Tag Archives: college curriculum

Stanford’s Wildly Popular ‘Self-Help’ Course

Mechanical Engineering 104B!  The most popular course offered at Stanford University, Silicon Valley incubator and home of one of the top engineering schools in America, ranked #2 in the country by U.S. News, just under M.I.T. And you, lucky Stanford student, can take Mechanical Engineering 104B just because you got into Stanford and made it to your junior or senior year—it’s upper-division and graduate level only. There are no prerequisites. No math, no science. You don’t have to know a single thing about mechanical engineering, much less major in it, and you might even still be thinking that “engineering” means keeping a train running on its tracks.

The class is titled “Designing Your Life,” and one of its co-instructors is William Burnett, a former designer for Mattel and Apple and adjunct engineering professor who heads Stanford’s undergraduate program in product design. Product design at Stanford is a rigorous major that requires a raft of math, physics, psychology, studio art, and above all, mechanical engineering courses in order to graduate—as well it should, because just think of all the technical skills you’d need just to design an office chair that someone might want to sit in all day.

Anyone Can Do It

But in Mechanical Engineering 104B, no worry about any of that actual engineering stuff. “This isn’t a technical course,” its webpage reassures soothingly, and you’ll never have to design one thing in order to pass (the course is pass-fail anyway). “There may be some simple projects…, but nothing that takes any prior design or fabrication experience. Anyone can do it and it’s a great thing to learn.”

Instead, what “Designing Your Life” offers—and what attracts a full 17 percent of Stanford juniors and seniors to sign up for it, so many that the course is offered continuously throughout the three-quarter terms that make up Stanford’s academic year—is what Burnett and his co-instructor, fellow Stanford adjunct David Evans (leader of the team that developed the first Apple mouse), call “Design Thinking.” And “Design Thinking” sounds an awful lot like…plain old-fashioned self-help.

Need to figure out what to do after graduation? Find a mate? How about filling up those long days after you retire? How about losing weight? “I’ve lost 25 pounds, reconnected with close friends and refocused my energy on specific goals and habits,” wrote New York Times health columnist Tara Parker-Pope reporting on Design Thinking in January 2016. “Design thinking has helped me identify the obstacles that were stopping me from achieving my goals, and it’s helped me reframe my problems to make them easier to solve.”

Keeping a ‘Gratitude Journal’       

Indeed, the Design Your Life course’s relation to actual product design seems to be strictly metaphoric. Juniors and seniors who sign up for the two-credit course, monitored by Evans and Burnett with the help of guest lecturers and a flock of student-volunteers who lead discussion groups engage in such activities (according to a Fast Company report) as keeping a “gratitude journal,” working with “a deck of cards featuring problem-solving techniques,” and drafting “odyssey plans” for their first five years out of school. For Stanford sophomores, there is a starter course, Mechanical Engineering 104B, “Design Your Stanford,” in which they can earn another two credits plotting out the rest of their education. And For grad students and postdocs, there’s Engineering 311B, “Designing the Professional,” offering the opportunity to draft career-based “odyssey plans.”

As for Stanfordians unlucky enough to have graduated before Evans and Burnett launched Design Your Life in 2010—and for those whose SAT scores weren’t high enough to get them into Stanford in the first place—Evans and Burnett have a best-selling 2016 book, Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived Joyful Life. Alternatively, knock-off, or perhaps parallel, Design Thinking classes and workshops have been sprouting up like ailanthus trees around the country: at the University of Vermont, the Chicago-based online school IDEO U, and K-12 teachers’ conferences everywhere.

Looking for Moral Order

How Stanford’s prestigious and rigorous engineering school got into the touchy-feely purveying business most likely has to do with two factors: the desire of engineers to feel less like slide-rule pushers and more like creative artists and the yearning of hyper-educated young people for meaning and moral order in a post-religious world. (A 2008 study by the Templeton Foundation found that only a fourth of college juniors attended regular religious services, and 38 percent of them never set foot in a house of worship.) During the mid-1960s Stanford had created a “Joint Program in Design,” (often called the “Stanford Design Program”) an inter-departmental collaboration between its art and engineering departments predicated on the then-novel idea that design engineering should be “human-centered,” as one of the program’s founders called it. It offered undergraduate and graduate degrees in both mechanical engineering and fine arts/design. All students had to take a class called “visual thinking” in which they took “voyages” in a 15-foot geodesic dome featuring light shows aimed at stimulating their creativity.

