Tag Archives: curriculum

The Fading of Liberal Education

The best ranking of undergraduate institutions by their general education is ACTA’s What Will They Learn? project. The evaluation looks at seven core subjects (composition, literature, foreign languages, U.S. government or history, economics, math, and science) and tallies whether schools require all students to show sufficient knowledge and proficiency in each one. The ACTA approach goes straight to the heart of learning, the content of the curriculum. Not the applicant size and selectivity, not diversity, not faculty research or Federal dollars, but only the courses students have to take in core subjects. ACTA has reviewed the requirements of 1,098 schools and scored each one on the standard A to F scale.

The degree to which higher education in America has abandoned the mission of liberal education may be measured by the number of schools that made ACTA’s A List. Today, fully 43 percent of all grades given in college are A grades, a bizarre leap from the 15 percent rate in 1960. But ACTA gave only 22 schools its highest score, or really only 21 if we combine St. John’s Annapolis with St. John’s Santa Fe. That makes for a rate of less than 2 percent.

How are we to square this meager commitment to general education with the findings of Academically Adrift, the opinions employers have of the knowledge and skills of recent graduates, and the rising cost of tuition?

There is something else worth noticing in the A List, apart from its microscopic size. We have 21 schools. Three of them are military: West Point, Air Force Academy, and the Coast Guard Academy. Interestingly, the most represented state is Georgia, with Clark Atlanta, Morehouse, Kennesaw State, Georgia Southern, and University of Georgia. Most noteworthy of all is that ten schools, nearly half of the list, are religious colleges:

Bluefield College

Clark Atlanta University

Colorado Christian University

Gardner-Webb University

Pepperdine University

Regent University

Southwest Baptist University

Thomas Aquinas College

Thomas More College of Liberal Arts

University of Dallas

My secular colleagues at research universities might be surprised by this commitment to breadth at religious institutions. In the eyes of many, higher education means thinking your way out of parochial perspectives—and religion IS parochial. When Thomas Aquinas on its home page casts the goal of “A Liberating Education” as preparing youths “to live well the life of the free citizen and of the Christian,” it can only strike secularists as a narrowing process, not a broadening one. Bluefield designs the curriculum as the creation of a “Christian academic community,” a term the irreverent professors regard as oxymoronic. Academia and Christianity don’t go together. Does Southwest Baptist have a vibrant queer theory collective?

But here we have evidence of the opposite, religious schools demanding more history, languages, and science than do their worldly competitors. The number of religious institutions on the list suggests another conclusion: that religious understanding is an opening, not a closure—indeed, that the secular departure from religious aims in the curriculum counts as a constraint, not a freedom.

Remember the Men of Marathon

On January 20, 1961, in his inaugural address, President John F. Kennedy stated that “the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God” and that, as a nation, “we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” The remarkable thing about these comments is that, at the time, they were so unremarkable. Where else but from God could rights come and was not liberty a rare condition always preserved with blood? Who would not find the new president’s comments obvious? Perhaps someone who has not grasped the significance of the heroic defense of freedom at Marathon, pondered the emergence of individual liberty at Runnymede, or contrasted the American and French Revolutions.

Of the “men of Marathon,” Plato writes, “So I say of these men that they are fathers not only of our bodies but of our freedom” and that Greeks became “students” of the men of Marathon. My father, who grew up on a farm and was forced to run it at the age of 16 when his father died, talked of the men of Normandy and thanked God for Oppenheimer and his colleagues in the Manhattan Project. Now, juxtapose the men of Marathon with today’s students, who are beneficiaries of the men of Marathon, Normandy, and a thousand other such places of heroism, suffering, and death. Instead of being students of the men of Marathon, or of their successors in the Academy or the Lyceum, they carry signs and vent rage with regard to some topic of the day. Had these intrepid students been at Marathon, would they have stomped their feet and accused Darius of microagressions, and would such indignation have stopped the Persians while Darius genuflected and performed the ritual apologies?

Civilization Is Perishable

With respect to our universities, consider these words of historian Will Durant:

Civilization is not something inborn or imperishable; it must be acquired anew by every generation, and any serious interruption in its financing or its transmission may bring it to an end. Man differs from the beast only by education, which may be defined as the technique of transmitting civilization.

Are universities transmitting civilization? Are students reading Sophocles, Dante, and Tolstoy? Are they studying the deep epistemological problems pertaining to climate, medicine, and other complex scientific issues? Evidently, many are not; otherwise, they would not demand simplistic solutions to age-old conundrums or to recent problems regarding large-scale dynamical systems.

Civilization is perishable and its collapse, along with disastrous consequences, has recently been witnessed in the twentieth century with the rise of Bolshevism and Nazism. There was good reason for reading Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (required) and William Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (recommended) in high school. Liberty and its concomitant individual rights are rare in human history. The United States has been most fortunate to have descended from Locke rather than Rousseau. Yet, it is important to recognize that the totalitarianism inherent in Rousseau stems from a democratic impulse.

Tocqueville, who believed that the tide of history is democratic, saw great potential for a totalitarian mind set in America. As a Frenchman, he was familiar with the democratic form taken by the French Revolution. Tocqueville identified three aspects of the American experiment that were central to maintaining freedom: local township government, voluntary intermediate institutions between the citizen and the state, and the spirit of religion. If Tocqueville was correct, then we should not be surprised that the virtual disappearance of all three of these in the last half century has coincided with a decline in liberty and the rise of an oppressive regime. Are university students familiar with Tocqueville’s analysis or with Plato’s warning that democracy is naturally followed by tyranny or with Aristotle’s reflections on what makes a good regime?

Are they reading Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, the fundamental work for our republic? These questions are central because, as students, they are supposedly at the university to learn, and if the state of the republic is their interest, then one presumes that they would possess an interest in the foundations of the republic and the conditions under which it best functions according to its principles.

The Waning of Reason and Faith

Together with increasing ignorance, we are suffering a decline in reason. Politicians are not expected to be philosophers, but they should demonstrate a modicum of rationality. More worrisome than the blather coming from politicians are the illogical arguments emanating from our courts. While this might be attributed to judicial prejudice, might it not also be due to an inability to reason? Indeed, could the justices pass a simple test in logical calculus? Their statements make it appear unlikely. Looking at the history of human freedom, can a society unable to produce leaders with the capacity for sound reason be expected to preserve liberty?

Reason alone cannot preserve liberty. As President Kennedy noted, rights come from God, not from the state, notwithstanding the black robes. During the last half century, faith has declined in tandem with reason. This correlation is understandable since individualistic hedonism is poison to both faith and reason. Certainly, there is an abiding conflict between faith and reason; nevertheless, the Western mind has strove to mitigate their irreconcilability, from Aquinas’ efforts to make Christianity and Aristotle compatible to Kant’s declaration that the practical reason demands that God underpin the moral law, a conclusion that cannot be drawn from the theoretical reason.

In line with Kant, Dostoevsky and Nietzsche declared that without God, all is permitted. For all three, God does not appear as a whim of human fancy or the conclusion of a deductive argument, but as a necessity for human moral life. In the Will to Power, Nietzsche puts the matter simply: “One still hopes to get along with a moralism without religious background, but that necessarily leads to nihilism.” Nietzsche tells us our plight because he understands the gravity of killing God. “How shall we, the murderers of all murderers, comfort ourselves?” asks his madman in Beyond Good and Evil. “What was holiest and most powerful of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us?”

