Stripping Standards in Arkansas

The long-term decline of graduation rates is one of the most intractable problems facing American Higher Education. Trustees at the University of Arkansas are now mulling what appears to be the most popular solution to the problem – simply lower requirements. Under a current proposal, a requirement for 66 core credits would be reduced nearly by half, to 35. Anne Neal, President of ACTA, furnished additional grim details in an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette editorial last week:

Under the proposed curricular overhaul, the foreign language requirement would be altogether eliminated. The math requirements would be halved. And the science requirement—a must in the 21st century if there ever were one—would remain, but in a thinned out version.

The University of Arkansas’ chancellor, G. David Gearheart, wrote in response to Neal’s column in the Democrat-Gazette that “..the truth of the matter is that we have not had a core curriculum review in over 50 years.” He pointed out, depressingly, that “the current core of 66 credits in the university’s J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences is much higher than many of our peer institutions…” Arkansas is indeed behind the times – it has been comparatively slow to eviscerate core curricula that most colleges destroyed long ago. The case is understandably distressing to ACTA as the University of Arkansas was one of only eight universities to receive an “A” grade on ACTA’s “What Will They Learn” survey of core curriculum requirements (Columbia earned a “B”, Georgetown a “D”, and Stanford a “C” to give you some measure of comparison.”
Some in the University have argued that these changes are necessary in order to comply with a recent act of the Arkansas State Legislature designed to ease the transfer of students from two-year to four-year institutions. Arkansas Community colleges could accurately be described as failing, with a graduation rate of 17%, but ACTA and others have averred that other changes could easily have smoothed the way for transfer students. As Paul Greenberg wrote:

If this law amounts to dumbing down education, and it does, then change the law. Or get around it by establishing new requirements for graduation. Surely it is not beyond the ingenuity of our academicians to see that all our college graduates get something like a liberal education rather than a watered-down simulacrum thereof.
Imagine if the same university administrators and public bureaucrats who are proving so talented at rationalizing the degradation of academic standards applied their gift for working the system to raising those standards, or just maintaining them. Or would that be out of character?
Why should not all students, whether in physics or phys ed, be required to have much the same core curriculum, or liberal education? They’re all going to be citizens and voters, aren’t they? Lest we forget, the term liberal education derives from the concept of an education suitable for the free-those who enjoy liberty. Rather than being enslaved by their own ignorance.

It remains to be seen if Arkansas will be the latest curriculum to fall victim to Higher Education’s increasing consensus that a well-rounded mind is merely a roadblock on the road to a cap and gown.

Anthony Paletta

Anthony Paletta is a freelance writer.

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