Archive: Jul 2010



This post first appeared on the opinion page of the St. Paul Pioneer Press on Thursday, July 15, 2010. I adapted this column from remarks I made upon receiving Metropolitan State University’s 2010 Alumnus Award.

Teaching, learning and hemlock

Creating capacity for dialogue — with one’s self

Gov. Tim Pawlenty used a recent appearance with Jon Stewart on ‘The Daily Show’ to promote his market elixir for the purported ills of higher education. If his idea of an ‘iCollege’ were to become the norm, liberal arts professors like me would have little choice but to join Socrates in drinking the hemlock.

“Can’t I just pull that down on my iPhone or iPad whenever the heck I feel like it, from wherever I feel like?” he said. “And instead of paying thousands of dollars, can I pay $199 for iCollege instead of 99 cents for iTunes?”

Implicit in this sound bite lurks a philosophy of education: College is primarily a consumer transaction. Pawlenty’s business model makes no mention of quality, rigor, or critical thought. In his iCollege, the development of well-educated persons and well-informed citizens would take a back seat to the convenience and cost of buying credentials online.

Gov. Pawlenty: Socrates and I beg to differ. If only teaching and learning were so effortless. Let me assure you, as a college teacher and lifelong learner, they are not.

Education does not occur within the head of a teacher or between the ears of a student. Instruction takes place in that mysterious space between educator and pupil. The teaching-learning process is a dialogue — and nothing demonstrates this truth like its absence in a classroom, or online. The educator speaks and gestures inarticulately; the pupil sits mutely, mystified by the charade. The teacher pretends to teach and the student pretends to learn.

Monologues like this are a perversion of teaching and learning. What is more common in classrooms and online is what the social philosopher Martin Buber calls “technical dialogue.” In this circumstance, the educator transmits knowledge and skills and students receive and utilize these tools. The transaction is only skin-deep. Technical education seeks competence, not the meaning of life.

In genuine dialogue, teachers bring not just knowledge and skills but their deepest selves to the encounter. The purpose of this vulnerability is to reduce the distance between the instructor and the pupil. This dialogical moment creates a sacred space, what Buber calls the “between.” Within this realm — for both the teacher and the learner — intellect encounters heart and soul. “Good teachers,” writes the educator Parker Palmer, “join self and subject and students into the fabric of life.”

Once the student embarks on this journey of self-discovery, the quest for meaning is transcendent. A true educator does not impose but seeks only to further the student’s personal destiny. For Buber, this ends the educational process. I would argue that he neglects a crucial final step in teaching and learning.

Whether it is an introductory course or a senior seminar, I begin each class by telling the students that it is my intention to help them kill their teachers. (Since my demanding nature always rubs a few students the wrong way, I take the precaution of explaining that my meaning is metaphorical, not literal.) This invariably baffles beginning students, as it should. My remark is like a Zen koan, a riddle to ruminate upon until understood. If it still puzzles a senior, I realize I am only one semester away from failing as an educator. What is the point of my tutelage? Pursuing their own counsel, students must leave their teachers behind, no matter how cherished or respected. Teachers, on the other hand, should welcome such autonomy, seeking intellectual peers, not disciples.

Socrates describes this last stage as “a discourse that the mind carries on with itself about any subject it is considering.” Carrying on a dialogue with oneself is the hallmark of becoming one’s own teacher. This capacity for contemplation has always been the ideal outcome of a liberal arts education. The most valuable endowment that any university possesses is a wealth of such graduates — and wise the society that invests in their education.


This article appeared in yesterday’s, “a thoughtful approach to news.” It is one of the nation’s most successful daily online news sources that was started by the former publisher of the Minneapolis Star Tribune and is staffed by former senior “Stribe” journalists who either took buyouts or were laid off as the newspaper became a shell of it former self due to hedge funds failures and poor external management.

Monte Bute’s circuitous route to winning 2010 alumnus award from Metropolitan State University

By Casey Selix | Published Tue, Jul 6 2010 8:30 am

Monte Bute must be one of the most-unusual winners of Metropolitan State University’s annual alumnus award.

His teenage rebellion landed him in Red Wing’s reformatory school for boys. He dropped out of college in 1967 and dropped acid in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. He earned his peace stripes as an anti-war activist. He toiled for laborers as an organizer for Jobs Now! of Minnesota. He’s labored for the union representing faculty for Minnesota State Colleges and Universities.

Bute, an associate professor of sociology at St. Paul-based Metro State, took not only the road less traveled but also the long and winding road to his bachelor’s degree. Even Metro State’s award bio notes that he became a “a social scientist by the seat of his pants.” Excerpts:

Monte Bute

Monte Bute

“Bute began teaching at Metropolitan State as a community faculty member in 1984. He finally finished a long-delayed B.A. at the university in 1991. After a 20-year career as a community organizer, he realized that his next mission in life was teaching. To fulfill that calling, Bute began graduate school rather late in life.”

The official bio also describes Bute as a “prolific writer” and “first and foremost, a master teacher.”

But Bute’s account of his life is far more entertaining. His 2004 speech, “The Making of a Backstage Sociologist,” travels to the far-out corners of his life and reminds us of Metro State’s experimental roots. He gave the speech upon winning the Distinguished Sociologist award from Sociologists of Minnesota. A few excerpts:

“To be honored with the Distinguished Sociologist award is alone enough to leave one somewhat tongue-tied. Further compounding this sense of being dumbstruck is the eerie coincidence that this year’s meeting of the Sociologists of Minnesota (SOM) is being held at the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Red Wing.”

