Is College Education Too Narrow?

In trying to explain why even the best of students have sometimes received an exceedingly narrow education, former Congresswoman Heather Wilson touches on the issue of academic self interest. “Perhaps,” she writes, “faculty members are themselves more narrowly specialized because of pressure to publish original work in ever more obscure journals.” It’s a good point that has an even wider ambit than she suggests. Once upon a time, the now quaint notion of preparing students to be citizens served as a counterweight to curricular self-dealing. Preparing students to be citizens meant that you needed to provide a range of broad based courses as a foundation for participation in the adult world. You needed required courses in American history, literature and institutions. But when an interest in citizenship was increasingly supplanted by mere attitudinizing, an important constraint on the faculties was affected. Supplied with a myriad of reasons ranging from globalization to multiculturalism they could slip the harness of being forced to teach the once crucial survey courses. Instead they could put their energies into what they were really interested in, their areas of specialty, that is to say themselves. The upshot was that a humdrum course on American literature could be replaced by classes on Foucauldian readings of American literature or narratives of third-world liberation. On campus everyone could be happy. Good students could pride themselves on their ability to decipher difficult arguments while broadening their geographic horizons. And faculty could use the classes to either coast or embellish their specialized arguments.
For a long time the faculty failure of accountability was safely ensconced behind the worthy rhetoric of academic freedom. But Ms. Wilson’s Washington Post op-ed is fortunately part of a trend challenging the claim of academia to disinterested virtue.

Fred Siegel

Fred Siegel

Fred Siegel is a senior fellow of the Manhattan Institute's Center for State and Local Leadership, a City Journal contributing editor, and an expert on public policy solutions for urban governance. A former fellow at The Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, he is currently scholar-in-residence at Saint Francis College in Brooklyn.

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