A War on the Quality of Higher Education

Few higher education groups have as pernicious an agenda as the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U). The diversity-obsessed organization combines an unrelenting campaign against quality—especially at schools whose student bodies are more middle- or working-class—with an Orwellian tendency to use words to describe their opposite.
Beyond this pattern, AAC&U initiatives tend to have several common themes:

– a refusal to describe the United States as a “democracy”—“diverse democracy” or “multicultural democracy” are the preferred terms;
– a call for “global” learning, which amounts to demands not for ensuring that students have foreign language capabilities or extensive knowledge of foreign cultures but instead a code word for reorienting college curricula around the apparently global principles of race, class, and gender;
-a relentless emphasis on “skills” over course content
– a hostility to disciplinary learning, and equally robust praise for interdisciplinary studies.

The latter two items might seem banal, but for the AAC&U they’re critical: a public emphasis on skills means that course content can be molded to fit any agenda (in the AAC&U’s case, one-sided, present-oriented agenda), as long as the course theoretically teaches the desired skills. Abandoning disciplines, meanwhile, removes a potential obstacle to course content that amounts to little more than propaganda, on the grounds that such content can be deemed “interdisciplinary” and critical for a “21st century”education.


All of these themes appear in a recently announced AAC&U initiative, “General Education for a Global Century”—funded by the Henry Luce Foundation. The goal of the project is to “re-frame general education courses and programs” through a one-size-fits-all approach, by “refin[ing] and disseminat[ing] models of global general education curricula that can be adapted across all institutional types.”
A great books curriculum this is not. The AAC&U wants to abandon a traditional liberal arts education and instead embrace “interdisciplinary, integrative courses that focus on real-world global issues.”
What qualifies as the “real-world global issues” that a general education curriculum should address? The AAC&U normally is coy in revealing its agenda, but in this project it’s unusually clear: The project is “based upon the assumption that we live in an interdependent but unequal world and that higher education can help prepare students not only to thrive in such a world, but to remedy its inequities. AAC&U seeks to support the academy in its vital role of expanding knowledge about the world’s peoples and problems and developing individuals who will advance equity and justice both at home and abroad.” [emphasis added] The desired general education curriculum, moreover, will allow students “to wrestle with the ethical implications of differential power and privilege.”
Exactly what constitutes advancing equity and justice? Opposing racial preferences in higher education admissions, on the grounds that these preferences often discriminate against Asian-Americans? Championing the Israeli security fence, on the grounds that citizens of all sovereign nations should have the right to live free from terror? Exposing the dangers that Islamist states pose to women, or to their gay and lesbian citizens? Somehow, I doubt any of these questions would find their way into an AAC&U curriculum.
And who decides what constitutes “the ethical implications of differential power and privilege”? The AAC&U seems untroubled by a central contradiction in its premise: if general education is to be redefined to advance openly political goals, how can the academy continue to justify not having a politically balanced professoriate? Nor does the AAC&U seem concerned with the inappropriateness of a college or university structuring its general education curriculum around presentist themes.
As with all AAC&U initiatives, a good portion of the “Global Century” initiative consists of education school jargon, phrases vague or meaningless enough to justify almost anything. The project—which will include 30 institutions, chosen partly on the basis of how they “plan to align global learning with efforts to address questions of diversity and democracy”—promises “new connections between educators,” leading to “a fluid, decentralized exchange of resources that opens new opportunities for partnership and learning.” Project schools will “articulate essential global learning outcomes for all students” (as opposed to what, precisely: non-essential local learning outcomes?). Schools will also “develop rubrics for assessing global learning outcomes that can be used by diverse institutions and across academic fields.” Courses will be “keyed to expected student capabilities rather than specified course content,” with a heavy emphasis on “learning communities” and “community-based learning.” (In other words—students should spend more time learning about their neighborhoods than the classics of a liberal education.) And the student’s experience will all end with a “capstone” course—a favorite of contemporary educational “innovators” and a model that places skills, rather than content, at the center of higher education.
This Ed School jargon will promote a new model of a general education curriculum, designed to ask of students, “How should one act in the face of large unsolved global problems?” This is a quite extraordinary goal for a general education curriculum—teaching students how to act in the face of specific political problems.
And while “global learning” might seem unobjectionable—the AAC&U proposal contains a couple of references to the global economy—the AAC&U’s definition of global learning is quite different than what a fair-minded reader might expect. Rather than, say, an emphasis on learning foreign languages, or funding junior-year abroad programs, or immersing students in complex questions of international economics or international law, or ensuring that students have a solid understanding of foreign cultures and history, the AAC&U’s new “global” gen-ed curriculum will have students focusing not on the global at all, but on their own personal experiences, by exploring “the relational nature of their identities—identities that are variously shaped by the currents of power and privilege, both within a multicultural U.S. democracy and within an interconnected and unequal world.” The “heart” of global learning, according to the AAC&U, consists of such loaded concepts as “diversity, identity, citizenship, and responsible action.”
(Does a difference exist between a “multicultural” democracy and a “democracy”? The AAC&U implies it does, but never comes out and says so.)
The current AAC&U project has two new items, each of which should raise concerns. First, previous AAC&U initiatives—such as the “Arts of Democracy”—have focused almost entirely on the humanities and the social sciences. But now the organization has decided to target the natural sciences as well. One of the project’s three content goals announces that “learning experiences will emphasize scientific inquiry and scientific literacy across the curriculum, addressing real-world global dilemmas through research, application, and diverse perspectives.” Applying the AAC&U’s ideological agenda to the world of the natural sciences is a frightening thought.
Second, the current project has its own AAC&U-trained commissars: “Communication and Public Advocacy: AAC&U will assemble a Global Learning Leadership Council, a group of distinguished scholars, innovative teachers, and visionary administrators to focus the higher education community and broader public on fundamental questions of educating undergraduates for global citizenship and personal responsibility.”
How reassuring. And how could the Luce Foundation fund such a project?

KC Johnson

KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

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