Then, in 2004, Stanford mechanical engineering professor David Kelley, apparent coiner of the phrase Design Thinking to describe a project-based methodology for solving problems and heavily involved in the design program, used a grant from German software billionaire Hasso Plattner to help found—and erect a multi-million-dollar campus building for—the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, known informally as the “d-school.” The d-school doesn’t grant degrees, but its warehouse-like open-plan structure does offer an atmosphere that satisfies many people’s ideas of what creativity is all about: whiteboards for scribbling ideas, sticky notes all over the walls, and cool vintage cars and minimalist furniture as decoration.

Most significantly, the d-school offers undergraduate and graduate-level courses that have the coveted Stanford “mechanical engineering” label attached to them, even as they sometimes skirt the more demanding aspects of mechanical engineering. The course-takers typically hail from Stanford’s other schools besides engineering who can earn credits for taking such courses as “Civic Dreams, Human Spaces,” “Designing for Extreme Affordability,” and “Beyond Pink and Blue: Gender in Tech.” Neither Burnett nor Evans is officially on the d-school faculty roster, but Design Your Life is definitely from the d-school template

From Engineering to Life Design

Lately, though, Stanford’s School of Engineering has been distancing itself from the d-school’s free-for-all ethos. For example, it has discontinued the 1960s-era Joint Program in Design, whose last class graduated a few days ago in June. The school replaced the graduate-level program with a tough-minded master’s program in “design impact engineering” that includes no art courses, accepts no art majors, and requires all its applicants to have solid engineering or hard science backgrounds. A page on the program’s website diplomatically explains that the master’s program has no connection to the d-school, which, it says, was set up to give Stanford students “confidence in their creative ability,” not teach them “depth and expertise in design.”

Still, that hasn’t thrust any sand into the well-oiled—and clearly lucrative–gears of Design Your Life. On the Burnett-Evans website, you can learn about the Design Your Life TEDx talk, the Design Your Life workshops coming up in August, and the fact that Northern Arizona University selected Designing Your Life as its freshman book read. Oh, and “Designing Your Life for Women”: a $950 two-day immersion in “odyssey plans,” “group ideation,” and “your three potential futures,” plus meditation and kundalini yoga for an extra $45. You won’t get Stanford mechanical engineering credit for this, but you will, it’s promised, “flourish.”

A Big Campus Trend: Ignorance of U.S. History

This is an excerpt from the new ACTA report, No U.S. History? How College History Departments Leave the United States out of the Major. It reveals that fewer than 1/3 of the nation’s leading colleges and universities require students pursuing a degree in history to take a single course in American history. Read the full report is here.

Although it is reasonable to assume that at America’s top-ranked colleges and universities, education for meaningful citizenship would be a priority, that is a false assumption. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) has delved into the requirements and course offerings in history departments at 76 of the nation’s leading colleges and universities to see how U.S. history fits into their programs. Only 23 undergraduate history programs at the U.S. News & World Report’s top 25 national universities, top 25 public institutions, and top 25 liberal arts colleges require a single U.S. history class.

The overwhelming majority of America’s most prestigious institutions do not require even the students who major in history to take a single course on United States history or government. Disregard for the importance of United States history in the undergraduate history major is matched by the overall disappearance of United States history requirements from general education, the core curriculum that should be part of every student’s education. ACTA’s annual “What Will They Learn?” survey shows that only 18% of the over 1,100 four-year colleges and universities in the study, public and private, require a foundational course in United States history or United States government.

Related: What’s American about American History?

The consequences of these weak academic standards are clear. ACTA’s surveys of college graduates reveal year after year deep and widespread ignorance of United States history and government. In 2012, 2014, and 2015, ACTA commissioned the research firm GfK to survey college graduates’ knowledge of American history. ACTA sees the same dispiriting results each time:

  • Less than 20% could accurately identify—in a multiple-choice survey—the effect of the Emancipation Proclamation.
  • Less than half could identify George Washington as the American general at Yorktown.
  • Only 42% placed the Battle of the Bulge in the history of World War II.
  • One-third of college graduates were unaware that FDR introduced the New Deal.
  • Nearly half did not know that Teddy Roosevelt played a major role in constructing the Panama Canal

. • Over one-third of the college graduates surveyed could not place the American Civil War in its correct 20-year time frame.

