A new book from author John Ellis examines the real reasons why most college graduates are woefully undereducated when they leave college after four or more years. Below is an eye-opening excerpt from The Breakdown of Higher Education: How it Happened, The Damage It Does, and What Can be Done.
Everyone knows that complaints about the quality of higher education are now heard with great frequency. What is less well known is that a large number of careful studies have already investigated what college graduates have learned by the time they get their degrees. These studies have been done by all kinds of people and agencies with quite different attitudes and interests. They include employer organizations, think tanks, educational theorists, and academic researchers. But though the people who have performed these studies come at the question from different directions with differing social and political attitudes and with differing methodologies, there is very little difference in their conclusions. They all find that recent graduates seem to have been very poorly educated. One study after another has found that they write badly, can’t reason, can’t read any reasonably complex material, have alarming gaps in their knowledge of the history and institutions of the society in which they live, and are in general poorly prepared for the workplace.
The most interesting—and devastating—of these studies is that by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, whose book documenting their study, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, appeared in 2011. Arum and Roksa found that higher education in America today “is characterized by limited or no learning for a large proportion of students.” More specifically, “An astounding proportion of students are progressing through higher education today without measurable gains in general skills as assessed by the CLA [Collegiate Learning Assessment].” The authors also find “at least some evidence that college students improved their critical thinking skills much more in the past than they do today.”
Looking at a sample of more than 2,300 students, Arum and Roksa observed “no statistically significant gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills for at least 45 percent of the students” tracked in their study. What is interesting here is that the two researchers seem somewhat puzzled by these results. Nonetheless, they see clearly enough that the blame must rest with the faculty—that students didn’t just get dumber for no reason. Arum and Roksa think the problem must be that professors don’t demand enough of students. In one sense they are right (though not in the way they probably intend), but they seem unwilling to ask why this change has happened. It can’t be that faculty suddenly became lazy.
A variety of other studies confirm the findings of Arum and Roksa. In 2006, a study done jointly by four organizations looked at preparedness for the workforce from an employer’s point of view. The title in itself suggested that something had gone badly wrong: Are They Really Ready To Work? Employers’ Perspectives on the Basic Knowledge and Applied Skills of New Entrants to the 21st Century U.S. Workforce. The study asked over four hundred employers for their views on the readiness of new entrants to the workforce and reported “employers’ growing frustrations over the lack of skills they see in new workforce entrants.” Employers considered college graduates deficient in writing, written communications, and leadership skills. The authors reached a highly negative conclusion: “The future U.S. workforce is here—and it is woefully unprepared for the demands of today’s (and tomorrow’s) workplace.”
Another study of the state of higher education that came to an equally disturbing conclusion was done by the National Center for Education Statistics. Focusing on the literacy of adults at various educational levels, and comparing results in 2003 with those from 1992, it found a sharp decline in eleven years. Two tests were conducted. The first involved understanding and responding appropriately to short prose texts, while the second was about reading and extrapolating from complex books and documents. The results showed that college graduates’ scores on short prose texts declined by 11 points, and on longer documents by 14 points, while the scores for graduate students declined by 13 and 17 points respectively. The virtue of this study is that it doesn’t just give us a disappointing statistic and leave us to wonder how much better the scores ought to be. Instead, it gives us a specific score from just eleven years earlier as a reference point and thus shows an astonishing decline from a well-documented state of affairs.
These results were at first buried in the NCES website among all kinds of other statistics, and so it took an article by Lois Romano in the Washington Post to get the appalling conclusions noticed. Romano was in no doubt as to how much all of this should worry us:
Literacy experts and educators say they are stunned by the results of a recent adult literacy assessment, which shows that the reading proficiency of college graduates has declined in the past decade, with no obvious explanation. While more Americans are graduating from college, and more than ever are applying for admission, far fewer are leaving higher education with the skills needed to comprehend routine data, such as reading a table about the relationship between blood pressure and physical activity, according to the federal study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics.
