The Modern Academic Cauldron

In the 1950s, Hamilton College, where I now teach, had no marketing arm to speak of, but the New York Times provided a good deal of favorable coverage. A few years ago I stumbled upon one such item in a June 1950 issue. The headline said “Hamilton Program: College Curriculum Is Revised to Provide the Basic Musts.” The article reported that the Hamilton faculty, led by President Robert McEwen, had completed an intensive five-year study to answer a rather obvious but nonetheless vital question to a liberal arts college: “What basic musts in the way of intellectual and moral equipment should a college give its students to prepare them for effective living during the next fifty years.” Led by President McEwen, the Hamilton faculty determined that forty-five percent of the class time of every student would be devoted to foundational courses that would provide undergraduates with what was called basic intellectual equipment to reach six objectives: 1. written and oral command of English; 2. fluency in a foreign language; 3. a command of logic and its application to the understanding of the natural world; 4. understanding and enjoyment of the creative arts; 5. knowledge of the principal ways human beings have constructed and interacted with society; and 6. “an understanding of the intellectual bases of ethical judgment.” Bracing stuff that.
Now let’s turn the clock ahead almost sixty years and create for consideration an imaginary liberal arts college shaped by what seem to be fashionable trends. It’s no longer a shining little village on the hill, but an academic cauldron. I’ll stir the pot. The imaginary campus costs more than $50,000 a year to attend. Grade inflation is so bad that an average of eighty-five would rank a student in the bottom fourth of the class; an average of eighty would plant you pretty much in the root cellar, like Mr. Inconsequential, the last man drafted in the seventh round by an NFL team. The college not only doesn’t require one course in Shakespeare for graduation, it doesn’t require one course in English, or in any other discipline for that matter. Recent valedictorians receive awards without ever having taken during their four years of matriculation a single course in English and history. Many students who depart the place after four years possess a far greater understanding of the intricacies of sex toys than of the complexities of the Constitution. Because of the adverse incentive provided by an open curriculum–that is, a curriculum with no disciplinary or core requirements–the number of double majors, once almost non-existent in the early 1980s, has soared. Indeed, the evidence from recent crops of Phi Beta Kappas, the canaries in the mine at this imaginary college, reveals that the number of double majors in this class of the so-called best and brightest more than doubles the average for members of the junior and senior classes as a whole. Many students are graduated with transcripts so manicured that seventy percent and more of all their courses are taken in only two disciplines, which could be as closely allied as math and economics, or English and creative writing. In some cases students avoid entire realms of knowledge because they prefer to play toward perceived academic strengths or to attend an increasing number of soft courses in programs created to satisfy academic fashion. Student tour guides who work for the admissions office openly tout the open curriculum in avoiding difficult classes as a way to lure high school students to the college.
The college has a “Great Names” series, richly endowed, but uses the money to import a comedian who charges more than $100,000 for his performance, a fee that exceeds that charged by former presidents of the United States who have spoken at the college. On this imaginary campus, a college official who lauds the satire of this comedian and who anonymously lends his prose to a student publication that regularly derides Catholics, berates a fraternity as unthinking and insensitive for using a satirical image created by that very comedian.


The college touts itself as a national leader in teaching students how to write, but those associated with the writing center explain that no comparative data—none—exist to support this claim, which nonetheless is widely circulated by the marketing arm of the college. To be sure, the college requires students to take a couple of writing intensive courses, but the faculty who teach many of them have no training in grammar and style, and as one insider points out, there is a dramatic difference between a writing intensive course and one in which the writing is graded intensively by the instructor. The quantitative literacy standard on campus is so low that an intelligent eighth grader could pass the test. The college offers no required engagement with the history and culture of Western civilization. Indeed, the history department requires majors to take at least three courses in non-Western history, but requires no mandatory courses in American history or the history of Western civilization. In 2007, one-third of all history majors were graduated without having taken one course in American history.
While the publicity machine of the college markets “the unique open curriculum” as a good thing for students, members of the faculty, department by department, increasingly shun teaching foundational courses to freshmen and sophomores in order to make life easier on themselves by teaching introductory courses in their rather narrow areas of expertise. The faculty is so overwhelmingly left-of-center in its politics, that there appears to be only one self-identified, out-of-the-closet conservative faculty member in a faculty of 200. To enhance undergraduate “diversity,” a word that successive generations of college officials refuse to define with a modicum of clarity, the administration abolishes merit scholarships and the requirement of SAT scores for student applicants. The public relations arm touts over and over again the rising SAT scores of the student body. But less than sixty percent of the admitted students now submit SAT scores, and those in charge of institutional research confess never to have undertaken any counterfactual studies as to what the average SAT’s might look like if all admitted students were required to submit them. Biases against conservative students regularly manifest themselves in certain courses. Many complain of a chilled atmosphere that requires self-censorship in order to survive in their courses. In charting the future, the administration of this imaginary college composes a strategic plan that is so poorly written and so sophomoric in ideas that the majority of the college’s own faculty derides it behind the scenes.
Surely, if such an imaginary campus ever did exist, we would do well to consider, without delay, what precisely at a liberal arts college of the 21st century constitutes the “Basic Musts.”

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Robert Paquette

Robert Paquette is Professor of History at Hamilton College.

7 thoughts on “The Modern Academic Cauldron

  1. It could have been H. L. Mencken who proclaimed the phrase: “All successful newspapers are ceaselessly querulous and bellicose. They never defend anyone or anything if they can help it; if the job is forced on them, they tackle it by denouncing someone or something else.”

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