With nihilism, we reach the heart of our educational dysfunction. Yale professor Donald Kagan states, “A vulgar form of nihilism, I claim, has a remarkable influence in our educational system today, a system rotting from the head down, so chiefly in universities, but all the way down to elementary schools.” Inclusiveness, diversity, and other popular mantras are products of a nihilism that replaces erudite deliberation with a tyrannical sentimentality oblivious to its own internal contradictions. The adherents of nihilism, so ubiquitous on our campuses, display a mindless Schopenhauerian will constrained by neither morality nor reason. Indeed, an ersatz morality appears as a manifestation of a blind, striving will and reason is reduced to a servant of that will.

Are students conversant with Kant, Dostoevsky, and Nietzsche? From their rhetoric, it appears doubtful. But post nineteenth century one cannot expect to be viewed seriously on moral issues without taking into account the thinking of these giants of moral thought. At least at prestigious universities, one should expect students to be so informed.

Law Be Damned

With the renunciation of reason and the advent of nihilism comes the abandonment of law, which requires words to have more than momentary meaning. “I want” is the cry of the protesting students – and damn the law! Like all spoiled children they want what they want and they want it now. Law is too slow. And who needs law, so long as we get what we want? These young zealots bear kinship to the Lutheran, Calvinist, and Inquisitional judges whose aim was to purge their societies of those who dared challenge their beliefs. Like their predecessors, they care not for free exercise of religion or freedom of speech. They aim to crush the devils who do not bow before their secular gods and neither reason nor law will stand in the way of their rage.

But rage has consequences. In Man for All Seasons, William Roper says that he would “cut down every law in England” to get the devil. “Oh?” responds Thomas More,

And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!

Today’s disgruntled students do not consider how they or others shall stand in the winds they wish to unleash because they are rooted in the immediate and show little knowledge of the past. Will, and will alone, is their guiding principle. Perhaps their professors should advise them to think for a moment and remind them how the Grande Armée learned the meaning of liberté, égalité, fraternité from the will of Napoleon on the road to Moscow, how the Old Bolsheviks learned the meaning of dialectical materialism from the will of Stalin in the frozen waste of Siberia, and how the Chinese learned the meaning of class struggle from the will of Mao in the Cultural Revolution. Perhaps their professors should warn them that today’s useful idiots may one day stand before the personification of will that they so desire, but at that point their idiocy may no longer be useful and they may find themselves first in line to the gulag that they helped to prepare. Alas, education has skipped two generations and Will Durant has warned us that civilization may not be able to withstand the loss of one. How many remember the men of Marathon?

Books for Book Virgins and Book-o-phobes

The annual controversy over books assigned to freshmen as summer reading is upon us.  Spoiler alerts.  Odysseus makes it home. Hamlet dies. The Whale wins.

Oh, not those books.  We are talking more about White Girls (by Hilton Als, 2013) and Purple Hibiscus (by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 2003).  White Girls, as one reviewer puts it, is “an inquiry into otherness” by a writer for the New Yorker, who is a black male.  Purple Hibiscus is a novel by a Nigerian woman that depicts the travails of fifteen-year-old girl who has to cope with her violent and cruel, fanatically Christian father.

In 2014, the topmost assigned book (17 out of 341 colleges that have such programs) was Wes Moore’s account of a convicted murderer who shares his name and his beginning as a fatherless black child in Baltimore, The Other Wes Moore (2010).  Second on the list (eight colleges) was Dave Eggers’ novel about a woman who works for a privacy-destroying internet company, The Circle (2013), and third was Rebecca Skloot’s account of the poor black woman whose cervical cancer cells were the first human cell line to be kept growing in a lab,  The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks(2010).  In 2015, according to Inside Higher Ed, it appears that Bryan Stevenson’s memoir of his efforts to exonerate wrongly convicted prisoners, Just Mercy (2014) will be the winner.

Books Younger Than Their Readers

For the last six years, the National Association of Scholars has been assiduously tracking all the books selected by all the colleges that do this sort of thing.  We call them “beach books,” but the usual term is “common readings.”  NAS executive director Ashley Thorne has pretty much single handedly turned a minor campus phenomenon into a subject of widespread controversy—the subject of annual conferences, legislative hearings, and mass media attention.  The latest reverberation was a report on July 23 on NPR.

This year 93 percent of the books assigned to “first-years” (the new PC term for freshmen) are younger than the students who are asked to read them.  There are many threads to the beach books story, but the extreme youth of most of the books is the most revealing.  Why so much emphasis on hot-from-the-presses titles?

We’ve heard three answers. First, the program coordinators insist that the best way to engage students is to bring the author to campus to speak.  That makes for a nice income stream for some contemporary writers, and too bad for Mark Twain.  He had his chance.

Second, the coordinators tell us they have to meet the students where they are. Many are “book virgins” who reach college never having read any book cover to cover.  Such students need to be coaxed by assigning them a book that is “right now.”

And third, the coordinators are convinced that the past is over and done with anyway and, regardless of what the students think, the focus should be on contemporary social issues.

This last one concerns me most, but the other two are lame as well.  College students should get used to reading books by dead people.  If you can’t read Edith Wharton or Mary Wollenstonecraft without her in the room, hire an actor.  As for book virgins and book-o-phobic first years, why not get them started on the real thing?  If Hemingway is too hard, try Aesop’s Fables.  If Aesop’s talking animals are above their level, try Mother Goose.  Am I exaggerating how bereft of literary foundations these students are?  I hope so.

No Dead Writers, Please

But the third point—that education all by itself requires that the beach books be molded from the freshest, most up-to-date progressive sand—deserves a little more attention and, let’s say, a lot more opprobrium.  Among the responses to the recent NPR report on summer readings came this crystalline summation from an undergraduate named Kai:

Good literature teaches students about our world now, about the challenges our society faces and will continue to face. Climate change, inequity, and—this is the big one—discrimination (especially racial). Real world issues start to be acknowledged when college kids read about them in books like “A Long Way Gone,” “White Girls,” or “The New Jim Crow.” And that’s why college reading programs SHOULD NOT contain the classics. College reading should be controversial, inspiring, provocative contemporary literature.

Kai is full of youthful arrogance.  He’s read someone named “Vergil” in the original.  But he sees the need to get beyond “institutionalized, oppressive traditions.”  The literature that “has shaped the predominant modes of interaction in western civilization” may be “fun to read—indulgent, even,” but it is time to move on.

I don’t mean to make too much fun of poor Kai.  He is clearly an eager student who has diligently taken in the premises of his college and enthusiastically made them his own.  But his is the voice of someone imprisoned in “now,” for whom “good literature” is writing by contemporary social activists.  He is oblivious to the need to learn about the past and the deep ways in which great literature from previous eras bears on the present.

We all, of course, live in the present and need to pay attention to its particular demands, which include listening to people prose on about “climate change” as earlier generations prosed on about other supposed menaces.  Inequity and discrimination?  Kai might be on firmer ground if he knew more history and understood how much inequity and discrimination are endemic to the human condition.  Virgil, for example, has something to say on the topic of oppression.

