Fishy Courses: The Fake Red Snappers of Academe


Say you go down to local fishmonger and order a nice tuna steak.  You take it home, cook it up, serve it, and find it is succulent and delicious.  But before long you have cramps, nausea, and something worse.  Chances are what you thought was tuna was another fish, escolar. Tasty but not recommended. 

The New York Times is reporting the latest of many studies that show that the fish we buy are often mislabeled.  In the study 120 samples of red snapper collected at markets in 12 different parts of the country turned out to include all sorts of substitute species–28 different kinds of fish in that net.  The San Francisco Chronicle reporting on the same study noted that “a third of the seafood sold nationwide and almost 40 percent of the fish purchased by consumers in Northern California was not what it was touted to be.”

We owe this cheerful news to a nonprofit group called Oceana, which traveled the fish markets, sushi bars, and groceries of the land–some 674 distribution points– to collect 1,215 samples for piscatorial DNA tests.  Oceana found out which fish were masquerading as other species. Judging by the posted comments, some consumers are shrugging off the mislabeling.  If you can’t tell the difference between red snapper and tilapia, what difference should it make?  Others are alarmed, not just at the widespread fraud but at the health risks. 

Lots of Tilapia and Escolars 

I wonder what would happen if some public-spirited group roamed the country and took a sample of 1,215 academic courses offered at 674 of the nation’s colleges and universities?  This hypothetical group–let’s call it Terrestia–might for example focus on the red snapper of freshman courses, entry-level American history.  What’s really being taught under that label?

Oh wait, the National Association of Scholars just did a study a bit like that.  In Recasting History, we looked at the 85 entry-level American history courses at Texas A&M and the University of Texas Austin.  We found lots of tilapia and escolars aplenty, but a surprisingly small amount of red snapper.  In fact, your chances of getting the fish you ordered at the fish store (about 66 percent) are a good bit better than your chances of getting a straightforward, reasonably comprehensive American history course at the University of Texas at Austin (about 22 percent). 

The history professoriate as a whole is no happier with this report than American fish sellers are with Oceana’s findings.  Case in point:  the Executive Director of the American Historical Association and that body’s vice-president of its Teaching Division took to the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education to present a buffoonish “refutation” of our findings.  It consisted of an entirely inaccurate account of our research protocol along with smears suggesting that our purpose in pursuing the study was to pressure colleges to sweep real history under the rug and to present patriotic fables instead.  Mark Bauerlein offered a good rejoinder to their silliness here on Minding the Campus.

If the marketing arm of the fish industry wants to follow in the footsteps of the American Historical Association, it should assert that Oceana’s study can be ignored because it didn’t also sample home aquariums and, anyway, the authors are probably egg-eating vegetarians. 

Is Anthropology 101 Real?  

But I digress. Terrestia, my hypothetical research group, shouldn’t stop with freshman American history.  There are lots of other subjects in the college catalogs that have a fishy odor.  What’s really happening in the freshman composition courses or their trendy substitutes “first year seminars,” which propel students fresh from high school into “advanced” topics?  Which departments more or less deliver what the catalog says, and which ones play fast and loose with the supposed topics?  At a guess, I expect Chemistry 101 is really Chemistry 101, wherever you go, and Macroeconomics is pretty much Macroeconomics. What the student is likely to find in introductory courses in my field, anthropology, is another story. 

Does it matter when what’s on the academic menu as intellectual cod is really white hake, olive rockfish, or threadfin slickhead?  Yes.  It’s a deception that is probably a good deal worse than eating a mislabeled fish.  The large percentages of students whose chief accomplishment in college is the accumulation of debt have been swindled of a real education.  What they don’t know about history, writing, literature, philosophy, and dozens of other subjects is traceable in no small part to the swapping out of the proper content of courses for ideologically-driven alternatives.  And, I would add, also traceable to the license that some faculty members take to teach whimsical, self-serving, and eccentric topics, and to entertain students rather than instruct. 

I hope Terrestia gets busy with this study.  It is overdue.  Oh, I know, it is easier to gather samples of sushi for DNA tests than it is to find out what is actually being taught in a course at most state colleges or universities, let alone private colleges and universities.  Texas was an exception because it passed a law requiring public universities to disclose course syllabi.  One thing we need is 49 more such laws.  And we need Terrestia.  Maybe NAS should change its name.

While we’re on it, NAS is celebrating its 25th anniversary next Friday and Saturday here in New York.  It isn’t too late to sign up and learn more about our efforts to sort out the academic catch.


  • Peter Wood

    Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars and author of “1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project.”

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