[The Montana Professor 1.2, Spring 1991 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

Saints and Scamps: Ethics in Academia

Steven M. Cahn
Ottawa: Rowman and Littlefield, 1986

William Plank
Foreign Language and Literature
Eastern Montana College

Steven Cahn is Provost and AVP at the CUNY Graduate School, Professor of Philosophy and author of several books on philosophy and education. This short (105 pages) but stimulating book is a hard-nosed approach to the professor's responsibilities and the satisfaction that comes with fulfilling them. His chapters deal with teaching, grading, evaluating teaching, scholarship and the community of scholars, faculty appointments, tenure and dismissal, and graduate education. After reading this essay, I came away with a new optimism that made it more pleasant to come to work in the morning and the feeling that there are people out there who still have confidence in the role of higher education to make some difference--if we have the courage. Four paragraphs from the book will give a good idea of the tone he sets:

Instructors are obligated to know which material is to be studied and in what order it is best presented. They should be expected to know what constitutes progress and the extent to which each student has achieved it. Students themselves do not have such knowledge; that is why they are students.

Imagine yourself taking a beginning bridge lesson and hearing your instructor inquire whether you would prefer to study finesses or analyze the Vienna Corp. Such a question would be senseless, for a reasonable answer depends on some knowledge of bridge, and if you already had that, you wouldn't be a beginner.

It would be equally inane for your instructor to decide your skill at bidding by asking you to evaluate yourself. Sensible judgments of this sort depend on an expert's insight, and your instructor, not you, is supposed to be the expert. If your instructor doesn't know how good your bidding is, that person should not be your instructor.

A common method of avoiding the responsibilities of a teacher is to pass the buck to students. A former colleague once told me that his class in the history of modern philosophy was going to jump from Leibniz to Kant, leaving out the empiricists Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. When I inquired why he was proceeding so oddly, he replied that he had asked his students to vote, and they had preferred not to read the empiricists.

Sidney Hook's evaluation, that if the wisdom of this book were implemented, "institutions of higher American education would undergo a much needed renaissance," may be slightly exaggerated--but the book should give every professor a morale boost. Its lucid and congenial style allows it to be read at one sitting--between Jake and the Fatman and bedtime.

[The Montana Professor 1.2, Spring 1991 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

Contents | Home