Hyper-Individualism and Higher Education



I talked in my last blog about the degeneration of civic education in our high schools and the consequent absence of any sense of obligation to the community in my college students. The primacy of hyper-individualism has affected—or infected—our higher education institutions as well. I lived most of my adult life either in or on the fringes of academia, where tenure is, and in my lifetime has always been, the measure of individual worth and is granted for research—not teaching. Specialization has undoubtedly led to vast increases in our knowledge and understanding of human civilization. But in the hands of “publish-or-perish” university promotion structures that reward individual achievement over teaching of any sort, education of citizens has all but disappeared.

Growing up, I felt the tension between teaching, clinical practice and research intensely. Tenure was granted much more sparingly in those days, and the anxiety of the quest infected the whole family. My father’s field was endocrinology (enzymes and hormones) of which little was known in those days, and he was known, in the medical school, as a gifted diagnostician—the art of medicine—and teacher. At the traditional end-of-year production, where medical students parodied the faculty, he escaped the cruelty dealt out to many of his colleagues.

Research was a different matter; it went slowly and caused him bouts of depression. Hour by hour, he’d sit at the dining room table, unable to eat or move—sending my mother into anguish. Finally, the research did bear fruit; he was on the team of scientists that developed ACTH (cortisone), which assured his tenure. But it never relieved his depression. In a world where individual achievement is the measure of worth, only the Nobel Prize is good enough.

I saw this story repeated when my husband was a graduate student in psychology at another major university. His favorite professor, a statistician who spent his time helping his colleagues with their research, was threatened with denial of tenure because he hadn’t produced enough research of this own. Disillusioned with the whole process, my husband thereafter called his Ph.D. his “union card.” Though he succeeded in academia—published and received tenure—the distaste colored his career and contributed to his chronic depression.

By the late seventies, when I entered the university as a returning student rather than daughter, wife, or parent, student-centered subjects like rhetoric and composition had become step-children of English departments; at the University of Michigan, rhetoric and creative writing (my field) consisted of one professor each. Long before I started university teaching, composition and rhetoric had been relegated to teaching assistants and lecturers.

Both universities believed that students should have learned to write in high school, so composition had no place in a university. At the University of Michigan, I was hired by a research project whose goal was to find out why, in fact, so many couldn’t. At the University of California, Santa Barbara, writing separated from English, which led to its blooming, Taught by lecturers who had unionized and won three-year contracts, the Writing Program grew, became professional and earned national respect. In both situations, lecturers formed close bonds that inoculated them from their non-existent status and conversation centered around student learning. Meanwhile, nationwide, Composition and Rhetoric became a field of its own, offering Ph.D. programs, and publishing began to creep in as a promotion standard. However, when, at Santa Barbara, we began to link our courses to introductory courses in other fields, we ran into the net result of this lack of general education—the resistance of lecturers and teaching assistants to step out of their own specialty. But that is a blog of its own.


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