Academic Twitter erupted this weekend following a Tweet from author and education guru Steve Perry. Perry claims on his website that he has been an educational consultant for a range of individuals and groups from the Urban League to President Trump. His biography proclaims his rise “from his rough childhood…through his graduation from an Ivy League school.” Perhaps with his own narrative of upward mobility in mind, Perry offered this advice to undergraduates:
I rarely hear ppl discuss what college students wear to class. Keep in mind, college is your JOB & the prof IS YOUR BOSS. Impress her.
— Dr. Steve Perry (@DrStevePerry) September 16, 2017
Predictably, outrage followed. Perry received a torrent of criticism, nearly all of it justified. But it seems worthwhile to consider the tweet a little more deeply, and to explore the issues that it raises – many of which are major issues facing higher education today – in more substance than 140 characters allow.
The first flaw with Perry’s argument, as many on Twitter noted, is that college is, in fact, not a job. Undergraduate courses provide venues for learning skills of critical thinking and analysis, for deepening students’ knowledge of subject matter, and, ideally, for fostering personal growth and development. The claim that the professor-student relationship is reducible to terms of employer/employee demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of the goals and nature of higher education.
Closely related is a second problem with Perry’s thinking: if students are encouraged to think of college in transactional terms akin to a job, professors might not like the conclusions that students draw. This became apparent almost immediately on Twitter:
If you’re paying $50,000 a year to go to work, that’s not a job.
— Gwen C. Katz (@gwenckatz) September 17, 2017
The job analogy immediately raises the issue of money. Naturally, it occurs to students that, unlike a job where they would be paid to do work for their boss, at college they are paying to attend (and often incurring massive debt in the process). One can hardly fault students for thinking this way if college is framed in transactional terms. Faculty are well advised not to start down this road. College is not the same as work, and it shouldn’t be. Educators who attempt to conflate the two to serve their own interests do so at their peril.
The third problem with Perry’s dress-to-impress argument is the obvious one of economic inequity. As one professor noted:
I’m a professor, and do not judge students on how they look. That runs the risk of disadvantaging low-income and minority students.
— Amy Ando (@AndoAW) September 17, 2017
To his credit, Perry quickly clarified that he did not mean that students must wear designer brands to impress their professors. Still, though, it’s impossible to ignore the reality that clothing is a key marker of socio-economic status.
I attended a high school that had a fairly strict dress code: khaki pants, white button-down shirts, or navy polos/sweaters. The stated goal was the minimization of perceived disparity among students. Except it didn’t. It was still obvious which students bought their khakis at Banana Republic and which students shopped at Target. By suggesting that clothing is any sort of metric for how students should be judged in class, Perry adds yet another obstacle in the path of students for whom college might already be source of stress.
There’s a fourth and final issue with Perry’s tweet. It has received the least attention, but it’s perhaps the most significant of all. Implicit in the tweet is the assumption that all “professors,” “students,” and “classes” are identical. In other words, the relationship between students and faculty, and thus the nature of the course, is the same whether it’s a Religious Studies, Computer Science, or Business class.
This assumption is false. Some college courses are more knowledge-based, with the professor guiding students to learn key facts and concepts. Others, such as the ones I most often teach, are skills-based seminars where the professor’s role is that of facilitator. Still other courses are experiential and take place outside of traditional classrooms.
The implied conclusion that all college courses are the same has pernicious implications. It suggests a one-size fits-all approach to higher education that all too often leads to the assumption that the purpose of college is simply job-training. And it’s courses in the Humanities – including History – that suffer the most from that mindset.
My goal here is not to simply demonize Perry. I suspect that his tweet had its basis in admirable goals: encouraging students to take college seriously and do everything in their power to succeed.
In this case, though, whatever good intentions lay beneath the tweet were quickly obscured. The end result was a message that conveyed so many of the false assumptions that imperil higher education in 2017.