Devaluing the Past

The saturation of college students in what might be called present-tense books should worry us.  Higher education cannot of course erase the past but it can radically devalue it.  Introducing students to college-level reading by feeding them candy bars of social outrage is about the poorest way I can imagine to develop their taste for serious ideas expressed with power, imagination, and intelligence.

The problem is not new.  We noticed this extreme focus on contemporary books in our first study of common readings in 2010, when we found the “vast majority” of assigned books in the 290 colleges we studied to have been published in the preceding decade.  But back then, we did find ten colleges (3.4 percent of the total) that had reached back further.  Thoreau’s Walden made an appearance, as did Marx’s Communist Manifesto, Dashiell Hammett’s Maltese Falcon, and Alan Paton’s Cry, The Beloved Country.  More daringly, two colleges had assigned Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

We have redone and expanded the study each year since then.  The list of books that are assigned changes dramatically from year to year—as naturally it would if the college is set on chasing the winds of ideological fashion.  But what doesn’t change is the relentless focus on books that are in their dewy youth.  In 2010, it was the world of Steve Lopez’s account of a skid-row violinist, The Soloist (2008); Greg Mortenson’s account of his building schools for girls in Pakistan, Three Cups of Tea (2007); and Sonia Nazario’s account of a child from Central America illegally slipping in the United States, Enrique’s Journey (2006).

The Soloist is now off playing by himself in a different skid row.  Mortenson’s cup ran dry when he was exposed as a fraud; those Pakistani girls’ schools were made up.  Enrique went underground for a while but has resurfaced in view of current illegal immigration.

The relative youth of a book is no knock against it as a book, but it is a knock against making it the one (and usually only) book that a class of college students will read together.  I’ve elsewhere made my own suggestions for better books for the first-year beach babies.  I’m moderate about this.  If Don Quixote is too long and Crime and Punishment too dark, try The Right Stuff or Life on the Mississippi, or perhaps better yet, John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty.

This article was originally published on the National Association of Scholars site.

The New History Guidelines Are Better

I previously wrote about the new AP U.S. History guidelines (APUSH). The guidelines generated considerable criticism—in so small part because they seemed intent on evading state guidelines regarding the instruction of U.S. history. Basically: the earlier guidelines heavily emphasized themes of race, class, and gender, at the expense of more “traditional” types of U.S. history that most states expect their high school students to confront. And the earlier guidelines strongly implied that AP history teachers could teach required “skills” (such as, for instance, the “skill” of experiencing primary sources) through content as varied as the Federalist Papers or an obscure diary.

A new version of APUSH has appeared, one that responds to some of the criticism made. Below are some initial reactions.

(1) The most striking change is the insertion of a free-floating two paragraphs about founding documents, which the guidelines assert help “students better understand pivotal moments in American history.” Accordingly, the guidelines note, teachers have the option of teaching the document in depth.

This is a fairly significant change from the first APUSH version. Colorado professor Fred Anderson, co-chair of the original APUSH committee, remarked that the guidelines were designed to result in high school students “receiving instruction equivalent to lower-division history survey courses offered in university and college settings.” Since in most college history departments students can now graduate without encountering the founding documents, it seems that the APUSH modifications move away from the original goal of replacing state history standards with those more common in college history departments.

(2) The new APUSH guidelines are structured differently. The original APUSH began with a very detailed discussion of “skills,” which frequently had suggested content items attached to them, in ways that seemed to invite a trendy response. For instance, the original APUSH guidelines offered two content examples through which teachers could satisfy skill #1 (historical causation). They could examine a foundational aspect of U.S. history—the differing economic structures between North and South, balanced against the short-term congressional gridlock that led to the Civil War. Or they could “explore the roots of the modern environmental movement in the Progressive Era and the New Deal, as well as debate underlying and proximate causes of environmental catastrophes arising from pesticide use and offshore oil drilling.” The implication—whether intended or not—is that as long as students mastered the “skill,” it didn’t matter if they did so through understanding the political and economic background to the Civil War or through examining the history of environmental catastrophes.

The newer version dramatically decreases the pages devoted to “skills” from nine to two, a welcome shift in guidelines for a course that ends with a content-based exam. It also shies away from offering trendy content examples to how teachers could satisfy the skills. As with the reference to founding documents, this change is welcome.

(3) The guidelines’ second section consists of seven “thematic learning objectives.” Three of these (politics and power; America and the world; and work, exchange, and technology) are unchanged. The other four themes have shifted, all in commendable ways:

“Identity” in the original version has become “American and national identity,” a significant, and welcome, narrowing of the concept. The change would suggest that identity-politics content wouldn’t satisfy the new learning objective.

“Peopling” has become “migration and settlement”; and “Ideas, belief, and culture” has become “culture and society.” It’s unlikely either of these will shift, but the more precise language is welcome.

Finally, “environment and geography—physical and human” in the original version has become “geography and the environment.” Starting with geography is welcome, as is the deletion of the “human” angle, which seemed to invite teachers to diminish emphasis on more traditional aspects of geography, which already get short shrift in contemporary public education.

In short, these thematic alterations feature more precise wording and closer alignment with the objectives of most states’ history curricula. And more generally, they lessen (though don’t entirely avoid) a major problem of the original APUSH, which seemed to pick out random people or events in American history and suggest these items were equally important so, say, Benjamin Franklin or Marbury v. Madison.

(4) The content section divides U.S. history into nine periods in both versions. The most controversial change from the original APUSH, which remains in the new version, was the inclusion of a section covering the years from 1491-1607 (to cover 5 percent of the course). That section remains.

Historians, of course, always look back in time, so there’s nothing intellectually objectionable to this material. Indeed, the APUSH designers could have gone back further—to the Vikings, perhaps, or to the Magna Carta. But the inclusion has a practical effect. Moving 5 percent of a course to the pre-1607 period means deleting 5 percent of the post-1607 content. Starting so much earlier also increases the chances that the course will rush through more recent U.S. history. The guidelines suggest 5 percent to the post-1980 period—arguably not enough space, given that a typical student in a AP history course this fall likely would have only faint memory of Barack Obama’s election, no or virtually no memory of 9/11 or the invasion of Iraq, and no memory of the fall of communism, the AIDS epidemic, the debate over apartheid, a world without the internet, the Reagan presidency, or any other aspect of 1980s history. And as anyone who’s ever taught a history survey knows, in-course adjustment means rushing through the very late stages, all the more so given that fluke weather or budgetary reasons sometimes ,leads to slight shortening of the school year.

So it would have been far better for the APUSH guidelines to ensure recent history got sufficient coverage. I’ll have some additional comments on content in a future post.

More Rumblings at CUNY

I’ve written before about the Pathways plan, a sensible proposal  to create  a common core curriculum at the City University of New York (CUNY). It has been sponsored by the administration of Chancellor Matthew Goldstein and approved by the CUNY Board of Trustees. The extraordinary–and student-unfriendly–process that currently exists at CUNY contradicts the vision of the institution as an “integrated university,” since students who transfer from one CUNY school to another often find themselves forced to take a new round of introductory courses.

