I’ve been reading an interesting new book: Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work. I will share some reflections on it in a couple of weeks in a piece for The Englewood Review of Books, but for now I’m struck by and stuck on a passage that has particular resonance for me as I transition into my new job of teaching undergraduates. 

In a chapter-section called “What College Is For” author Matthew Crawford lays bare (with insight and a devilish wit) the troubling trend—decades long now—in which the production of credentials rather than the cultivation of knowledge has become the point, the end game, the ultimate goal of higher education. Students are consumed with the marketability of their credentials; teachers feel pressure to give grades not for their intrinsic pedagogical use but for the “value” they will bestow on the student’s whole “package.”

Here’s the passage that’s keeping me awake at night:

“Pedagogically, you might want to impress on a student the miserable state of his mind. You might want to improve the student by first crushing him, as then you can recruit his pride to the love of learning. You might want to reveal to him the chasm separating his level of understanding from the thinkers of the ages. You do this not out of malice, but because you sense rare possibilities in him, and take your task to be that of cultivating in the young man (or woman) a taste for the most difficult studies. Such studies are likely to embolden him against timid conventionality, and humble him against the self-satisfaction of the age, which he wears on his face. These are the pedagogical uses of the “D.” But give someone a low grade, and he is likely to press upon you the fact that his admission to law school hangs in the balance.”

When I think about my own teachers through time, from elementary school through graduate school, I’m struck by how the best of them did indeed seek to “crush” me—not to embarrass or humiliate me (the worst teachers do that) but to flatten or deflate the false pride, the bad habits, the egocentrism that make it difficult for children and youth and young adults to see beyond themselves to a world not of their own making, where there is truth, beauty, and goodness to be discovered. Where what they discover might not be immediately useful for landing the “perfect job,” but which is, nonetheless, essential to their thriving as human beings.

The corporatization of higher education makes this sound like romantic silliness. But I want to be hopeful. Crawford’s book gives me hope.