To Cal, With Love
Issue #52, November 2000
Recently, the East Bay Express, a Berkeley, California free weekly, ran an interview with Pedro Noguera, a former professor at Cal who has just moved to a new position at Harvard. Noguera, who came to UC Berkeley as a graduate student in 1982 and stayed on after receiving his doctorate, was one of the most popular instructors on the Berkeley campus. His courses were invariably over-crowded with students who knew, from personal experience or via the grapevine, that Noguera was something special. And he was a rare example of a scholar who put his theories into practice, both inside and outside the classroom. Not only did he serve on the Berkeley School Board, but he also worked on various projects at Berkeley High School for several years. (My own son, who found much to criticize during his own formative years in Berkeley schools, always singled out Pedro as one of finest people he encountered in that system.) A committed activist, Noguera was involved not only in city politics, but the politics of the campus community as well. And now? Harvard's gain is Berkeley's loss.
Noguera wasn't chased out of Berkeley, of course. He moved on to new challenges at another prestigious institution, where he will no doubt continue to do excellent work. And he is hardly the first academic to take a new job in a different place. Nonetheless, one wonders if UC Berkeley realizes what they've lost. At the end of the interview, Noguera speaks to what he hopes will be usefully different about Harvard:
Berkeley's elitism encourages academics to be detached, and to the extent that you're involved in the real world, that's looked down upon. As I've been reviewed here over the years I've actually been told that. I ran for school board at the time I was first hired here, and people told me I was crazy, I would never get tenure because I was running for school board. The sense I have at Harvard is that their elitism makes them believe that they should be involved in the real world, because they have the answers.
Noguera here accepts the notion of elite institutions; he is not criticizing Cal for being elitist. But he points to the necessity for scholars, teachers, intellectuals if you will, who "have the answers" to share their knowledge with their students and with folks outside the academic community. Recalling Gramsci, we have 'traditional' intellectuals helping to foster the creation of more intellectuals, 'traditional' and 'organic,' in order to make the world a better place.
This is not to say that there is no place for "ivory-tower" academic research. In the humanities, as in the sciences, theoretical work is invaluable in pushing forward our understanding of the past and the present. But to have an impact on the future, at some point, theory must become practice. Academics working in higher education, professional intellectuals, owe it to their discipline and their communities (academic and public) to pass along their knowledge and insights to others. If you have answers, you can't keep them to yourself.
Public higher education in California is split into roughly three levels. At the top is the University of California system, with UC Berkeley perhaps the light that shines brightest in a room full of illuminating institutions. Here is where most of the research is done and doctorates are granted; UC is elite. A step below in the established hierarchy are the state universities, where much great work is done, but where the emphasis is more on the classroom than the laboratory. Finally, there are two-year colleges, which serve as feeders to the four-year schools and also offer training in specific areas for students who aren't necessarily interested in getting full degrees. Some of the best teaching in the world happens at these schools; perhaps not so coincidentally, they emphasize instruction over all else.
It is a bit much to expect cutting-edge research would go on at a two-year college, or even at a mid-level university like the State system; it is understood that their priorities are often elsewhere. And so we look to the elite institutions like the University of California system for that cutting-edge. But public institutions, elite or not, have a special obligation to the community at large. That UC is the accepted venue for research does not mean that UC should disregard the value of education. It is possible for Nobel Prize winners and excellent teachers to coexist in the same institution. To the extent that the UCs of academia undervalue teaching as something that gets done at 'lesser' schools, they are cheating their teachers, their students, and the public.
Such a statement is not anti-intellectual, although it may be seen as such in an environment like UC Berkeley, where service on a local school board is occupational poison (how ironic given that Noguera, a tenure-track educator, was told that working on public school issues would be bad for his future as a academic), nor is it anti-scholarly. To demand that teaching gets respect on an academic level, whether it is performed at elite institutions or more humble venues, can only be interpreted as anti-intellectual if you define intellectualism as something done amongst intellectuals. But, if you want to create future intellectuals, if you want to pass on the answers that you have, then teaching becomes an integral part of the intellectual agenda. Without teaching, there will be no future intellectuals. Teaching is the opposite of anti-intellectualism.
For this reason, it is more than a little puzzling that elite institutions like UC are so dismissive of teaching. At this point, we aren't even talking about taking your work outside the campus community; this isn't about the local school boards, except in a broader philosophical sense. We're talking about work that gets done every day at every school: the transmitting of knowledge, understanding, and critical thinking tools to students (without whom, it should go without saying, there would be no universities). This is valuable intellectual work. And yet, too often, at schools like Berkeley, teachers whose classes are popular are dismissed as catering to a lowest common denominator, the (elitist in a bad way) assumption being that students will always prefer easy over important. This all-too-frequent belittling of teachers who are doing good jobs of connecting with students demonstrates how a system like UC sees intellectual work and teaching as opposites.
It isn't hard to find examples of how universities like Cal dismiss teaching as non-intellectual work. It is no secret that increasing numbers of undergraduate courses in American colleges are taught by graduate students and part-time lecturers (sometimes called "adjunct faculty," for which read "temp"). Many of these courses are introductory-level, many of them mandatory parts of a school's undergraduate program. When the university dumps these courses on the most under-paid, inexperienced workers, they are telling us that they do not value what goes on in these classes, which are as far removed as possible from high-level research work conducted by professors and their chosen graduate student employees.
The irony is that the teachers in these classes are doing some of the most innovative work on campus. They are rarely as jaded about teaching as their more entrenched tenured 'superiors.' One could say that the simple fact that they are teaching unappreciated courses for crap pay is proof of their commitment to teaching; they certainly aren't in it for the money or prestige. But at places like UC Berkeley, their work goes unnoticed by administrators and high-ranking faculty (although students, the consumers of academic capitalism, are well aware of who the good teachers are). For example, as a graduate student, I received an award as an Outstanding Graduate Student Instructor for my work teaching composition in the English department (a further irony being that it was well-known that the departmental Powers That Be wished the composition classes would be removed from the English department entirely, as something beneath the 'real' intellectual work that was the basis of the department's elite reputation). At some point after getting this honor, I was asked to sit on a panel where graduate students with some experience at teaching offered advice to new instructors. Among the attendees was the professor who had sat on the committee that chose me for my award. I explained to the audience what I did in the classroom, teaching critical thinking skills using non-traditional texts; afterwards, the professor expressed surprise, if not shock, at finding out exactly what happened when I was teaching. He clearly had no idea. In retrospect, he just as clearly didn't care about the teaching going on in his own department: if he truly cared, he would have known what kind of work I did before he gave me an award he obviously didn't respect enough to take seriously.
Perhaps things are different at Harvard. For Pedro Noguera's sake, at least, I hope they are, and I'm sure that however things are at Harvard, they'll be better for his presence. But elite public institutions of higher learning like the University of California can no longer afford to be dismissive of teaching, can no longer pretend that teaching is unconnected to intellectual work, can no longer be so fiercely, deliberately misguided in their notions of elitism. Until schools like UC understand that teaching and community service are vital components of the intellectual agenda, they will only represent the worst of ivory-tower elitism. Keeping the answers to yourself: that is the real anti-intellectual, anti-scholarly position.
Steven Rubio is a writer and teacher living in Berkeley, California. The man who first put Bad Subjects online in the early 90s, Steven can still be found in the electronic ether at firstname.lastname@example.org.