether it has a positive virtue for the humanities. The graduate program is designed to bring a student along an evernarrowing path at the end of which lie relatively small, precise areas of knowledge over which he is expected to have a rather large control — that is, to know in depth the subject and the traditional scholarly observations upon it. We may legitimately inquire into the purpose of this requirement, and to a large extent the answer certainly must be: for the purposes of teaching these subjects. It cannot be simply an exercise for the mind, or a study in methodology, or the foundation for later scholarly endeavor. The current argument between the liberal arts universities and the colleges of education over the relative importance of subject and method is looking to the same question. And it is ironic that the universities often do not make provision for the teacher to teach what he honestly knows.

If the graduate student is asked to teach, then the teaching ought to be directly related to what he is learning. Spare him from having to decide between dissipating his intellectual efforts in an effort to learn suddenly what he does not know and teaching superficially and dishonestly.

Give the beginning instructor the maximum opportunity to teach some of his specialties. Even if it upsets a balanced curriculum, there is nothing better than a course enthusiastically and knowledgeably taught on even the most obscure subject. In the beginning the enormous fund of specialized knowledge needs some outlet. It is a cruel but common practice to leave the teaching of survey courses — for example, Good and Evil in Western Thought, the Greeks and the Bible, Man and Epic — to the young instructors, whose immediately previous training renders them absolutely unfit to handle the variety and the synthesis that such courses demand. I doubt whether anyone under forty can do justice to such surveys.

Beyond this lies the question of the suitability of so much specialization in graduate school, especially in view of the very unspecialized teaching loads which one must directly thereafter assume. Learning deeply ought to proceed automatically from an inquiring mind. Anyone who has one will in the course of his teaching make every attempt to learn more about the subjects he teaches. Frequently, if he has the time, a young teacher can manage a significant and fruitful investigation of these subjects. But his previous specialization, unfortunately, makes time for course work precious.

Now, it happens to be a fact of the eighteenth century that cultivated men were able to speak intelligently on an extraordinary variety of subjects. I am happy for those bygone creatures who never had to encounter Wissenschaft, Ph.D.’s, the notion of “publish or perish,” and all the other mechanics of modern-day academia.

The present situation stems from a lack of faith. No one really believes in the inquiring mind or the virtue of scholarship for scholarship’s sake. For this reason it has been necessary to establish a more or less rigid system, a hierarchy, as it were, of inquiring minds with special degrees and gowns as outward symbols and rewards, which, while it may stultify, is at least comfortably tangible. In the long run, however, I feel that the failure of the teaching profession to attract competent people in numbers grows out of the pressures placed upon them to become overnight scholars, teachers, and authors rather than out of low salaries or any other causes.