The last episode of Radiolab that I heard began with an argument between co-host Robert Krulwich and his wife, Tamar Lewin, who just happens to be the higher education reporter for The New York Times. Walking through The Explorers Club in New York City, Krulwich felt a little bit of historical energy every time he touched a physical manifestation of history—like an Explorer’s Club flag that had gone to the moon and back. Lewin was less impressed. The historic objects were very cool, she pronounced, but she didn’t feel the same magic.
Later in the episode, to make his point better, Krulwich noted that he had once received an email from Neil Armstrong, the first man to land on the moon, complimenting him on some reporting he had done. Had that email been a letter, it would live in a frame on the wall in his office. An email, he argued, simply did not have the same magic.
Do you remember letters? Of course you do; they have yet to go extinct even now. But do you remember when letters were the primary means through which most people conducted their formal communications? Letters weren’t just a way to send a message. They served as physical symbols of relationships that could last years or even decades. To sit down and write a letter required thought, effort, and at least some recognition that your message might be saved on the other end of the correspondence. You were, in a way, always writing for history.
John Kuhlman has saved his history. Kuhlman began his career as a teaching assistant at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1949 and retired from the University of Missouri’s economics department in 1985. During that time, he estimates, he taught 25,000 students. Some of them made the effort to send him letters afterward; these letters serve as physical manifestations of the effect he had on his students’ development. Even though I have only seen summaries and PDFs of a few of those letters, when I looked them over, I could feel the magic of his classroom come through my computer screen.
Kuhlman’s correspondence is not just the summary of a career. It is a record of a series of human relationships. Just a few examples are enough to make it obvious what kind of teacher Kuhlman was. Here, for example, is a letter he received after he left the University of Richmond in 1955:
“Now that there is no possibility of ulterior motives on my part, I must tell you in all sincerity that you are still in the memories of your former students here as the best damned professor the School of Business had. I must hasten to add that you really earned your reputation by really working at the job of being a professor (and not just inundating and awing us by mere volume of facts), also by drawing students out and encouraging them to speak up, and by tying the subject in with contemporary events.”
No matter where Kuhlman taught, the letters kept coming. “After taking your 51 class my first semester I decided to major in economics,” wrote Tim Kaine, now a U.S. Senator from Virginia. “By my senior year I remembered that you had excited me into studying the subject, but I couldn’t exactly remember how you did it.” Later, Kaine recalled “the challenge that was such an important part of your class, the challenge to think creatively about a growing, still undefined body of knowledge. I find that challenge more powerful than ever as I graduate.”
Kuhlman continued to have this same impact on students right up to the end of his career. This is from a letter written by one of Kuhlman’s students in 1983:
“We haven’t talked much this semester, and it’s probably my fault for not finding my way to your office, but there is no question that you have continued to exercise your influence—even from a distance. I’m thinking primarily of an honors project that almost wasn’t and of all the other little things that I did, or didn’t do, because of the confidence you instilled in me and the high standards you set. When I leave Mizzou, I’ll be taking more than a degree with me… And I want to thank you. As an advisor, you are unparalleled—and also as a friend.”
While I can imagine a future for higher education without mandatory office hours, I cannot imagine a future for higher education in which these kinds of mentoring relationships cannot grow. I can’t imagine a future dominated by giant online classes whose professors barely know their students, let alone befriend and assist them through their college careers and beyond.
Yet that appears to be the future that Starbucks and Arizona State University have planned for their baristas.
As you’ve probably read elsewhere by now, Starbucks will now pay (with a few catches) for employees to enroll in a giant, online undergraduate program at Arizona State University. That online program is projected to grow to 100,000 students in the next five years. While it is undoubtedly difficult for all 65,000 students on Arizona State’s regular campus to establish close, personal relationships with their professors, at least those students can try. Online, it’s different. Why would any professor care to know anything about the disembodied person typing at the other end of the computer screen if he already has too many students trying to get to know him?
“I am unable to comprehend the changes that are taking place in higher education,” wrote Kuhlman in his first email to me. I think I can comprehend those changes, but I’m not sure I like most of them. Certainly, the cumulative effect that Kuhlman’s students’ letters had on me demonstrates that you don’t have to hold an object in your hands in order to be moved by the message that it conveys. But the physical manifestations of Kuhlman’s teaching were created in an environment that fostered meaningful human interaction, not just the completion of degree requirements for purposes of economic advancement. I’ve heard from countless instructors that it is possible to do wonderful things when teaching online—but not in an environment that closely mimics what for-profit schools have been doing for 30 years now.
I’m sorry to say that I have never gotten a letter from a student who finished any of my courses—there have been more than a few nice comments at graduation, a few emails now and then, but no letters. Maybe that represents my failings as a teacher, or perhaps it’s just the failings of a culture that finds even sending an email a burden compared to texting. The sampling of John Kuhlman’s 175 letters that I read reminded me that things have not always been this way. Unfortunately, if the partnership between Starbucks and Arizona State really is the future of higher education, it may never be that way for the vast majority of students ever again.