I’ve been having an interesting conversation with a friend about Stanley Fish, who opines about education (among other things) in the New York Times. Having read only a few of his columns, I have a generally favorable impression of him; in the columns I’ve read, his main point was that teachers should not make it their business to indoctrinate their students with their own political beliefs and attitudes. My friend, who has read more of him, though, suggested that he has an authoritarian side that was not apparent from those columns.
I started to see what she meant when I read Fish’s column in today's Times. Fish is writing about the use of student evaluations to assess the performance of college professors and teachers generally. Last week Fish laid out his objections to the practice, and this week he compiles a list of reactions from his readers -- almost all of whom are teachers who bristle at having their students play a role in their employers’ assessment of how well they are doing their jobs.
As a teacher at a professional school, I am evaluated by my students at the end of every semester, so I know where many of these critics are coming from. No one likes reading his or her own teaching evaluations; one anonymous zinger is all it takes to ruin your week. Some of Fish’s concerns about the process are entirely valid. Being liked -- which is arguably what the evaluations measure – isn’t the same as being an effective teacher. And creating an incentive for teachers to pander to the students is not a recipe for quality teaching.
But I couldn’t help feeling uncomfortable with the attitude underlying the criticisms that Fish and his correspondents are making. Many of these writers would be among the first to object to self-regulation when it is proposed for the oil or financial industries, but sound very different when their own interests are at stake. And to justify what would otherwise look like a clear conflict of interest, they resort to a very authoritarian and infantilizing model of education. The students are assumed to be incapable of thinking intelligently about their own development, a job best left to the authorities, who, entirely unscrutinized by anyone but their peers, will of course act only in the students’ best interests, not their own. Fish approvingly quotes one correspondent: “Sorry kids, you are not the authority in the classroom. Me Teacher. You student. Me Teach, you learn. End of discussion.” (Notice the use of “kids” to refer to college-age adults.)
At most, Fish suggests, students might be asked only factual questions (Did the professor show up on time?), rather than to give their opinions about the teacher’s effectiveness. That way we could “detect ‘bad actors’ without falling into the error of putting students in charge of their own education.”
The error of putting students in charge of their own education. What I would like most as a teacher is for my students to take charge of their own education -- to actually think about what they want from an education, about how they learn, about what it means to be well-educated. We want students to think critically about Eighteenth-century British literature and the origins of the industrial revolution, but not about the one institution that governs most of their waking hours, and that has the most direct impact on their lives. Instead, from kindergarten on, school is the one area about which critical thinking is discouraged, frowned upon, even punished (try criticizing a teacher or administrator when you’re in high school). “Me Teacher, You Student” really is the end of that discussion. Maybe that’s because young people are incapable of forming intelligent opinions and so should be discouraged from trying. Or maybe it’s because the authorities who run educational institutions don’t like being criticized any more than anyone else.
You cannot deprive people of all input into the institutions that govern their lives for their first eighteen years (and beyond, if Fish and his correspondents had their way) and then expect them to become intelligent, capable citizens of a democracy upon turning eighteen. For that reason alone, teachers and professors should suck it up and let the students have their say.
..How can I comment?