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Why is teaching valued less than research?

From the May 1995 ACP Observer, copyright © 1995 by the American College of Physicians.

By Frank Davidoff, MD, FACP

Those who can, do; those who can't, teach; those who can't teach, teach teachers.
Old saying

The purest coin of the realm in academe is new knowledge, and finding new knowledge, of course, requires original research. Teaching, by way of contrast, is a debased currency in the academic marketplace: Nobody gets promoted on the academic track for teaching. Moreover, it is often the younger faculty, those least able to protect their time, who are tasked with the lion's share of teaching duties; their seniors earn the "right" to be free of such demands so they can devote themselves to research. And teaching commands far less financial support than research. Why?

Explanations are not hard to find:

Item: Teaching does not create a tangible, deliverable product; it is more of a process. Research results in findings that can be seen, touched, counted, even weighed.

Item: Excellence in teaching is a local currency; there is no national standard, hence it cannot easily be transported to new institutions or exchanged in new academic markets. Research is judged nationally and internationally, and by widely shared standards.

Item: Henry Adams commented optimistically that "A teacher affects eternity." But he also went on to say that "He [a teacher] can never tell where his influence stops." Adams' emphasis here was, optimistically, on the never-ending influence of teachers; but a wistful second meaning slipped through as well: It is hard for teachers to know what their impact has been. Thus, teaching excellence is not seen as leaving a lasting imprint; its effect on students quickly blends in with other influences, is soon "damped out." Research excellence becomes a matter of public record that resonates for a long time; the best research is cited and indexed for decades, centuries, even millennia.

Item: Everyone teaches at least some of the time: Parents teach children; brothers, sisters and friends teach each other. It is only a small step, therefore, to the belief, deep down, that anyone can teach; that, moreover, anyone can teach well. And everyone learns; indeed, some people seem to be almost completely self-taught, which leads to the suspicion, deep down, that teachers may not be necessary at all. Research, on the other hand--at least research in the formal, rigorous, scholarly sense--is not part of everyone's experience, of everyday life; much of it is counterintuitive, a struggle against the tyranny of everyday experiences, passions, biases. Research, therefore, belongs to the chosen few, the elite.

Item: Teaching is by its very nature a shared experience; indeed, the best teachers are often known by their ability to remain very much in the background. Research, while often requiring enormous effort and great sacrifice, and often benefiting many, is essentially focused on one person, the researcher, toiling alone in his or her world of new truths.

Each of these explanations has the ring of truth about it, but even taken together they seem to lack the power to explain the extraordinary hold of research over the values, and the reward systems, of academe. The clue to the mystery may lie, as it often does, in the extremes, both the bad and the good.

Once removed from the truth?

On the bad side, take the matter of violation of research standards. Such a violation--research fraud--is an extremely serious offense; it can and often does permanently damage a researcher's career. Teachers, like researchers, can be weak or uninspired, and teachers, like researchers, can falsify credentials or otherwise behave unethically. But while researchers are held strictly and directly accountable for what they put forth, teachers are not. In fact, "teaching fraud" seems to be a non-issue; it is doubtful if the concept even exists, at least in anything like the sense applied in research. This curious discrepancy has something to do with the perception of research as a search for truth. Those who dare come so close to something as powerful as truth are held in awe; researchers are expected, in return, to hold to an uncompromising standard, hence violators fall rapidly from grace. Teachers, in contrast, are seen as messengers, at one remove from truth; they stand in relation to researchers in much the same way as critics do to creative artists, or performers to playwrights and composers: recipients of derivative power.

Looked at from the positive side, the greatest researchers are heroes. Among their ranks are the Nobel laureates, endowed with magisterial power and authority. And then, greatest among the teachers, there is … Mr. Chips, beloved and appreciated to be sure, but not particularly respected. Heroism takes many forms: raw strength and courage, defense of the weak, self-sacrifice. But heroism's most enduring expression may lie in exploration of the unknown--the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Mission: "to boldly go where no one has gone before. ... " Explorers find new places, settlers follow in their footsteps; researchers find new knowledge, teachers teach what researchers have discovered, what is already known. Research is action, creation; teaching is reaction, recreation.

Or so goes the conventional wisdom. But on closer inspection, the distinction between what really happens in teaching vs. research breaks down. Think of it this way: When, through good teaching, a student understands a truth he or she didn't understand before, that knowledge is just as new to the student as the discovery of a new truth through research is to the researcher and to the world at large. The only difference is that in the student's case the "new" knowledge is already known to a lot of other people, while the researcher's "new" knowledge must be new to all of human thinking, otherwise it is not a true discovery. Since the researcher's newness is seen as heroic, while the teacher's is not, it is precisely this element of newness to the human race that accounts for the enormous value placed on research. (How else can we explain why the competition for priority in research is so intense, so uncompromising?) (1).

In fact, a great many "new" research discoveries later turn out to be rediscoveries, the original having been overlooked or forgotten, but somehow this doesn't seem to reduce the credit assigned to the researcher, as long as the rediscovery was truly arrived at independently. Looking even deeper, the steps in the cyclic process by which researchers generate new knowledge--problem finding, question asking, answer seeking, portrayal of knowledge--"map" exactly onto the steps in the process by which students acquire new knowledge (new to them), at least when the learning is experiential--concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, active experimentation (2).

Looked at this way, the new knowledge created in students' heads through the efforts of teachers is essentially indistinguishable from the new knowledge created by researchers. How can we say, therefore, that the student's new knowledge is any less important than the researcher's? And how can we say that knowledge-minting teachers deserve any less credit than their knowledge-minting counterparts in research?

The balance of power

But, alas for teaching, the equivalent value of these two forms of new knowledge seems to have been caught up and largely obliterated in the ubiquitous struggle for control, for power. Teaching is, by its very nature, a shared enterprise, hence it has trouble arrogating power to itself in the same way that research can. The disparities run throughout the worlds of teaching and research: even the distribution systems (publication) for the results of research vastly outweigh those available to teachers. Indeed, when teaching becomes highly efficient and effective, it paradoxically becomes suspect. The psychiatrist Thomas Szasz clearly, if somewhat bitterly, articulated this curious discordance between power and teaching: "We can conclude that--the psychology of human relationships being what it is--in adult education there is an inverse relationship between 'power' and 'learning.' Only the 'weak' can teach. If the teacher comes into too much power, he ceases to be a 'teacher' and becomes instead a religious or political (or other 'group') 'leader.' "

Is there reason to expect that the balance of power between research and teaching in academe can be shifted? Perhaps so, but such a shift may depend on teaching at least being included, ultimately, among the serious, professional performing arts. More importantly, it may require building a case for the value of the knowledge newly acquired through teaching that equals the case now made for the new knowledge acquired through research.

Frank Davidoff is Editor of Annals of Internal Medicine.


1. Watson JD. "The Double Helix. Being a Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA, a Major Scientific Advance Which Led to the Award of a Nobel Prize." New York; Atheneum, 1968.

2. Kolb DA. "Experiential Learning. Experience as the Source of Learning and Development." PTR Prentice Hall; Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1984, p. 33.

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