Earlier this month, I read an article in the opinion section of The New York Times titled, “What’s the Point of a Professor?” The author cited statistics that show while students are happy with their teachers in terms of grading and feedback, they do not consider their relationships with faculty to be meaningful. The author went on to point out how faculty don’t serve as role models for students the way we have in earlier (and according to the article, better) times.
While it is difficult to argue the facts (quoted from the National Survey of Student Engagement), it is important to consider them just one part of the story. For example, the article asserts that for today’s students, the quest for money has surpassed the drive to “develop a meaningful philosophy of life.” The other side of the story, however, is that this shift in focus may be justified.
The Wall Street Journal reports that the average student loan debt has grown every year since roughly 2000. The percentage of students with loans has also grown. According to the Federal Reserve, despite the first increase in jobs for recent graduates in several years, new graduates will still have a challenging time finding employment in jobs that require degrees.
“Underemployment,” taking part-time work or low-wage employment, is still very high. This means the average student will graduate with a large student loan balance and a good chance of not earning enough income to comfortably support him/her and repay the debt.
Under these circumstances, a reasonable person would indeed be more concerned about money than a developed philosophy.
As a professor at a community college and a nonprofit executive, I see the struggles of students—women, men, young and old—trying to improve the quality of their lives and their families lives through education. For many it means working full-time and going to school while taking care of children, parents or siblings. Making time to have philosophical discussions is low on the priority list because it must be. It’s classic motivational theory at work—higher order needs wait until lower order needs are met.
We serve students and the greater good by creating an environment which facilitates learning and engages students. We do this in ways that are real, meaningful and concrete to the lives they are living now and transcending to the lives they are working hard to create. In doing so, we challenge students to envision the possibilities.
This is the point of being a professor.