People of good faith can (and do) disagree about the merits of Pathways. But opposition to the proposal has been centered around the two elected bodies of CUNY faculty, the University Faculty Senate (UFS) and the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), the CUNY faculty union, perhaps most notorious for its zealous opposition to Israeli security.

The two bodies–preposterously–cite academic quality as the reason for their Pathways opposition. Given that the PSC in particular has opposed virtually every pro-quality initiative that Goldstein has proposed (extending the tenure clock to ensure better-qualified professors, creating a CUNY Honors College, raising tuition to boost funding for needed academic services), suggesting that the union has any credibility on matters of quality is laughable. Opposing Goldstein has become the union’s raison d’être.

The PSC filed a lawsuit against Pathways, arguing that despite the clear wording of the CUNY bylaws, the Trustees lack final say on all curricular matters at the institution. As the suit works its way toward an all-but-certain defeat, the union has fallen back on Plan B, pressuring individual departments around CUNY to reject the minor course adjustments (course titles, credit hours, etc.) that the uniformity of the Pathways proposal requires.

But, of course, the union doesn’t have to live with the consequences for this decision. Individual departments do. In the past week, as the New York Times reported, the English Department at Queensborough Community College followed the union’s advice and rejected the bookkeeping changes required to institute Pathways. Doubtless the move made the English professors feel good. But as things now stand, it also means that the QCC English Department will see a dramatic reduction in their curricular offerings come the fall of 2013, since Core courses form a substantial portion of the community college department’s offerings. Queensborough students looking to complete the English portion of Pathways would have to go to another CUNY institution.

The department’s fantasy-land argument is that the professors should be allowed not to adhere to the university’s curricular guidelines, and therefore offer far fewer courses–while still receiving the same levels of university funding. When a Queensborough administrator pointed out that the department could either defy CUNY’s curriculum or have full staffing but not both, the department reached out to the Times, which promptly, and sympathetically, told their story. In a comment that unintentionally revealed an embarrassing sense of entitlement among the pro-PSC faculty, the deputy chair of the Queensborough department fumed, “I felt a little like I was being asked to vote for Raul Castro or Ahmedinijad.”

Of course: being asked to adhere to guidelines approved by the governing body of the institution that pays a professors’ salary resembles the plight of the Green Revolutionaries in Iran. What reporter, among hearing such a preposterous claim, could treat seriously anything that the professor said?

The University of Chicago Chooses Decline

The University of Chicago hit two mile-markers in its
decade-long transformation this week. The first, generally celebrated by
students, alumni, and their parents, is a new high-water mark in the school’s US News & World Report ranking. The
University now shares the fourth spot with Columbia, rising from 12 a few years
ago and leapfrogging Stanford, Penn, and MIT, among others.

The second is a reduction in the graduation requirements.
Starting next quarter, graduates will not have to pass a swimming test and either
pass a fitness test or take three PE classes to graduate. In an email to
students, the Dean of the College cited a rationale steeped in the lingo of a
marketing consultant:

The change in the College
physical education requirement occurs in the context of a larger decision by
the University to reimagine and expand our fitness and athletics programs to
meet growing demand and the diverse needs of our community.

These may seem like unrelated incidents, but they reflect
a massive paradigm shift in the way the University sees itself. Since it wants donations
from trustees who prize vacuous but still prestigious measures of schooling
excellence like the US News rankings,
the University has goaded itself into playing the rankings game.

US News‘s calculations
consider prospective students’ view of the institution as measured by the
admissions rate. But should  we determine a university’s quality based on
the preferences of seventeen year olds?
 The university is ultimately supposed
to shape its young and not be shaped by its young. It is supposed to tell the
naïve what is worth studying and what it takes to be a human being and a
citizen of good character.

The aim of increasing its ranking and pleasing high-schoolers
also inspired the University to pare down its Common Core in the mid-Nineties.  Though the Core still is large enough so that
the empiricist studies ethics and the ethicist empirics, the University threw
out the very notion behind the Core: a university only completes its duty if it
teaches its students several things.

The Core now consists of distribution requirements that
flatter young people’s instinct to set their own course. The humanities
requirement can be fulfilled by what is essentially an introductory linguistics
class, the social science requirement by an introduction to psychology class.
No one needs to read the classics of either field. Indeed, students must
consciously choose the courses which are watered-down relics of the traditional
path

Swimming and fitness requirements are, like a set Core
curriculum, decidedly uncool and anachronistic. The real argument for the
requirements–that human excellence is excellence in mind and body–doesn’t stand a chance when pitted against teenagers who
feel that such requirements are onerous or just plain weird.

This week the University got its best evidence yet that
its strategy is working. Seventeen year olds like what the University offers
and increasingly want to spend a few years in Hyde Park. What they do there,
though, is increasingly anyone’s guess. Ten years after the University of
Chicago made it possible  to hold its
bachelors degree without ever examining a page of either Plato or Shakespeare,
it now makes it possible to hold its bachelors degree without ever exerting a
muscle. Decline is a choice, and the University of Chicago has made its choice.

Higher Education’s ‘Obesity’ Problem

ACTA crowd.jpg

Open a marketing brochure for any college or university
in the United States and you’ll find an info-graphic touting the variety and
number of degree programs that the institution offers.  The more options, the rationale goes, the
more likely a student will find a desired specialty.  The distinction between programs can be
subtle, for instance “Music, General” versus “Musical Theatre,” or
Agricultural Engineering” versus “Agronomy and Crop
Science.”

But the dreary fact is: higher education is in the midst
of a major financial crisis. 
Institutions’ bond ratings are falling and resources are in short
supply.   Boards of trustees must  figure out how to do more and better with
less. While administrative costs have to be examined, they are only part of the
problem.  According to former president
of the University of Northern Colorado and co-founder of the Lumina Foundation
Robert C. Dickeson, “[t]he failure of governing boards to focus on academic
programs is arguably the single greatest cause of overspending.”

This month the American Council of Trustees and Alumni
(ACTA) is sending Dr. Dickeson’s guide,
Setting Academic Priorities: A Guide to
What Boards of Trustees Can Do
to ACTA’s network of more than 13,000
trustees around the country. It provides governing boards with a framework for
establishing academic program review policies that direct resources to
mission-critical areas of their institutions without neglecting students’ needs.
 Of course, achieving this goal must
entail consolidating some academic programs into larger, more cost-effective
units or eliminating them.  

Continue reading Higher Education’s ‘Obesity’ Problem

Don’t Buy the Snake Oil of Common Core

J.M.
Anderson has offered an increasingly common defense of Common Core’s standards
for English language arts and mathematics.  They can help us to achieve any utopian
educational goals one could wish for.
The only fly in the ointment is the quality of our teaching corps.

In
actuality, 46 states have bought some very expensive snake oil.  And if its application doesn’t produce a
nation of “critical thinkers” by grade 12, it’s because the teachers in these
states don’t know how to use snake oil properly.

Anderson
is right about the challenges facing teachers, but he seems to have brought a
highly uncritical eye to Common Core’s standards. Exactly how Common Core’s
content- and culture-free “Anchor standards” in reading can lead to a
“cumulative,” “coherent” and “rigorous” curriculum remains as much of a mystery
after an inspection of the standards themselves as it does after reading
Anderson’s paean to them. 

