Emeritus professor Harry Landreth agrees to disagree in “Professoring”
January 24, 2013 By Elizabeth Trollinger
recently published “Professoring: A Critique of Higher
Education” about his career as a professor and his opinions on
the decline of academia.
“Students come here and are happy as can be,” Landreth says
of Centre College. “Centre was nirvana to me.”
Harry Landreth disagrees with many of the dominant thoughts and trends in higher education today—respectfully, of course. Landreth, Boles Professor Emeritus of Economics at Centre, recently published “Professoring: A Critique of Higher Education” about his career as a professor and his opinions on the decline of academia.
The book received a favorable review from the Kirkus Review, which says, “[The book] is more than a memoir or a manual, since Landreth includes ample servings of genuine human emotion and humor; there are several laugh-out-loud moments … Landreth’s book gives life to academia, shedding light on important issues like college selection, the quality of higher education and student-teacher relationships.”
Landreth begins the book discussing his life before he began a career in higher education, when he was working at one of the biggest financial institutions in Chicago.
“At the Northern Trust Co., they were hiring people from the top MBA programs. I was the first guy there from West of the Mississippi,” Landreth says. “I liked it—it was where the action was. I was happy as I could be, but I was commuting three hours a day. Two years in, I said I couldn’t do it.”
After getting a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard, Landreth entered the world of “professoring”—with very little to go on.
“I had no experience with higher education, let alone lower education. It was to get a lifestyle more than anything. If you want to enjoy art, music and literature, and live an interesting life, a professor’s life is a good life,” Landreth says. “Once I got into it, I found I really liked teaching, and the outside of the classroom contact.”
As promised in the title, the book is a critique of the state of higher education, from course curriculum to the values of college and universities. Landreth is most bothered by the lack of disagreement in the classroom. As the book states, “Stifling dissent and respectful disagreement slows the growth of knowledge.”
“Advancement of knowledge is a process where people disagree. Within each discipline, there’s a set of procedures to decide how you’ll settle these arguments. In science, for instance, it’s the experimental method,” Landreth says. “Lack of diversity means removal of conflict—if we all believe the same things, we don’t have conflict. How do we get progress and knowledge? Disagreement is mandatory. We can’t advance our understanding of things unless we have disagreement.
“I’ve studied the development of economic thinking from zero to date, so I’ve seen conflict,” Landreth continues. “Usually, there’s an accepted theory and it lasts for 50 years, then someone criticizes it and it changes and people get a better idea of what ‘truth’ is. You want people disagreeing with each other. That’s the way we make progress in thought. If you stifle that, you’re stifling advancement, and that’s bad.”
Landreth is proud of his abilities as a professor, and of the work his students have done. The Kirkus Review says, “Teaching ain’t easy. Nonetheless, Landreth has managed to teach thousands of students with an admirable blend of vigor, passion and humor. … Readers may wonder, ‘Why didn’t my teacher ever explain something so simply?’”
“I had a special skill—I was able to go into there and be entertaining,” says Landreth. “More than 50 of my former students now have PHDs in economics. I have a bookshelf full of books they’ve written—and many of them thank Professor Landreth.”
Interacting with students was the highlight of “professoring” for Landreth, and he still goes out of his way to talk to young people.
“I can’t tell you how much I miss kids. I talk to waiters and waitresses—I can’t leave young people alone,” he says. “They’re optimistic, fun, generally not constrained.”
As the Kirkus Review says, “Academics, parents with college-age children, politicians and most people in between will appreciate this life-loving professor’s straight-A memoir.” Add to that the Centre community, as Landreth talks in depth about his experience as a professor at the College.
Landreth came to Centre from Miami University of Ohio, where he had become somewhat dispirited.
“Here I was, having committed to being a professor. I could have made a lot of money in the real world. I was tremendously disappointed, being at a school and seeing it changing,” Landreth says. “When I came across Centre, I thought, here’s a really good school. I just stumbled onto it—it was like stumbling on a cubit of gold. I came here and, wow, was I surprised.”
Landreth thrived in the small liberal arts setting and thoroughly enjoyed teaching Centre students—and he taught many. As he says in “Professoring,” “In one year and one course I had seven percent of the Centre students in my class.”
During his tenure at Centre, Landreth helped students beyond the classroom, working to make internship experiences as strong and popular as they are today.
“Internships were not big at the time. When I came here, they had the feeling that if you did an internship program, you needed to write a report and read books for it. I said that the experience of having an internship was valuable in itself,” Landreth says.
Landreth’s critique of higher education is direct and thorough—but he lauds Centre as a special school and community.
“Students come here and are happy as can be,” Landreth says. “Centre was nirvana to me.”