ACTA & Its Critics

ACTA’s new, expanded survey of college general education requirements has earned justified praise. Here’s Pulitzer Prize winner Kathleen Parker, from her column this Sunday: “The study and Web site do fill a gap so that parents and students can make better choices. As a consequence, colleges and universities may be forced to examine their own responsibility in molding an educated, well-informed citizenry.”
ACTA’s guide is so significant because it provides an easy-to-use, easy-to-compare, and easily accessible portal of the general education requirements at 700 institutions. This information should be the starting point for parents as they consider where to send their sons or daughters—and it also should be a prime piece of data for alumni and trustees as they evaluate the state of their institutions. Sure, this information was previously available. But too often colleges and universities go out of their way to bury curricular material in ways to frustrate those eager for sunlight on college campuses.
A good sign of the importance of ACTA’s work comes in the fury that the study has aroused from defenders of the academic status quo. In particular, the AAC&U, the organization that has distinguished itself for its relentless assault on quality—in the name of “diversity”—in higher education, belittled ACTA’s efforts.


“We are hearing from employers,” the AAC&U’s Debra Humphreys mused (without mentioning from which “employers” she was “hearing”), “that they want more from college graduates. But I would not say that we’re hearing that they want a more traditional, old-fashioned kind of core curriculum.” Meanwhile, AAC&U head Carole Geary Schneider suggested that ACTA was merely offering a 1950s model, ignoring how “there’s a huge amount of energy in higher education devoted to revitalizing a content-rich general-education program that is highly focused both on the knowledge students need and the skills they need for a 21st century competence.”
The AAC&U screeds reveal the follow core at the heart of the organization’s philosophy. Take the remark from Humphreys. Is the AAC&U really suggesting that colleges and universities should orient their universities around what they’re “hearing” from “employers”? What of the ideal of a liberal education? Or the obligation of public colleges and universities to train future citizens capable of participating in the nation’s civic life?
Apparently a vocational education is acceptable for the kind of non-Ivy League students that the AAC&U targets. I also suspect that these unnamed “employers” that have criticized ACTA’s approach to Debra Humphreys are also telling the AAC&U that colleges and universities should reorient their curricula to focus exclusively on “diversity.”
For the sake of argument, however, assume that the AAC&U is correct, and college gen-ed curricula should reflect that “employers” want. What employer (outside of the music industry) could possibly want prospective workers to have no exposure to a U.S. survey course beyond high school (which Schneider suggests to the Christian Science Monitor is no problem) and who instead have fulfilled their college U.S. history requirement through “The History of Rock and Roll.” The California State University-Monterey Bay course surveys “United States social and cultural history of the 20th century as analyzed through some of its popular music,” with “special emphasis . . . on the experiences of communities of color.”
How many parents would be satisfied with such a general education requirement?

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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