What Is Tenure For?
by Tad Beckman 8 July 1997
Whenever we don't like what's going on in the academy, we have a lot of rhetorical ammunition available to throw at it. One of the first salvos is usually the "real-world salvo." Even academics themselves shoot themselves in the foot with this one! The real world is, of course, out there. What we do in the academy is not the real world; it is in here. The implication, of course, is that the academy is a fantasy world with no genuine relevance to anything real.
Along the same lines of attack, it has become enormously popular to hold up the institution of tenure for derision and disgust. In this vein, tenure offers incompetent people a cushy lifetime of security and costs trustees, administrators, parents, and students dearly. While academics themselves are less likely to shoot off this barrage themselves, the whole idea has infected many of them with a trembling timidity that wants to look the other way in embarrassment. Other academics boast proudly of being on contract and disown the tradition altogether, viewing themselves as "gutsy" and in the swing with (yes) the real world.
If this isn't enough, there is, of course, the gloomy judgment that the academy is inefficient and unproductive. After all, in the economic sector, we can show how we cut costs and we can show what we actually produce. We have customers that are pleased by us; and if they're not pleased, we'll jump to meet whatever their expectations are. Academics are always wanting more labs and seminar rooms, more library holdings and computer networks, and higher pay. But, of course, we all know their graduates look bright just because they admit only brilliant students; they probably actually retard their progress! One institution in the ‘70s actually demonstrated that college students remain Democrats longer than other young people who enter the workforce right out of high school and vote Republican by the time they're in their late 20s!
Words get used like artillery shells and the objective seems to be to kill as many principles and as many reputations as possible with direct hits or shrapnel wounds. No one seems much interested in taking apart the actual issues and trying to understand what the academy is. Wouldn't it be nice, instead, to seek after the objectives of education and actually test its virtues and its weaknesses from that basis.
I want to begin by arguing that there is only one world and that education is an essential part of it. In fact, education is the most important part of that world next to child rearing itself. Education is how the individual makes her way from the animal being to the political being, the person who lives in the polis. There is much to life beyond education; but all of that rests on this necessary foundation. You simply can't grow a tree without cultivating good roots.
Granted, education does not have to be institutionalized; education begins with a child's interaction with his parents. There are societies that still achieve the whole of education by means of intimate parental and apprentice mentoring. In this society, however, from the land-grant colleges onward, there has been a strong tradition of institutionalized public and private higher education. Again, the point is that education is part of the one real world. People passing through it (students) and people responsible for maintaining it (teachers) are not involved in an extra-ordinary world to which the real world must be held as an embarrassing contrast; they are fully engaged with an essential process in the real world.
The mission of education is driven by its social function in the real world. The entire purpose is to aid people in developing themselves as full participants in society. No more needs to be said; that says it all.
It should be obvious, however, that having said this, we have merely begun. Education is something living; it is no mere template for social success. While the principle is located in this simple utterance, the meanings of the crucial words are all attached to the thoughts of the aspiring young, the encouraging parents, the working teachers, and all the benefactors who make it possible. Everyone rightfully contributes something to a discourse about personal development and social participation. Nor should all institutions attempt to achieve the very same things. Diverse institutions fulfill the diverse needs of individual students as well as the diverse dreams of collected faculties. Education is all about aspirations and hopes.
This should not be interpreted to indicate that just anything goes in the academy. The overarching ideas of education --- development and growth --- do imply changes toward something better. "What is true, what is good, and what is beautiful." This is what education always moves toward. How could it really do otherwise? These are the basic categories of whatever we value in our society. We grant, of course, that we all have rather different ideas about what is actually true, good, or beautiful. We don't tend to argue about what we seek in principle; rather we argue about what items qualify and in what ways, in particular.
Now comes the giant step, however. The big issue --- the turning point for all societies --- is how we should proceed in our personal development and, in particular, how much autonomy we should individually possess. Authority and autonomy, conformity and individuation. These are ancient issues, already well articulated in different ways by Plato and Aristotle, 2400 years ago. Do we guide students toward a single reality by using our authority or do we encourage students to achieve their own self-analytic inquiry by setting an example and providing a framework? Generally speaking, the humanistic tendencies of the modern world, incorporated into the revolutionary developments of science, politics, and industry, have all tended toward the latter. The ideal of a democratic society, in fact, is mutually involved with this conception of autonomous human development. Democratic principles demand a free society in which people possess autonomy as a fundamental starting point and from which their developed capacities can contribute. Democracy assumes, and works well only if all issues can be brought to open discussion wherein the truth can be sought. John Dewey's Democracy and Education is noteworthy reading in this regard.
Having proved, to my own satisfaction, at least, that education is an essential part of the real world, I want to conclude by examining the rest of these rhetorical barrages. I think that we should proudly admit that education is incredibly inefficient and unproductive in economic terms. For that matter life itself is incredibly inefficient and unproductive, given the fact that it invariably consumes enormous resources and energy in leading through its destiny from a stressful birth to a painful death. This is precisely because education and life are together in providing growth and development for the individual human being. It always demands as much cost as we can muster and it is never a finished thing. We do not create people like nuts and bolts; they are not interchangeable parts. There is no real telling how it has all come together. Sometimes, the most we can hope is that it will bloom later on. The "product" is, after all, a living human being; what formal education offers is merely a good start to one's whole life. What constitutes a "good start" is exactly what all the fuss is about and why scholars debate the process endlessly. But there is no answer! The virtue is in the continuing process. As soon as we settle on a definite answer, it is dead and wrong.
But what about tenure? Here is the final point. The institution of tenure comes out of the tension between authority and autonomy. That tension begins with the parent who insists his child should become a Catholic priest and extends past the donor who believes the faculty should preach Capitalism and reaches the politician who wants history to show that California was a non-slave state even though Indians were kidnaped and sold, on a regular basis, from the 1850s, until their numbers had dwindled beyond economic utility. What we always have, in spite of their own education, is a collection of citizens who want to demand specific contents and results in the schools. In tension with these, we have others who argue for the autonomy of schools and all who inhabit them.
The child should find her own way; the teacher should be free to criticize and experiment. All students, regardless of age, should be free from coercion and reprisals. The reasonable scale on which success should be judged is the scale of truth, goodness, and beauty. That is, whatever we believe and whichever way we direct our lives, we should not hide from free and open debate over the merits of what we have personally found valuable.
Lest we forget, the solid footing for tenure is academic freedom. Tenure means that a faculty member does not have to please anyone's particular agenda of interests. The tenured professor cannot be fired because a student, department chair, dean, trustee, or politician is simply displeased by what the faculty member thinks and teaches. In exchange, of course, the professor must be willing to submit her thinking to all comers and to defend himself with intelligent and intelligible argument. Tenure can be broken if one is judged, by peers, as incompetent in these arguments. The whole institution of tenure bears much of the weight of what education is and must become. Tenure promises that the system of education is self-monitoring, self-regulating, and self-disciplining. This seems preposterous and unrealistic to some; but in the ideal, it achieves what Aristotle saw as the height of ethical development, the further growth of being from the political to the rational.
We could strip the academy of tenure, of course. We could, in fact, make everything political and economic. But what would be the point? Without tenure, how would we effectively preserve autonomy? How would we effectively criticize our institutions and the people who lead them? How would we accurately understand our history? How would we effectively move toward anything that is new and untried?
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