Continue reading Don’t Buy the Snake Oil of Common Core

Why Common Core Standards Are Likely To Fail

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I
argued yesterday that the Common
Core State Standards Initiative
(CCSSI) is both necessary and a good
thing–but I must add that it just can’t work now.

It has the potential
to transform American K-12 education, but the plain fact is that it is destined
to fail because current teacher education programs neither prepare nor equip
grade school and high school teachers to teach the Standards.

 

Whether students
learn–and what they learn–depends largely upon what happens inside the
classroom as they and their teachers interact over the curriculum. “Skillful
teaching,” write Deborah
Loewenberg Ball and Francesca Forzani
, “can make the difference
between students being at the top of the class or the bottom, completing high
school or dropping out.”

Continue reading Why Common Core Standards Are Likely To Fail

Common Core Standards Can Save Us

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It’s no secret that
most high school graduates are unprepared for college. Every year, 1.7 million first-year
college students are enrolled in remedial classes at a cost of about $3 billion
annually, the Associated
Press
recently reported. Scores on the 2011 ACT
college entrance exam
showed that only 1 in 4 high school graduates
was ready for the first year of college.

Continue reading Common Core Standards Can Save Us

Writer Purged for Causing Distress

naomi schaefer riley.jpgTaking note of a posting by Naomi Schaefer Riley, John Rosenberg took a hard look at what passes for cutting-edge scholarship in Black Studies–and wasn’t impressed with what he found. Rosenberg’s post became all the timelier when the Chronicle announced that it had removed Riley from the Brainstorm blog.

In an editor’s note that could have doubled as a parody of political correctness, Liz McMillen “sincerely apologize[d] for the distress” that publication of Riley’s post caused. McMillen claimed that Riley’s sharply-written but seemingly factually accurate post did not conform to the Chronicle’s “journalistic standards,” though she elected not to provide an example of how, specifically, the post failed to conform to these standards. Perhaps she feared causing further distress to the Chronicle’s extremely sensitive reading base.

The move left FIRE’s Adam Kissel to express wishes of “good luck to Chronicle bloggers! Whoever is left, that is, after the necessary purge to restore quality,” since Editor McMillen is determined to ensure “only ‘fair’ opinions henceforward.”

Continue reading Writer Purged for Causing Distress

A Major Expansion of Online Courses

MIT and Harvard.jpgHarvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced yesterday that they will partner in a collaborative new higher-education venture, to be called EdX, that will offer a range of online courses to potentially tens of thousands of student worldwide, most of whom will not be enrolled at either Harvard or MIT. The EdX courses, funded with a $60 million joint contribution from the universities, scheduled to begin this fall and using a platform developed at MIT, will include “video lesson segments, embedded quizzes, online laboratories and immediate feedback,” according to a report in the Boston Herald. A nonprofit entity will oversee the operation of EdX and issue certificates of mastery to those who demonstrate that they have learned the course materials.

Continue reading A Major Expansion of Online Courses

UCLA: Still Obsessed with Diversity

diversity.jpgWhat is it with universities in California? Financially strapped, troubled by protesters making impossible demands, and worried about the declining value of their academic programs, many of the state’s great universities decide to…redouble their commitment to a fast-fading political ideology.

The latest example is the impending vote by the faculty of UCLA’s
College of Letters and Science that would add a course on diversity to
the general education requirements. Only it is not called a course on
diversity. Because the word “diversity” has become too obviously an
enunciation of a contentious political agenda, the supporters of the new
requirement have renamed it “Community and Conflict.” Kaustuv Basu,
writing
on Inside Higher Ed, quotes a UCLA official who observes that
earlier efforts in this vein failed because the word diversity “means
different things to different people.” And the chairman of the Faculty
Executive Committee helpfully explains that the community and conflict
requirement “is not designed to be a diversity requirement.”

Continue reading UCLA: Still Obsessed with Diversity

What “Western Governors” Does Well

asking questions.jpgOn most any college campus, first-year courses with more than a few dozen students have a high proportion of bored, disaffected, and/or uncertain students. Sometimes they feel that way because course materials just don’t excite them, or because they don’t seem relevant to their backgrounds and futures. But another reason is that neither the pace of the course nor the style of the instructor fits their capacities. Some students need the course to move more quickly, others more slowly, and some can’t communicate with the teacher while others communicate too much, asking irrelevant questions and interrupting the presentation.

The solution begins with this: instead of asking 35 students to
squeeze into the schedule of the semester and jibe with the manner of
teachers who are often harried and unhappy, customize instruction to
each enrollee. Therein lies the great advantage of digital tools in
higher education, and it’s being implemented best by Western Governors
University, the nonprofit online school founded by the governors of 19
U.S. states. WGU has enjoyed tremendous success in recent years (as
detailed in this profile by John Gravois in Washington Monthly
a few months ago). At WGU, students are able to enroll and work on
their own schedule, one that accords with other demands (family, work,
etc.) and adapts to the skills and knowledge they bring to the courses.

Continue reading What “Western Governors” Does Well

Rallying Around Che at a ‘Literary’ Conference

che-guevara-shirt.jpgWhen charges of doctrinaire Marxism are leveled against professors, the standard procedure is to charge the accusers with misinterpretation—they just can’t understand the subtleties of the literary and philosophical profundities being dispensed. In English departments these theories have touched deconstruction, new historicism, post-colonialism, gender studies, disability studies, etc. Most in the field–promoters and detractors alike–know that these theories have roots in Marxism. For those of us alarmed by the politicization of literary studies, it’s a difficult message to get out to the world because the cloud of academic verbiage obscures the real sources and aims of such theories.

But when announcements for a world literature conference begin with a long quotation from The Communist Manifesto and a co-director approvingly quotes the left’s most popular dead Stalinist, Che Guevara, the aim became clear: the conference wasn’t really going to be about literature. The first International World Literature Conference at Kennesaw State University in suburban Cobb County, Georgia, on March 16, announced the purpose of the conference in the call for papers and on the English Department’s website with the quotation that reads in part, “The bourgeoisie has, through its exploitation of the world market, given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. . . .The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.”

Continue reading Rallying Around Che at a ‘Literary’ Conference

The Radicalization of the University of California

University_of_California_Seal.svg.pngAre the 234,000 students enrolled in the massive University of California system receiving an education or a re-education?

It’s the latter–or something fairly close–according to “A Crisis of Competence,” a report just released by the California Association of Scholars (CAS), the Golden State affiliate of the National Association of Scholars. The devastating 87-page report addressed to UC’s Board of Regents, concludes that leftist political indoctrination represents a significant portion of the curriculum at the nine UC campuses that admit undergraduates. Here are some major points:

— UC-Santa Cruz offers no fewer than five introductory courses devoted
exclusively to the thinking of Karl Marx. You can take a basic course on
Marx in the politics, sociology, community studies, legal studies, or
history of consciousness departments–or if, you wish, take all five
courses simultaneously in all five departments, several of which also
offer advanced courses on Marx’s works. “Adolescent Marxist nostalgia
still evidently reigns on campus and impedes a return to reality–but
where are the adults who might be pointing out that it is time to grow
up and move on to thinkers who have been able to withstand the test of
time and to remain more relevant to modern life?” the report asks.

