Building a Curriculum Around a Plane Crash

My last post looked at the latest troubling educational initiative from the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U). The organization is especially pernicious not simply because of its agenda—which is, after all, quite mainstream in the contemporary academy. What distinguishes the AAC&U is its contempt toward students at non-elite schools, its belief that such students can’t flourish in an education stepped in the liberal arts. Instead, the AAC&U contends that only a presentist education will do for such students. It terms this approach “interdisciplinary,” but “nondisciplinary” is a more appropriate term.
The AAC&U touts its “General Education for a Global Century” project as “innovative” partly because it employs “social networking.” (The internet—how innovative!) The group’s social networking site provides a sense of the topics that, according to the AAC&U, deserve more attention in general education curricula.
What demonstrates “a need for the deep, interdisciplinary education that global learning offers”? According to project coordinator Chad Anderson, “the deliberate plane crash into the IRS building in Austin, Texas,” which “must raise complex questions about politics, the economy, and domestic terrorism.” Really? This would be a little bit like a cranky conservative professor demanding that Columbia, in 1970, reorient its gen-ed curriculum around to focus on the explosion of the Weathermen townhouse in Greenwich Village.


Anderson’s other example of core curriculum topics as a “Law and Order” episode (ripped from the headlines) is the “snowmaggedon” blizzard this past winter. According to Anderson, orienting a general education curriculum around the event “will allow us to think more deeply about such topics such as privilege (we have snow plows, no matter how long they take to plow our street), power (we could dig ourselves out—we did not have to depend on a foreign government’s military), and geography and climate (how climate and landscape impact culture, and vice versa). And the fact that some people saw the blizzard as evidence against global warming only supports our call for stronger scientific literacy—for example, an understanding that weather patterns and climate change are complex, and that a couple storms do not undermine or disprove environmental changes.”
As we’ve seen in the power of the Group of 88 or the anti-Summers faculty, many elite universities have lost their way in recent years. But as troubling as conditions might be at schools like Duke or Harvard, it’s hard to imagine parents or alumni standing idly by as these institutions adopt core curricula laden with such courses as “Power, Privilege, and This Week’s Washington, D.C.-area Weather.”
At schools, however, without powerful alumni or parental bases to counteract faculty biases, the AAC&U has a better chance of getting away with such howlers as Anderson’s complaint about the “incidental” attention paid at today’s colleges issues of “gender” or “sexuality.” Or his bizarre suggestion that in “global learning,” too much emphasis is placed on international matters—such as Africa—and not enough on domestic race/class/gender topics, such as “how public health affects U.S. race relations, etc.”
Or, more troublingly, with the AAC&U’s assertion that a general educational curriculum should focus on such pedagogical questions as getting “students to care enough to challenge the status quo.”
The AAC&U believes that it’s OK for students at its targeted institutions to have a general education curriculum based not on Shakespeare but on whatever left-leaning topics happen to be in the news, with a goal of training students to be political activists. These “students come to college hoping to change the world.” The AAC&U points to no polling numbers to substantiate this conclusion; the data that does exist points in a different direction, with students choosing schools based on the college’s academic reputation and its graduates’ records of getting good jobs.
But perhaps these figures only prove another AAC&U thesis: that today’s college and university students fail to “recognize the construction of their own identities as shaped by currents of power and privilege,” and need to “understand—and perhaps redefine—democratic principles and practices within a global context.”

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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