Origins Tumultuous Years page 5

 
 

I remember well an afternoon meeting of Department Heads at the Kansas City Art Institute with President Andrew Morgan. At the conclusion of the meeting, Andrew mentioned that in examining the school bulletin, he had noticed that we did not have one teacher with the rank of Professor. We discussed this and felt that it was relatively unimportant. Finally, he looked at us and said, “Do any of you guys want to be a Professor?” We all said no, we were not interested. On reflection, I think one or two of the Department Heads did want the rank, but they were not going to say so in front of the senior faculty who so emphatically had refused.

The sixties brought the first rumblings of student activism. Initially, student rebellion grew out of opposition to in loco parentis policies existing at most educational institutions. At the time, many schools and universities operated their own cafeterias supervised by dietitians. There was strict dormitory supervision with enforced policies, and institutions imposed restrictions on student activities in and out of class. Student reaction quickly spread to educational policies. Most programs had rigid requirements with few electives, and students were not permitted to cross or mix disciplines. Students began demanding to “do their own thing” in terms of program of studies and course content. These were the years that minority students began to enroll in large numbers, and they strongly impacted on educational content and student bodies.

The next escalation in student activism was social and political. The 1960s were the period of civil rights legislation which coincided with urban riots, protest marches and considerable violence throughout the country. The Vietnam war was becoming more unpopular with the general public by the day, and it was bitterly contested by young people. More young males went to graduate school during the Vietnam years than anytime since as graduate school or teaching exempted students from the draft.

There were emerging concerns for world environment, population control and social equality. Students were at the forefront of these movements. The anger of students was directed mainly at the “establishment,” what they perceived as the relatively small power blocks of wealthy and influential individuals or corporations who controlled government and industry.

In many instances, student anger was directed toward any authority. The cumulative effect of student actions was violence and destruction of campus properties, disruption and an upheaval in traditional educational and institutional policies. It became clearly evident that academic authorities were unable to maintain control or protect property, and the administrative composition and role in education was to irrevocably change because of the student rebellion. This marked the beginning of dramatic growth in the size and role of administration. Business practices and values began to replace academic ones, teachers became employees, students were customers and education a service. Efficiency became more important than effectiveness, and educational standards seriously declined.

Sex, drugs, music and the freedom to do what you want were symptomatic of student behavior. Peer group pressure became the dominant force in shaping student attitudes and behavior. A curious aspect of the time was communication through touch with all students including minority students. At times when students needed reassurance, an arm around the shoulder, a touch on the hand or knee conveyed to them that the teacher cared, accepted and was genuinely interested in them as individuals. Today, these same actions by a teacher would most likely trigger sexual harassment charges before you could remove your hand.

Another insight into students from that period occurred during a series of visiting lecturers. The first lecturer had carefully prepared his lecture and it was given without hesitation or flaw. Student response was strained and minimal. Tom Geismar gave the next lecture, and he had been extremely busy at his studio before coming, so he put his lecture together rather hastily. He had two or three slides upside down for which he apologized, and at times he rambled during his talk. Student response was overwhelming. The student reaction to the two lecturers piqued my interest enough to ask students why the different responses. They said the first lecturer was too good, too perfect, so they did not trust what he had to say. On the other hand, Tom Geismar was just like them, he made mistakes and sometimes had difficulties with verbal communication, so they could identify with and trust him.

Inflated grades were characteristic of the period and they have never normalized. Too many teachers did not want to argue about grades with students who already were angry and rebellious. At the worst, low grades could lead to teachers having tires slashed or the car spray painted. At many schools, students protested having grades, and they demanded a pass/fail evaluation. Invariably, after each grading period, some students approached teachers privately to ask by how much they had passed or failed.

During the years of retrenchment in the seventies, with declining student enrollments there was pressure on faculty at some institutions to not fail students because of tuition loss in private schools, and reduction of funding to colleges and departments at public institutions which was based on enrollment figures. In the mid-seventies, I was interviewing at Central Michigan University for a Department Head position. In my interview with the Dean, I gave my assessment of conditions and suggested how the educational quality might be improved. After a few minutes, the Dean interrupted me to say, “I don’t give a damn about making it better, I only want to know how you can handle more students with less teachers.”

Beginning in the sixties, educational programs were fragmented to accommodate student demands, and many still are highly elective, particularly Fine Arts. Some student attitudes from those years persist even today. Student activism ended much more suddenly than it began. The movement ceased with the shootings at Kent University. In terms of student motivation, I never had a more difficult year than 1971-72. My students were completely demoralized, most of them did not finish assignments and they did not care.

The student movement was followed by what was then called retrenchment. The Vietnam War had concluded, the national debt had reached proportions that affected government spending, and federal money for education evaporated. The economy was weak and inflation began to rise. Educational institutions were over extended and student enrollments were declining. Tuitions at most educational institutions, particularly in the private sector, dramatically increased. It was during these years that many students who formerly attended art schools began to move to state universities where tuition increases had been less. Educational administrators saw conditions as being temporary. They believed that once the economy recovered, and the national debt was reduced, the government would again pump money into the educational system. This did not happen.

During these same years, the number and role of Community Colleges changed dramatically. Formerly called Junior Colleges, these institutions received new recognition because universities were experiencing problems growing out of huge first-year enrollments and equally large drop-out rates during the following two years. Some form of intermediate schooling between secondary schools and university seemed a logical response to the situation. Since that time, there has been significant expansion of the Community College system and its educational role.

 

My Teaching Years continued >
 

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