Since Harvard has so much influence on other institutions of higher learning, I’m heartened by the campaign to restore teaching to a place of importance among the Harvard faculty. For years, research and publication have been the dominant paths to eminence for Harvard professors. Students could go through four years of a Harvard education and graduate without knowing a professor well enough to get a letter of recommendation. Large lecture courses led by senior faculty whose actual teaching skills were beneath modest, assisted by bored graduate students, were the rule. Now, according to Sarah Rimer of the New York Times, a group headed by the distinguished social scientist Theda Skocpol is proposing that teaching rank “equally with contributions to research in annual salary adjustments.” She has a tough challenge before her. Previous attempts to recognize teaching, such as the Levenson Teaching Prize, have not been notably successful. One Levenson winner told Skocpol, “I earn high praise (and more money) for every paper or academic achievement, while every teaching achievement earns a warning of how I should not wander off research.”
Every time this subject comes up, I urge people to read Teacher in America, by Jacques Barzun. And I commend it now to Skocpol. It tells how highly teaching was valued at Columbia’s undergraduate college in the 1930s and ’40s, and shows that a faculty culture can, instead of disdaining teaching, disdain not teaching.