In this era of the importance to many of the higher education “bottom line,” as a member of that esteemed community, I want to offer those who fund that line some thoughts on what your money gets you.
You get a lot out of the system: housing, food, safety, personal development and, of course, an education for your child, access to continuing education for yourself and millions of economic impact for our community.
But in the talk about tuition, buildings and job placement, there is little bandwidth in many people to consider the role and value of the college professor (unless there is a grade appeal).
So what benefit might you get from me, the professor? Higher education is often defended as a public good that benefits the well-being of citizenry, whether individuals participate or not. Like community centers, parks, K-12 schools, higher education doesn’t merely offer individual benefits, it offers societal value.
Or in the words of Muriel Howard, Ph.D., once president of Buffalo (N.Y.) State College: “The benefits we all derive from an educated society far outweigh the personal benefit to any individual who receives such education.”
Yet that argument is a bit impersonal. Higher education is, at its heart, a personal enterprise, and the professor the center of that enterprise. But please don’t confuse me for a personal utility. I am not a basketball court or a paved road. My role, though, is a public good.
The most important responsibility of a professor is to profess. It is my responsibility as a professional (like many of you) to speak about values my profession holds dear. These values cannot be separated from the work done with students. It is the very heart of such work. Expect us to have political, social, economic and religious positions. Expect us to be citizens like yourself.
To do this, I teach. I do not aim to indoctrinate but inoculate the public from the dangers of demagoguery and totalitarianism. I don’t merely stand up before a class, ask a few questions, propose a few ideas and offer to those listening others who have thought on these ideas, then go back to my desk. If that sounds lazy or unbecoming a public service, it is. (If you think this is what teaching is, I invite you to my classroom. But you have to agree to participate for the entire semester because learning doesn’t happen in one day; if you’re 62 or older, it’s free.).
College professors work to expand human knowledge. To do that, we have to disrupt ingrained patterns of thinking. They also aim to expand freedom of thought. To do that, they have to, at times, rebuke the modern demand they stay silent because they are paid by the government.
By professing our faith in education, professors build the community we are a part of. It is your space, too, and so in a way, we add to your property value.
But because my professions are protected, I also can be a surrogate for excluded voices silenced for economic, racial, gender or professional reasons. If we are to have a public, we have to hear from everyone. So I often ask questions others can’t, or that no one wants asked. In this manner, a professor strengthens the community.
There are a few more things I could add, but I need to get back to work. In the end, besides a recommendation for a good (long) book, professors offer a lot more than you might think.
Dr. Matthew Boedy is Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Composition in the English Department at the University of North Georgia.