A recent report by American Council of Trustees and Alumni entitled “What Will They Learn?” makes clear that the steady deterioriation of general education at the best colleges continues apace. The report studied general education requirements at 100 top schools and found that “Topics like U.S. government or history, literature, mathematics, and economics have become mere options on far too many campuses.” Indeed, my own university dropped its U.S. history requirement a year ago, replacing it with a watery “History, Society, Culture” that allows just about everything to count.
The upshot is that one can no longer rely on the ordinary curriculum to ensure a solid liberal education for all students. This is one reason why we need special undergraduate programs, centers, and institutes that emphasize broad learning in civics and history, and provide students a forum for the discussion of ideas and ideologies. I highlighted one of them awhile back, the Alexander Hamilton Institute in Clinton, NY, run by Bob Paquette and providing students a home for the reasoned and critical study of Western civilization.
Another one is the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville. It was established back in 1991 by Senator Mitch McConnell, who graduated from Louisville 27 years earlier. The goal of the center is to educate students to become engaged and informed citizens, and so it hosts luncheons, seminars, panel discussions, and lectures with undergraduates as full participants. Gary Gregg, the Director, holds the Mitch McConnell Chair in Leadership at the university, and his writings The Presidential Republic, Patriot Sage: George Washington and the American Political Tradition and Securing Democracy—Why We Have an Electoral College.
The curriculum of the Center emphasizes civics education, and it developed expressly as a response to “the national problem of declining classroom emphasis on American history and civics education, abysmal student knowledge of the American Constitution and political processes, and a growing detachment of young people from the political process.” The programs and events the Center organizes remedy the knowledge deficit by offering scholarships to young people interested in a broad education in political science and the liberal arts, along with internships that give them direct exposure to U.S. politics in action.
It helps, too, that the commitment of Senator McConnell and Elaine Chou (both of whose papers are lodged in the Center’s archives) delivers inspiring moments to students, such as the visit of John McCain last month. In the past, students have enjoyed the opportunity to sit down with President George Bush; President Mikhail Gorbechev of the former Soviet Union; Chief Justice John Roberts; U.S. Senators Harry Reid, Joe Lieberman, Ted Kennedy, and Bill Bradley; British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher; and secretaries of state Condoleezza Rice, Madeleine Albright, George Schultz, and James Baker.
I was there last month and observed the intellectual energy among the students inside the Center. It illustrated well how one can create an exciting space of civic learning and pointed forensics. Thirty-five of them sat around a table over lunch and peppered me with difficult questions about Generation Y and civic engagement. Obviously, they were accustomed to spirited debate and strong opinions. I take that as a result of the environment Gregg and his staff have created. Students who enter the Center encounter a high standard among their peers. There, references to neoconservatism, the Cold War, and the New Deal are a matter of course. Ideologies are taken seriously, and ideas have consequences. Harry Truman and Richard Nixon mean something more than familiar (or not) names.
That’s the kind of pressure we need students to face in college. They need to experience those fleeting years of study as a time to ponder and evaluate and read read read. The general education requirements of most schools today don’t foster it. The McConnell Center and the Hamilton Institute do. We need more spaces like them.