  • Nearly half of the college graduates could not identify correctly the term lengths of U.S. senators and representatives. Reputation and high tuition are no guarantee that students will know the history of their nation.

When ACTA commissioned a Roper survey of seniors at the “Top 50” colleges and universities, those holding the most prestigious positions in the U.S. News & World Report rankings, it found that only 29% could identify—in a multiple-choice survey—the definition of “Reconstruction.” Little more than half could identify the purpose of the Federalist Papers. Only 23% could name James Madison as the Father of the Constitution. And only 22% could match the phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people” with the Gettysburg Address.

Bottom line: No college or university can assume that students have even an elementary grasp of the important moments in United States history in the absence of a requirement for its study.

Related: “Big History’ Kicks U.S. History to the Back of the Class

Given what we know about the historical illiteracy of young Americans, it would seem irresponsible not to make the study of our history and government mandatory for all students. Not to require students majoring in history to take, at a minimum, a course with reasonable chronological and thematic breadth on the history of the United States would be a truly breathtaking abandonment of intellectual standards and professional judgment. We find in our study of the top 25 liberal arts colleges, the top 25 national universities, and the top 25 public institutions that only 23 programs out of 76 require a course on our nation’s history. That’s less than one-third.

Why top undergraduate departments behave this way is unclear. Perhaps it is from fear of seeming to endorse “American exceptionalism.” Or perhaps it comes from a naïve belief that American students already have a firm grasp of their nation’s history. Either way, the damage is real. Virtually all institutions offer comprehensive courses on America’s past, but the overwhelming majority do not take the vitally important next step of ensuring that all graduating majors have taken one of these courses.

Look at What Yale Does

This only-if-you-want-to approach will undoubtedly lead scores of history majors to graduate without ever taking a course on United States history beyond the high-school level. Yale University exemplifies this desire to maximize student choice at the cost of essential requirements.

It recently implemented a “specialist track” that allows history majors beginning with the class of 2017 to forgo a requirement in U.S. history whereas previous students were required to take at least two courses in the history of the United States or Canada. According to the department’s website, this new option was “created in response to students’ desire to focus in particular areas of interest earlier in the History major.” Likewise, Rice University required students who matriculated before fall 2014 to take one course in United States history, but their new set of requirements makes it merely optional.

It is not the case that history departments refuse to set any requirements for the major. Although a large majority of schools fail to require even a single course in U.S. history, as noted above, many do have geographical-distribution requirements excluding the United States.

Higher education leadership needs to face the problem squarely and take action. Our colleges and universities, whether in the name of “inclusion” or globalism or a debased hope that they will attract more students by eliminating requirements, have created a vicious circle of historical illiteracy and the civic illiteracy that accompanies it. This illiteracy extends to the troubling way that students view fundamental aspects of our nation’s structure of law and government.

A 2016 Gallup poll showed that 27% of college students supported “restricting the expression of political views that upset or offend certain groups.” Another 49% believed it is right to prevent reporters from covering protests held on college campuses if they believe the reporting will be “unfair.” Those who do not know the history of the nation are, of course, much more likely to view its constitutional freedoms with nonchalance.

What Students Need

If our colleges and universities seek to retain public support of their work, they must understand that a high-quality curriculum comes from informed choices, developed through the reason, professional training, and good sense of faculty and college leadership. Faculties have the right to pursue personal intellectual interests, but they also have an obligation to address what students need to learn.

Trustees and administrators should insist that departments articulate with far greater clarity what students should know. Until a college comes together as an academic institution and addresses the question of what it means to be a college-educated individual, the curriculum will continue its expensive, chaotic expansion to the detriment of students’ intellectual development. It is totally appropriate for trustees to insist upon a requirement for every undergraduate to study the history of the United States and its institutions.

In reviewing the history program, trustees and administrators should not hesitate to ask the provost and the chairman of the history department to explain the department’s rationale for what it does and does not require of history majors. While respecting academic freedom, good academic governance prioritizes the needs of students to have a meaningful and coherent curriculum. And that means ensuring that United States history is part of the history major’s program. If ever there were an educational imperative that should claim the interest of alumni and donors, it is ensuring that college graduates understand our nation.