Continue reading The Radicalization of the University of California

The ‘Inequality’ Movement–A Campus Product

Robin Hood Index.jpgThe sharp political focus on inequality, driven into the public mind by the Occupy movement and endorsed by President Obama in his State of the Union message, was born, not on the street, but on the campus. It thrives there, mostly under the aegis of elite universities such as Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Columbia and Johns Hopkins. Those universities have free-standing inequality centers bearing such titles such as Multidisciplinary Program on Inequality and Social Policy (Harvard), Global Network on Inequality (Princeton), and the Center for the Study of Poverty and Inequality (Stanford).

Cornell now offers a minor in inequality studies for students who are ” interested in government service, policy work, or related jobs in nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), or want to go on to graduate work in anthropology, economics, government, history, law, literature, philosophy, psychology, public policy, or sociology.”

Continue reading The ‘Inequality’ Movement–A Campus Product

The Terrible Textbooks of Freshman Comp

Norton Reader.jpgFreshman composition class at many colleges is propaganda time, with textbooks conferring early sainthood on President Obama and lavishing attention on writers of the far left–Howard Zinn, Christopher Hedges, Peter Singer and Barbara Ehrenreich, for instance–but rarely on moderates, let alone anyone right of center. Democrats do very well in these books, but Abraham Lincoln–when included–is generally the most recent Republican featured.

Take The Norton Reader, for instance. Someone sent it to me, presumably because I teach freshman composition myself. Much of the volume is made up of popular writing by ideological writers of the left and political speeches that strain the traditional standards of rhetorical worthiness. Among the latter is the instant classic, Barack Obama’s “A New Beginning” speech delivered in Cairo in 2009. It drew quite a bit of criticism, especially over historical inaccuracies. Yet none of this was mentioned. Topic questions were also embedded to trigger predetermined responses from students.

Lincoln, King and Obama

With my curiosity piqued by the obvious bias, I decided to look at other textbooks. What I found was the widespread promotion of Obama, thinly disguised by claims about his rhetorical skills. (Entering college freshmen are likely to have already been exposed to a lot on Obama, much of it from Scholastic, which offers a teachers’ workbook, as well.) Other than one or two columns by a token conservative, like David Brooks, the rich array of conservative writing was ignored.

The Norton Reader, like most, is divided thematically. Interestingly, Obama’s speech is not included in the section, “Politics and Government,” where Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, and Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” appear. It shows up in the “Spoken Words” section that is made up of MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Eleanor Roosevelt’s “On the Declaration of Human Rights,” William Faulkner’s “Nobel Prize Speech,” and Al Gore’s speech, “The Climate Emergency” that became the basis of the film and book, An Inconvenient Truth. While acknowledging that Gore’s speech was given during the 2004 presidential campaign, the editors treat his data as undisputed scientific fact. For example, topic question 4 asks the student: “Gore gives three leading causes of the climate emergency: population growth, technology, and our way of thinking. List the kinds of evidence and examples he uses in this part of his speech, and suggest how the diversity of evidence and examples helps him communicate with his audience.” There is no hint that there is disagreement on the issue. None of the five topic questions allow the student to dissent from any part of Gore’s argument.

Similarly, Obama’s claims in his Cairo speech are presented without any skepticism. CBS News, hardly a conservative organ, reported that praise for the speech usually focused on its “delivery,” but noted that even the Huffington Post marked the “lack of substance in the words.” William Bradley’s column there claimed that the speech’s arena itself was reason for its success: “The positions [Obama] laid out are positions he had in his campaign. But he did say it all at once, and quite well.”

Obama’s historical inaccuracies in the speech go unchallenged, like attributing the invention of printing to Muslims (it was the Chinese) or crediting Morocco with being the first to recognize the United States (No–Russia, France, Spain and the Netherlands did it earlier). And again, there is no mention of criticisms of the speech, many of them well-founded.

Two of the four topic questions require the student’s uncritical affirmations. Question 2 refers to the seven “specific tensions or issues affecting the current relationship between the United States and Muslim nations.” Were the enterprising student to select one of those as instructed and examine it in detail, but with outside evidence, he would then be faced with the next part of the question: “How does Obama develop his argument so that it will appeal to various audiences?” The assumption that Obama does appeal to various audiences gives the lie to the usual claims about making students “critical thinkers.”

Just Obey the President’s Call

Obama speaking.jpgUsually the last topic calls for a more open, creative response. For Obama’s speech we have: “Obama concludes with a call to action directed especially toward the world’s youth: ‘And I want to particularly say this to young people of every faith, in every country–you, more than anyone, have the ability to re-imagine the world, to remake this world.’ Write a paper in which you discuss ways you personally might respond to this call.” Disguised as a question, this is a not-so-subtle request to obey the president’s call.

There is not only lack of balance in terms of political representation, but also in sources of the essays. While the anthology does contain a smattering of classics from Emerson, Thoreau, Orwell, and the like, modern selections make up the bulk of the volume. Most come from general interest publications, but it seems the editors never heard of National Review, the Weekly Standard, the American Spectator, or New Criterion. Yet, The New Yorker, the New York Times, the New York Times Magazine, the New York Review of Books, and Harper’s offer numerous excerpts each. A number also come from American Scholar and Georgia Review. There are multiple offerings by the likes of Anna Quindlen, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Joan Didion. The “Ethics” section contains an offering by Peter Singer, by an abortion clinic nurse, and from several animal rights advocates, but nothing from a traditional Judeo-Christian perspective. Bedford/St. Martin’s too includes Obama in several textbooks. A Memorial Day speech at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery provides the sole presidential offering in Making Sense. The 2012 edition of The Writer’s Presence: A Pool of Readings offers Obama’s election night “Grant Park Victory Speech.” (The previous, 2009, edition that contains an excerpt from Obama’s memoir Dreams From My Father apparently went to press before the election. Dreams must have been assigned widely, for endotes offers help to students, as does BestEssayHelp.com for the Inaugural Speech.)

The Victory Speech’s salvific message is enhanced by its placement amidst accounts of the inherent hopelessness of life in America by the same authors (Alice Walker, Joan Didion, Barbara Ehrenreich, Peter Singer). Again, no balance is offered. What might be useful is Ronald Reagan’s short speech on his landslide victory that is marked by humility, in contrast to Obama’s insistent proclamations of the historical significance of his election as “the answer that led those who have been told for so long by so many to be cynical, and fearful….” Topic questions at the end ask students to connect this speech to the Gettysburg Address (!) and MLK’s “I Have a Dream.” The editors seem to be aware of crossing a line, however, for in the instructor’s manual they acknowledge that Obama is “the focal point of a great deal of emotion on either side of the political spectrum.” They therefore advise limiting class discussion to the speech’s “persuasive power.” The attempt to mask such cheerleading is further betrayed by the inclusion of other selections, like John Edgar Wideman’s “Street Corner Dreamers,” which is about what the Victory Speech means to the hitherto hopeless denizens of our nation’s cities. Wideman asks, “Do I glimpse that change in the way they walk and talk, the way they occupy space and flash looks at one another, urgent exchanges of joy, anger, longing, understanding, impatience, solidarity, challenge, like the undeniable, irrepressible reality embodied in singer Sam Cooke’s voice when he promises change that must come–music that might be in the general air now or playing just around the corner in the voice of Barack Obama?”