“I inhaled my sociological moxie the old-fashioned way — as a deviant, a dissident, and an organizer. I will probably never receive the American Sociological Association’s seal of approval.”

“Founded in 1971, Metropolitan State was an experimental college for adult learners. Finding myself at a school known for thumbing its nose at the academic establishment, I devised a course that was befitting — ‘Interpersonal and Social Power: A View From Below.’ While this was a pleasurable avocation, I kept my day job.”

The deviant, the dissident, the organizer and the sociologist come through vividly in his speech. Definitely worth reading. Too bad there isn’t video.

Update: No video link has shown up yet, but photos of Bute from the 1960s and later are on “The Monte Bute Fan Club” page on Facebook. Bute, who is undergoing chemotherapy for a rare form of lymphoma, says he still isn’t sure who among colleagues, friends and students set up the page. But he’s getting a kick out of it.


(#1) On July 6, 2010, Author Editor Nancy Hokkanen says:

I’m pleased to see Monte Bute’s educational contributions thus recognized and awarded. His vivid real-world presentations easily hold the attention of his weary, overcommitted working adult students.His provocative sociological discussions were in-depth, open-ended, inclusive. Participating in his class was a refreshing intellectual workout. He’s a gem.

(#2) On July 6, 2010, Author Editor Ken Peterson says:

Bute is a madman. That’s what several people have told me in the thirty years I’ve known Monte. Maybe. He’s also an inspiring teacher; an old fashioned search for truth,non-ideological public intellectual; an excellent organizer; a fine family man; and a loyal friend. The world should have more madmen and madwomen like Monte Bute.

(#3) On July 7, 2010, Author Editor Russ Stanton says:

Monte is indeed a madman, who revels in speaking truth to power. A teacher by instinct, he has the rare ability to unfailingly turn five minutes of testimony before legislative committees into a half hour of meaningful dialogue with legislators. His background and unconventional style are a prefect fit for Metro state and the students it serves.

(#4) On July 8, 2010, Author Editor Edward Malecki says:

Monte Bute and Metropolitan State have followed parallel paths. Both began as irreverent, radical experiments in higher education thumbing their respective noses at conventional wisdom and academic tradition. But over the years both have embraced enough of those traditions and enough of that wisdom to create a unique educational environment for adult learners. Students in Monte’s classes are challenged to think critically, which is the hallmark of classic liberal education and the core element of lifelong learning that is at the heart of Metro State’s educational philosophy.
Monte Bute embodies the passion, critical thinking and lifelong learning that Metropolitan State faculty seek to instill in all its graduates. Naming Monte as the 2010 recipient of the Alumnus of the Year is a tribute to the thousands of students who have graduated from the University and embody the traits of a well educated person. The award for Monte is also a tribute to the outstanding faculty in the Social Science department– Professors Nancy Black, Janet Enke, and Thomas O’Connell–who have not only tolerated this madcap academic, but also supported him and nurtured his students who do not always understand his passion for learning means that they will have to struggle with difficult materials and with critical self-examination of their own beliefs.
Everybody who has met Monte knows that he wears his passion for learning and teaching on his sleeve. If you are afraid about somebody bursting your balloon of hallowed beliefs, you might think it wise to avoid Bute and take an easier route. But you would be wrong because underneath his passion and strong beliefs is a gentle person who has learned that a life without pain is a life without learning. By struggling with and coming to terms with his own personal demons, Monte has served as a role model for countless students who came to Metro State doubting their ability to succeed in a rigorous academic environment. Like Monte, many of these thirty year olds started the journey earlier in their lives and had failed to achieve their goals. But Monte over the years has greeted thousands of new Metro students, young and old, at orientation meetings with an inspiring message: if a crazy guy like me can start late and succeed so can you.
Make no mistake, the Alumnus of the Year award is not a popularity contest. If that were the case, Bute would never receive the award. He has broken far too many eggs at Metro to make a seamless academic omelet. When I was the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, I could have earned my entire salary simply cleaning up the muddied waters Monte left behind in his drive to right wrongs and defend rights which were not universally perceived by others as rights and wrongs. Those stung by his barbs will probably question his selection as Alumnus of the Year, but even some of his harshest critics have to reluctantly concede that they too have occasionally benefitted from his willingness to attack pomposity and provide leadership at crucial moments in the life of Metro. Without his passionate leadership for a wide variety of causes, Metropolitan State would be a much different institution than it is today. And Monte’s selection as the Alumnus of Year is living proof that Metro State does indeed follow the beat of a different drummer.

(#5) On July 8, 2010, Author Editor Nancy Black says:

The stereotype of a university professor is a rather pompous, somewhat stuffy individual with elbow patches on jackets, a head in the clouds, who dithers around a campus. A single glance at Monte Bute explodes all such images.
This “madman’s” passion has many students soaring to reach intellectual heights they never dreamed possible. Not only does he continually hone his teaching style to engage and inspire students, but his contributions to Metropolitan State University over the years have been immeasurable in shaping the institution’s mission. As my colleague for the past 22 years, he has supplied endless material for social science courses. For example, when illustrating the term “socialization” to undergraduates, I often ask them to think of a professor in the Social Science Department who was “socialized by a pack of wolves.” They immediately understand the concept.
Working with, for and against Monte for the past two decades has never been dull, and I would not trade it for anything in the world. Thanks Monte.