Alumni outcry over deficiencies in the curricula of their institutions can be a powerful force for change. Donors, as individuals or as a consortium, can create initiatives with incentives to add core requirements. In other words, their funding can be used to build the capacity to add sections of essential courses in American history and government, with the institution’s agreement that the result would be a firm requirement for history majors to study the history of the United States, enhanced with new faculty resources. That requirement should quickly extend to every student pursuing a liberal arts degree. Such donations would be a contribution not only to the alma mater but also to the nation as a whole.

What Candidates Can Do For Higher Education Now

By Peter Wood

In 2014 Senator Marco Rubio lent his support to CASA, the Campus Accountability and Safety Act—the effort by Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill and New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand to strip the due process rights of students accused of sexual assault.  The bill died that year but McCaskill and Gillibrand brought it back in 2015, and Senator Rubio renewed his support.

It is a terrible piece of legislation, and one that no reasonably informed observer of higher education who cares about the rule of law and individual rights on campus could support. Yet one of the mainstream GOP presidential candidates co-sponsored it, presumably because he calculates that it is “good politics” to be able to say he opposes “rape culture.”

Related: Gillibrand Revised—Still No Due Process

This one instance of many testifies to how little attention our leading candidates pay to higher education. Americans, however, have been shocked to see students at Dartmouth, Princeton, Yale, and other elite institutions protesting against free speech—and college presidents bowing down before little ripped-jeans, tuition-subsidized junior-league totalitarians.   Now would be a good time for some presidential candidates to come up with a real program for reform.

So far, the only candidates to propose anything noteworthy are Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.  Sanders has floated a $47 billion proposal to eliminate undergraduate tuition at four-year public colleges and universities. Clinton has countered with a “New College Compact” that would spend $350 billion over ten years to eliminate student loans.

Making college an entitlement may appeal to some voters, but it would do nothing to end the open hostility to free inquiry that marks our campuses now. Here are some suggestions for how to take back the campus from those who are intent on making it a 24-7 taxpayer-subsidized indoctrination camp:

  1. Respect freedom of thought and expression. Colleges and universities should demonstrate commitment to these freedoms. They should, for example, establish independent standing committees on free expression. College leaders need to stand up against movements that try to turn academic freedom inside out by justifying mob action and intimidation as “free expression.” If they prefer instead to shelter students in “safe spaces,” they forfeit any claim to public respect—and public support.

Related: How Political Correctness Corrupted the Colleges

  1. Treat men and women equitably. Amend Title IX of the Higher Education Act, which was originally enacted to ensure that women in college had equal opportunities. It has been twisted over time by bad court decisions and radical feminist regulators to justify denying men due process, cutting men’s sports, and reducing men to a minority group on most campuses.

Curtail the Office for Civil Rights in the Department of Education which has, without Congressional approval, churned out regulations on the unwarranted premise that sexual assault is a form of “discrimination” covered by Title IX.  Sexual assault is a crime, best handled by the police and the courts, as Bernie Sanders has just said. Endorse the Safe Campus Act, which allows a college to conduct its own inquiry into a reported sexual assault only if the alleged victim consents to an investigation by law enforcement.

  1. End higher education’s destructive focus on race. Presidential candidates should join the majority of Americans who oppose racial preferences in hiring and college admissions. This may be a long fight. A good first step would be to expose the sheer extent of these preferences by passing legislation that requires colleges and universities to disclose them in detail by publishing admitted students’ standardized test scores and GPAs, broken down by race.
  1. Fix the student loan debacle. First, end the perverse incentives by which the government actively encourages students to take on unnecessary debt. Prompt students to think carefully about their college choices by favoring loans that go towards programs that meet national needs and that possess academic rigor. Cap each student’s total borrowing for tuition and other college expenses. Make colleges partly liable for student loan defaults.  Create federal incentives for three-year programs and the $10,000 B.A. pioneered by Texas.

Related: Making a Bigger Mess of Student Loans

  1. End federal cronyism in higher education. Bust the accrediting cartel, which impedes competition by hindering the creation of new colleges and online education. End the cozy relationship between the government and the College Board, a private monopoly that has compromised academic standards via its politically correct changes in the SATs and the Advanced Placement history courses.
  1. Restore the integrity of the sciences. Require the National Science Foundation and other federal funding bodies to spend research dollars on research, not public advocacy. End sycophantic science—the bribing of scientists to produce “findings” meant primarily to advance political causes. Pass the Secret Science Reform Act which would require universities to disclose the data and the manipulations behind publicly-funded research.  (The data behind Michael Mann’s infamous “hockey stick” graph, first published in April 1998, is still) Science that can’t be replicated isn’t science.
  1. Enhance the curriculum. Colleges should be free to decide what courses they offer and how these add up to a college degree, but our political leaders can reasonably exhort college leaders to set meaningful requirements and to offer students a coherent curriculum that includes core subjects such as Western civilization and American history.