(An accompanying photo announces, “Barack Obama plays basketball with local youths in Chicago’s Southside, where he launched his career in public service as a community organizer.”)

Wideman continues the rhapsody: “Not Barack Obama singing, but Barack Obama in charge, calling the meeting to order. Putting a finger to his lips: Quiet, everybody, please.” The section includes an essay by Howard Zinn, the late over-the-top historian who is simply described as “professor emeritus of political science at Boston University . . . known both for his active involvement in the civil rights and peace movements and for his scholarship,” however, strains credulity regarding simple rhetorical criteria. The editors list Zinn’s numerous publications and say only about his political allegiances that he argued “that perseverance [sic] in the face of opposition is essential.” Topic 1, though, asks, “Explain what Zinn means by what Leon Trotsky called the ‘natural selection of accidents’ (paragraph 2) preventing true depictions of war, class, and race from appearing in films.” Topic 3 then directs students’ attention to Obama again: “‘What steps do you believe President Obama will take to improve your life? (Possible answer: he could lose in November.)

‘Hearts Bursting with Love and Pride’

Another Bedford anthology, America Now: Short Readings from Recent Periodicals, does not include speeches or book excerpts. Yet, a thematic section focuses on “Barack Obama: What Does His Election Mean to America?” The head note introduces the readings with the claim that Obama’s election “filled the country, from left to right, with a momentary euphoria.” In this section are two essays from Essence, one the aforementioned Wideman essay, and one by Diane McKinney-Whetstone on “The First Family” (“When the crowd surged forward, hearts bursting with love and pride, the lens shifted and altered the world’s view of the Black family,” with topic questions driving home the point that racism had hitherto stymied the black family); an essay from Tikkun that the editors explain is a criticism from the left, “arguing that [Obama] represents a continuation of the conventional policies of the Bush administration, policies [the author Christopher Hedges] believes are determined and orchestrated by a corporate oligarchy”; and a student essay titled “Obama–President for All” (“while Obama embodies a milestone in America’s history as the first African American president. . . .”).

Hedges, an unusually angry senior fellow at the Nation Institute, who wrote what is described as a “call to arms” for the first issue of the Occupied Wall Street Journal, claims that “the old engines of corporate power and the vast military-industrial complex continue to plunder the country.” Obama is simply, in Hedge’s estimation, a new brand of the unlawful President Bush, for he refuses to “dismantle Bush’s secrecy laws and restore habeas corpus.” The editors’ footnote explains only, “habeas corpus: The principle that an accused person should be allowed to know the charges against him or her exactly; the Bush administration suspended it during the War on Terror.”!

The substitution of “person” for “citizen” and the refusal to describe Hedges’ real position is, of course, irresponsible. The fact that this textbook is aimed at the student with a low reading level, one who would be least likely to know this information on his own, suggests a goal that has very little to do with education. Nor do the other volumes for that matter. They want to tell students what to think, not how to write.

On “The Birth of Critical University Studies”

The first sentences of Jeffrey Williams’ essay in the Chronicle
of Higher Education
, “Deconstructing Academe: The Birth of Critical
University Studies”,
sounds like an introduction to the many conservative and libertarian critiques
of higher education that have appeared in recent decades, starting with Allan
Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, Martin Anderson’s Imposters
in the Temple
, Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals, Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal
Education,
and Richard Bernstein’s Dictatorship of Virtue.  The
sentence reads:

“Over the past two decades in the United States, there has
been a new wave of criticism of higher education. ” 

But the second sentence dispels them all.

Continue reading On “The Birth of Critical University Studies”

A Struggle to Reform the CUNY Curriculum

There have been two interesting, if somewhat under
the radar, higher education developments recently in New York City.

First, on Tuesday, the CUNY Board of Trustees
continued its consideration of the administration’s proposed general-education
curriculum plan, called Pathways. The proposal calls for a mandatory 30 credits
of core offerings for all CUNY students, divided between classes in English
Composition, Math, and Life & Physical Sciences, plus six courses in a
tightly limited distribution requirement. (Individual colleges could add up to
12 additional credits.) The system
envisions
“that all colleges should design the structure of their general
education requirements so as to be as straightforward and comprehensible as
possible,” while also seeking to “ensure rigorous and transferable study across
the colleges while retaining sufficient flexibility for colleges to sustain and
develop their distinctive academic identities.

Continue reading A Struggle to Reform the CUNY Curriculum

The Ruinous Reign of Race-and-Gender Historians

History books.jpg

In a ruling likely to be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Montana Supreme Court last month upheld the state constitution’s prohibition on corporations directly spending on state campaigns. For those concerned with academic matters, the case is important for reasons quite unrelated to political debates about Citizens United. In a significant case involving history (the Montana court relied heavily upon the scholarship and words of historians to reach its conclusions), all the books cited were more than 35 years old. And that wasn’t a coincidence: the kind of U.S. history relevant to influencing legal and public policy debates increasingly has been banished from an academy obsessed with scholarship organized around the race/class/gender trinity.

A quick summary of the decision: the Montana court ruled that “unlike Citizens United, this case concerns Montana law, Montana elections and it arises from Montana history,” requiring the justices to examine “the context of the time and place it was enacted, during the early twentieth century.” To provide this necessary historical background, the Court repeatedly cited books by historians Helen Fisk Sanders, K. Ross Toole, C. B. Glasscock, Michael Malone, and Richard Roeder.  The Court also accepted an affidavit from Harry Fritz, a professor emeritus at the University of Montana and a specialist in Montana history, who affirmed, “What was true a century ago is as true today: distant corporate interests mean that corporate dominated campaigns will only work ‘in the essential interest of outsiders with local interests a very secondary consideration.'”

An attorney analyzing the decision, however, probably would have been surprised to see that the works of history upon which the Montana court relied were all published before 1977. She might even have wondered whether the court’s reliance on older works suggested that it had ignored newer, perhaps contradictory, publications. But for anyone familiar with how the contemporary academy approaches U.S. history, the court’s inability to find recent relevant works could have come as no surprise at all.

The study of U.S. history has transformed in the last two generations, with emphasis on staffing positions in race, class, or gender leading to dramatic declines in fields viewed as more “traditional,” such as U.S. political, constitutional, diplomatic, and military history. And even those latter areas have been “re-visioned,” in the word coined by an advocate of the transformation, Illinois history professor Mark Leff, to make their approach more accommodating to the dominant race/class/gender paradigm. In the new academy, political histories of state governments–of the type cited and used effectively by the Montana Supreme Court–were among the first to go. The Montana court had to turn to Fritz, an emeritus professor, because the University of Montana History Department no longer features a specialist in Montana history (nor, for that matter, does it have a professor whose research interests, like those of Fritz, deal with U.S. military history, a topic that has fallen out of fashion in the contemporary academy).

