Monday, August 12, 2013

Middle-Aged Idiocy

Based on comments made in this opinion piece by Mark Bauerlein, I think I'd be willing to argue that the dumbest generation remains that which is comprised of middle aged men.  Why might that be?  Well, while I would agree that younger generations of people in the US do appear to lack knowledge and skills commensurate with older generations, it never fails to utterly astound me that privileged middle aged men continue to make declarations and bombastic proclamations about society based on highly skewed, incredibly narrow, poorly defined personal opinions despite the fact that they should have ample life experience, and in Mark Bauerlein's case a doctorate, to help them avoid confirming that they are, in fact, just as clueless as 20 somethings.  A perfect example of this would be publicly advocating for age discrimination.

Regarding this piece, there are a few disclaimers.  First, there certainly are professors over the age of 65 who should consider retirement due to age related difficulties.  Second, there are professors under the age of 65 who should consider retirement due to a) being poor educators or b) age related difficulties. Third, there are professors who should never be tenured at any age.  Fourth, I would support the statement that tenure in general has become an encumbrance to higher education. Fifth, I have nothing personal against Mark Bauerlein.  And sixth, I am all for paying non-tenured faculty well, considerably more so than current rates.

Despite my disclaimers, the assumptions highlighted by the article are what trouble me, notably, the assumption that a person is inherently less useful and/or able to perform their job on or after a certain age, particularly in academia.  It is also unclear to me whether the issue according to Bauerlein is old people or tenure or a combination of both.  I'm not convinced the issue is when professors won't retire, but instead when any educator should consider retirement or another career altogether and yet they don't (that's how SharkFoxes are born).  As noted above, there are some startlingly awful tenured professors between the ages of 40 and 65.  As a matter of fact, in my experience, I can think of a number of tenured professors or associate professors around the age of 50-55 who should be removed from their academic posts immediately.  Then again, three of the best educators I've ever worked with are not tenured, and fall between the ages of 35 and 55.

It's one thing if an educator is unable or unwilling to stay current with technology and other advancements in their respective field resulting in a poor learning experience, but I find it hard to believe that hitting a specific age automatically makes a person a poor educator.  There was a professor in my department who was at least 65 when I started my master's program.  He has since retired.  He was a rare individual.  The only thing about Tom that was not on the cutting edge was his fanny pack.  When I knew him, he was flying planes, riding motorcycles, and sailing boats.  He retired to sail more often.  Tom was a Psychologist with a special gift for numbers and statistics, he won an AERA award for research a few years back.  To say the least, Tom was an incredibly productive faculty member despite the horrible burden of his age.

The last issue would be that tenure is in no way about providing access to quality educational experiences and/or educators to college students, it's about research and securing the funding that comes along with it.  Eliminating the supposed academic scourge that is aging professors is unlikely to increase educational quality, the same with tenure.  Instead of potentially ineffectual elderly educators, you end up with younger ineffectual researchers and their advisees who don't give a damn about undergraduate or graduate education.  It's interesting that Bauerlein suggests the use of US News and World Report rankings of faculty over the age of 65 as a solution.  I wonder how his current employer, Emory University, might rank as they've demonstrated they excel at manufacturing whole sets of "creative solutions".  

Perhaps if education was actually the focus of institutes of higher education there would be less financial distress for students and Universities, more "academic innovation" instead of  bureaucratic, political placation, and a little more distribution of that thing called knowledge which everyone under 30 apparently lacks and we are all automatically stripped of as the clock strikes 12am on our 70th birthday.  It's a shame I'll never reach the pinnacle of productivity and usefulness that is being a middle aged man with all of the answers.  I guess I'll just have to keep asking questions.          


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