Related: Emptying Content from College Courses

These steps would serve everyone, rich and poor, of every ethnicity, and would just as importantly serve America. We’ve allowed many of our colleges and universities to decline into little more than servants of progressive politics. But higher education should never be political indoctrination, welfare for special interests, or back scratching for politicians. It is time for a principled candidate to say “Enough!” and to take concrete steps to restore higher education to the nation’s colleges and universities.


Peter Wood is President of the National Association of Scholars.


Too Many Hollow Men on Campus

Commentators are mocking the antics of ersatz college students, calling them “snowflakes,” “crybullies,” and the “pink guard,” the latter indicating their intellectual and moral kinship to Mao’s red guard. But where does responsibility for all the silliness lie? With the administrators.

Consider the words of three university presidents, whose attitudes appear to be ubiquitous. In resigning his presidency, Timothy Wolfe, of the University of Missouri, said, “We need to use my resignation – please, please – use this resignation to heal, not to hate; and let’s move forward together for a brighter tomorrow.” Where leadership was required to make it perfectly clear that the university is not a habitat for melodramatic play-acting, Wolfe instead validates the actors by begging them not to hate and then leaves the scene.

Related: How PC Corrupted the Colleges President

Peter Salovey, of Yale University, stated, “I see the pain that certain kinds of costumes cause some students on our campus, and I think we want to create a campus environment where everyone feels welcomed and valued, and that kind of pain should be not a typical experience.” Pain engendered by a costume at Yale!

At Amherst College, President Biddy Martin stated, “I could not be sadder about the pain that many of our students are feeling or more determined to meet their demand for change.” Pain again – very touching!

Although disturbing, this behavior is not new. In Closing of the American Mind, Alan Bloom, while describing the campus madness of a half a century ago, wrote:

The professors, the repositories of our best traditions and highest intellectual aspirations, were fawning over what was nothing better than a rabble; publicly confessing their guilt and apologizing for not having understood the most important moral issues, the proper response to which they were learning from the mob; expressing their willingness to change the university’s goals and the content of what they taught.

Related: The Long Shadow of the Sixties

One could argue that the behavior of the pusillanimous university officials back in the 1960s was worse than that of their spineless brethren of today. Indeed, the administrative class of the 1960s began the destruction of the university as a place of serious learning.

A mere handful of years following appeasement of the mob, the universities had impoverished their course offerings with pabulum so that students would be amused instead of educated (science not escaping unscathed). Whereas the appeasers of the 1960s made a conscious decision to reject civilization, their betrayal has bequeathed us faculty and administrators who possess only marginal contact with civilization. They can fawn and crawl more easily because they know of nothing to defend.

Lest the defense of civilization seem a grandiose mission for education, hear Will Durant:

“Man differs from the beast only by education, which may be defined as the technique of transmitting civilization…its language and knowledge, its morals and manners, its technology and arts – must be handed down to the young, as the very instrument through which they are turned from animals into men.

The question for the leaders of our educational establishment is simple: Do you desire men or beasts? No doubt, they will run from the question and try to hide behind twaddle like diversity and inclusiveness. But in the enduring words of Joe Louis, “They can run but they can’t hide.” Just as Billy Conn lying flat in the ring validated Louis’ hypothesis, the mayhem on today’s campuses demonstrates the culpability of university leaders in the flattening of what was once higher education

Geniuses the Young Don’t Read

And what of the civilization that is being eradicated, the one that has given us Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, Augustine, Dante, Shakespeare, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Locke, Voltaire, Hume, Kant, Gauss, Michelangelo, Bach, Mozart, Dostoevsky, Cervantes, and Einstein? Any decent undergraduate education will at minimum, introduce the student to the work of all twenty. What kind of men would in deference to the demands of a mob, deprive the younger generation contact with the genius of mankind?