To take the nature of the U.S. history positions in one major department as an example of the new staffing patterns: the University of Michigan, once home to Dexter and then Bradford Perkins, was a pioneer in the study of U.S. diplomatic history. Now the department’s 29 professors whose research focuses on U.S. history after 1789 include only one whose scholarship has focused on U.S. foreign relations–Penny von Eschen, a perfect example of the “re-visioning” approach. (Her most recent book is Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War.) In contrast to this 1-in-29 ratio, Michigan has hired ten Americanists (including von Eschen) whose research, according to their department profiles, focuses on issues of race; and eight Americanists whose research focuses on issues of gender. The department has more specialists in the history of Native Americans than U.S. foreign relations.

It’s true, of course, that departments heavy in African-American historians might have lots of scholars who focus on such topics as a sympathetic portrayal of Ward Connerly’s efforts against racial preferences. Or a department heavy in women’s historians might have lots of scholars who focus on such topics as a study of grassroots pro-life women, as part of a project suggesting that feminists don’t speak for a majority of U.S. women. But in the real world, figures with such interests would have almost no chance of being hired for an African-American history or gender history line.

One-sided scholarly approaches tend to produce one-sided views on contemporary political and public policy issues. In recent years, controversies in the history departments at Duke and the University of Iowa revealed that neither department had even one registered Republican. Political registration figures are the crudest possible measurement of a faculty’s pedagogical breadth, but a partisan ratio of dozens-to-zero raises some troubling questions about the open-mindedness of a department’s hiring process. So too did the justifications offered for the imbalance. Iowa’s Sarah Hanley rationalized, “I don’t think there is a downside [to having a department that, according to a survey done by the local newspaper, had 22 registered Democrats and zero registered Republicans]. If it is a downside, then it would be a downside to have states to be so-called blue or so-called red. It would be casting a pall on the democratic system where people are free to choose.” The then-chairman of Duke’s history department, John Thompson, dismissed findings that his department had 32 registered Democrats and zero registered Republicans, on grounds that “the interesting thing about the United States is that the political spectrum is very narrow.”

This type of comment is exactly what would be expected in an environment characterized by faculty groupthink–the common assumption that all thinking people chose to be Democrats (full disclosure: I’m a registered and partisan Democrat), the law of group polarization producing extreme arguments on the merits of affiliating with the Democrats.

The increasingly one-sided conception of the profession has appeared most distinctly when national historical organizations have placed their members’ partisan interests ahead of a commitment to historical ideals. During the second Bush term, for instance, historians were pressing for increased access to government documents from an administration notoriously indifferent to open government. Any claim that the chief purpose of the request was academic rather than political, however, was undermined in 2007, when the American Historical Association approved a “Resolution on United States Government Practices Inimical to the Values of the Historical Profession.” The resolution called on all AHA members “to do whatever they can to bring the Iraq war to a speedy conclusion.” That was a perfectly appropriate goal for partisan Democrats. But for historians? And why would any administration want to increase access to government documents for a profession whose major national organization demanded that its members seek to undermine a key foreign policy goal of the President?

Similarly, last year during the William Cronon controversy in Wisconsin, the American Historical Association issued an official statement demanding that the GOP withdraw its open-records request, offering the following reasoning. “The purpose of the state’s Open Records Law is to promote informed public conversation. Historians vigorously support the freedom of information act traditions of the United States of which this law is a part. In this case, however, the law has been invoked to do the opposite: to find a pretext for discrediting a scholar who has taken a public position. This inquiry will damage, rather than promote, public conversation.” Shutting down any inquiry into Cronon, even if it meant advocating a narrowing of the state’s Open Records Law, was a perfectly appropriate goal for partisan Democrats opposed to the Walker administration. But for historians?

There are few areas in which the groupthink academy has had a more disastrous impact than the study of U.S. history. One-sidedness has its costs, however, in terms of influence outside the Ivory Tower. Courts or politicians who rely on the opinions of professors who now qualify as “mainstream” U.S. historians do so at their own peril.

Best Books of 2011

crazy_u.jpgWhat were the best books of the year on higher education? A
panel of ten prominent people in the field, invited to vote by Minding the
Campus, picked as their top two choices, “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning
on College Campuses”
by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa; and “Crazy U: One Dad’s
Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College”
by Andrew Ferguson.

Both books take a largely negative view of today’s colleges
and universities. Arum and Roksa, both sociologists, take a straightforward
approach to surveys and analysis of the limited learning on our campuses, while
Ferguson, a senior editor at the Weekly Standard and a well-known conservative
writer, is darkly humorous about the results of his consistently impressive reportage.

“Academically Adrift” was a top choice of 9 of the 10 voting
members of the panel, all asked to name from one to five books… “Crazy U.” was
picked by six voters. Four books drew three votes: “In the Basement of the
Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic”
by Professor X; “The Fall
of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It
Matters”
by Benjamin Ginsberg; “The Faculty Lounges and Other Reasons Why You
Won’t Get the College Education You Pay For”
by Naomi Schaefer Riley; and “The
Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out”

by Clayton M. Christensen and Henry J. Eyring.

Continue reading Best Books of 2011

What Will They Learn? Maybe Not Much

Academically Adrift“, a study by two sociologists – Richard Arum of NYU and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia – demonstrated that 36
percent of our college students graduate with little or no measurable gains in
their core academic skills – areas like expository writing and analytical
reasoning.  Their diplomas are literally tickets to nowhere.  No, I
take that back.  With an average student debt of $25,250, they are tickets
to long-term financial crises that can curtail their opportunities for
decades. 

The higher education establishment assures us that this
poor showing is due to the underfunding of colleges. 
Not so.  The average per-pupil expenditure on higher education in America is
more than twice the average of other industrialized nations.  No, the
problem is not too little money.  It is too little attention to what
matters.  What do students learn during those expensive college years?

Continue reading What Will They Learn? Maybe Not Much

Lady Gaga Makes It to Harvard

                        By Charlotte Allen

LadyGagaMortar.jpg

What is it about academics and Lady Gaga? Last year it was a freshman writing course at the University of Virginia titled “GaGa for Gaga: Sex, Gender, and Identity.” This fall there’s an upper-division sociology course at the University of South Carolina titled “Lady Gaga and the Sociology of Fame.” Meghan Vicks, a graduate student in comparative literature at the University of Colorado, co-edits a postmodernist online journal, “Gaga Stigmata: Critical Writings and Art About Lady Gaga,” in which the names “Judith Butler” and “Jean Baudrillard” drip as thickly as summer rain and the tongue-tripping sentences read like this: “And her project? – To deconstruct the very pop culture that creates and worships her, and to explore and make problematic the hackneyed image of the pop icon while flourishing in the

How Much Is Western Civ Valued on Campus?

Not far into an important book published recently is a table displaying results for one question on the North American Academic Study Survey, a poll of professors, administrators, and students administered in 1999.  The survey is the basis for The Still Divided Academy by the late-Stanley Rothman, April Kelly-Roessner, and Matthew Roessner, which reviews the results and draws balanced conclusions. 

The table lays out the rate at which four goals were judged by faculty members as “essential” to education.  Here are the results…

Continue reading How Much Is Western Civ Valued on Campus?