They are the kind Hannah Arendt chastised in “The Crisis in Education,” when she wrote, “In education this responsibility for the world takes the form of authority…. Authority has been discarded by the adults, and this can mean only one thing: that the adults refuse to assume responsibility for the world into which they have brought the children.”

Although often lost in the din of narcissism and cowardice, there is still outstanding faculty on our campuses, even at Yale, home to historian Donald Kagan and political philosopher Steven Smith. One can view Kagan’s course, “Introduction to Ancient Greek History,” and Smith’s course, “Introduction to Political Philosophy,” on YouTube. Both courses exhibit what is best in the university. Kagan discusses the strengths and weaknesses of Athenian democracy, and how the loss of moral fiber, contributed to the Athenian defeat at Chaeronea – an invaluable lesson for potential future leaders.

Smith brilliantly weaves the story of political philosophy from ancient Greece to American democracy. What a repast: Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Tocqueville. At the conclusion, Smith addresses the situation today: “How can we begin a comprehensive reeducation of today’s political science? The only answer–and the best answer I can give you today–is simply to read old books. These are our best teachers in a world where real teachers are in short supply.”

If the Yale administration were truly concerned with the welfare of its students, a superb course of action would be to require them to read old books and take Smith’s course. No doubt, this is too much to ask from a university whose Liberal Arts Education webpage boasts, “There is no specific class you have to take at Yale…Yale is one of the only universities in the country that lets you try out your classes before you register. The first ten days of each semester are known as ‘Shopping Period.’” Should it be surprising that recent videos from Yale look more like shopping malls on Black Friday than an institution for the transmission of civilization?

In the end, we are left with a core question: Fundamentally, what kind of people are these who debase our universities and let civilization be trampled under the feet of the mob?  We turn to T. S. Eliot, who has written their song:

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar


The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) has just released its sixth edition of “What Will They Learn,” examining the coherence (or lack of it) of the subjects and courses American college students take. These are excerpts from the executive summary.

By and large, higher education has abandoned a coherent, content-rich general education curriculum.  Colleges frequently extol the virtues of a broad-based, “well-rounded” liberal arts education in their course catalogs and mission statements. The reality is, however, that 64.4% of the schools surveyed require three or fewer of the seven core subjects we looked at: literature, composition, American history, foreign language, mathematics, economics and science.

This report makes clear that cost and reputation do not predict the strength of a school’s core curriculum. Students attending U.S. News’s top national universities and liberal arts colleges are typically paying well over $40,000 each year in tuition and fees, but some of these schools require none of the seven core subjects. In sharp contrast, public universities—where the median in-state tuition and fees are a fraction of that amount—require an average of over three. An encouraging finding is that public colleges and universities generally do a better job maintaining requirements in science and English composition than do private institutions, and Historically Black Colleges and Universities are noteworthy for their strong requirements. And our military service academies also have outstanding, rigorous requirements.

Little-Known Colleges Get “A”s

The list of schools that received “A” grades includes some schools like Pepperdine and Baylor, renowned for their commitment to the liberal arts and academic excellence, but there are also some that deserve to be better known, such as Christopher Newport University, Clark Atlanta University, Colorado Christian University, Kennesaw State University, Houston Baptist University, the United States Coast Guard Academy, Bluefield College, and Regent University. The “F” list includes such august names as the University of California–Berkeley, Bowdoin, Hamilton, and Vassar. That some of the best-known colleges earn poor marks for general education doesn’t mean they don’t do other things well. But what is clear is that many highly regarded universities enroll some of our nation’s top students and then give them nothing more than a “do-it-yourself” curriculum. 

Trivial Courses Abound

While distribution requirements seem like an appealing idea on paper, in practice they usually allow students to graduate with only a thin and patchy education. Students may have dozens or even hundreds of courses from which to choose, many of them highly specialized niche courses. Once distribution requirements become too loose, students almost inevitably graduate with an odd list of random, unconnected courses and, all too often, serious gaps in their basic skills and knowledge. For example:

  • University of Colorado–Boulder: Among the 45 courses that satisfy the “United States Context” requirement are “Horror Films and American Culture,” “Music in American Culture,” and “America Through Baseball.”
  • Elmira College: Students can fulfill the “United States Culture and Civilization” requirement with “Mental Illness in the Media,” “Leisure Marketing in America,” and “The Golden Age of T.V.”
  • University of Illinois–Springfield: “Game of Thrones” fulfills the Humanities requirement.
  • University of California–Davis: Students may take “Vampires and Other Horrors in Film and Media” to fulfill the American Culture, Governance, and History requirements.

Tennessee and Georgia

In some states, such as Texas and Georgia, legislatures have created strong requirements for the study of U.S. history and government. It is clear, however, that great vigilance is needed in upholding such state laws. Regents and trustees have also taken the initiative to create comprehensive general education standards, as seen in states such as Tennessee, South Dakota, Georgia, and Nevada, where those requirements apply to all schools within a system or even a state. In Georgia, for example, the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia (USG) has established statewide core curriculum guidelines. The result: The 20 institutions governed by the USG require an average of 4.3 of the seven subjects studied in “What Will They Learn?”, well above the national average of 3. Similar results can be found at the universities under the jurisdiction of the Tennessee Board of Regents, the Oklahoma State Regents, and the Nevada Board of Regents.

Less than 13% of the schools we studied require students to learn a foreign language at the intermediate level. Some allow elementary study of the kind typically required in high school to suffice; others have no requirement at all. Some allow classes in both American and foreign cultures taught in English. Recently at Union College, for example, students could substitute foreign language study with “Narratives of Haunting in U.S. Ethnic Literature”; and at Western Illinois University, courses such as “Food and Culture” and “Global Social Networks” stand in for foreign language proficiency.

Little U.S. History

Despite the boasts of college catalogs, few of their curricula will help prepare students to be informed and engaged citizens. This year’s survey showed that little more than 18% of our colleges and universities require even a single foundational course in U.S. government or history. Rather than learning about the foundations of their country, students are allowed to fulfill requirements with courses such as “History of Rock” or “Horror Films and American Culture.” Citing ACTA’s earlier surveys, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni pointedly observed that “the profound and widespread ignorance” about federal processes has been a major impediment to effective governance.

Colleges and universities regularly speak of preparing their graduates for global competition. Yet despite the increasing importance of economics, just over 3% of the institutions studied require students to take a basic economics class.

The National Survey of America’s College Students found that 20% of college students completing four-year degrees could not reliably “calculate the total cost of ordering office supplies.” This should be no surprise given the fact that 59.4% of colleges and universities believe students should take a college-level mathematics class. This ignorance is of more than academic interest; at a time when policymakers and the international job market clamor for increased technical competence and expanded enrollments in the STEM fields, inattention to math skills puts our nation at a serious competitive disadvantage.

 All Those Diffuse Courses

Studies like the federal government’s National Assessment of Adult Literacy and, most recently, the findings in the book Academically Adrift, tell us beyond a shadow of a doubt that many college students spend a lot of time and money but, in return, gain very little that qualifies as higher education. Admittedly, there is no simple solution to this problem. But having a baccalaureate degree signify real learning is surely a place to start. And moving away from the diffuse array of courses that now passes as general education to a real core curriculum is clearly a major part of the solution.

Colleges and universities must make improving general education an urgent priority. Students and parents should vote with their wallets for the institutions that provide a sound foundation. The ratings in this book are available at WhatWillTheyLearn.com, a free resource that is continually updated and expanded. While there are many questions to ask before choosing a college, “What will they learn?” is surely among the most essential. If students and their parents place more emphasis on education rather than reputation, institutions will respond.

Alumni and donors should take an active interest in the strength of their alma maters’ general education programs. They should not allow their degrees to be devalued by a decline in standards, and they can speak up against lowering standards.

Boards of trustees in collaboration with faculty members, should insist on a course of study that will ensure students learn the essentials: This means general education curricula characterized by meaningful requirements, satisfied by a select number of courses. Without leadership from trustees and administrators, internal campus decision-making often results in a fragmented and ineffective curriculum. While curricular change may make some faculty and departments unhappy, it is critical in giving students the education they need.

This past year, 21 of the nation’s most distinguished college presidents, trustees, and policymakers met under the leadership of former Yale University president and CUNY board chair Benno Schmidt. In their published report, Governance for a New Era: A Blueprint for Higher Education Trustees, they called upon trustees to reexamine their institutions’ general education programs and to push back against the costly proliferation of classes offered in lieu of a rigorous core curriculum. ACTA’s Restoring a Core trustee guide shows how trustees can work in partnership with faculty and administrators to advance meaningful general education requirements.