One must wonder whether anyone would have noticed this horrendous decline if Romano hadn’t written her article. Her piece was reprinted and commented on many times, while almost nobody used the NCES study itself as a primary source. Romano provided more details of the test scores, but it was left to a man that she interviewed to put his finger on the real horror of what the NCES had uncovered:
Only 41 percent of graduate students tested in 2003 could be classified as “proficient” in prose—reading and understanding information in short texts—down 10 percentage points since 1992. Of college graduates, only 31 percent were classified as proficient—compared with 40 percent in 1992. “It’s appalling—it’s really astounding,” said Michael Gorman, president of the American Library Association and a librarian at California State University at Fresno. “Only 31 percent of college graduates can read a complex book and extrapolate from it. That’s not saying much for the remainder.”
Gorman is correct: it is indeed astounding that 69 percent of college graduates apparently can’t read any reasonably complex material with an acceptable level of understanding, and even more astonishing that 41 percent of candidates for higher degrees are not proficient in reading!
But what of Romano’s claim that there is no obvious explanation for this collapse of test scores for college graduates? There is a perfectly obvious explanation. The period from 1992 to 2003 was the crucial time when the politicization of the nation’s college and university faculties suddenly gained enormous momentum, resulting in an already pronounced tilt to the left, which quickly turned into the virtually one-party campus. Can it really be a coincidence that the literacy of college graduates plunged disastrously at the same time?
If graduates show serious ignorance of the history and political institutions of the society in which they live, that is exactly what one should have expected when campus requirements in American history and institutions and in Western civilization were abolished, and when there is so much faculty hostility to such courses. If graduates can’t even write short declarative sentences competently, that is not surprising when writing courses neglect the skill of writing and focus instead on radical politics, as they now often do. When graduates can’t read and extrapolate from books of any reasonable level of difficulty, that is just what one would expect when reading lists so often give them books written at the superficial level of journalism rather than more complex works that would really challenge them, as used to be the case. This is what happens when great books that have stood the test of time are abandoned in favor of politically correct simplemindedness.
If students have not learned to reason and to analyze, what else should we expect when they are so often asked simply to adopt a radical political viewpoint, instead of analyzing complex issues for themselves? If students were asked to evaluate different political stances they would have to think about them, but when they are pressured to accept one position they are in effect being told to stop thinking. A common defense of this practice by radical activists is that students are being challenged when confronted by a system of political beliefs very different from that which they bring to the classroom. But students won’t learn how to think and analyze if they are simply pressed to substitute one dogmatic belief system for another. What a college-level education must provide is the analytical skill to dissect and evaluate ideas—any ideas. But that kind of education would not serve the interests of political radicals. They want followers and supporters, not people who give serious thought to whatever cause they are pressured to join. If students think for themselves, they might make a decision that is not what the radicals want.
The One-Party College
It’s surely obvious that there is a close connection between the shortcomings of recent graduates, shown by many studies, and the politicization of the campuses. The former are the predictable consequences of the latter. When academia fails to provide a large proportion of its students with either analytical skills or useful knowledge, that represents enormous losses for the nation. Aside from the waste of four years and of a great deal of money, there is a missed opportunity both for students and for the rest of us. They don’t get a college education, and we don’t get an informed citizenry. The damage is not just to those who don’t learn anything at all. The better students show some improvement in their writing and reasoning skills, but they still receive the same inferior teaching that produced no gains at all for so many.
The studies we’ve looked at so far give most of their attention to the large numbers of college graduates who have learned little or nothing while at college. But what do we know about the more accomplished students—what have they learned? Not nearly enough, according to a member of the committee to select Rhodes Scholars, that is, the best of the college graduates. In an article in the Washington Post for January 23, 2011 (“Our Superficial Scholars”), Heather Wilson, who has the broad perspective acquired by twenty years of service on that committee, reported that even high-achieving students now “seem less able to grapple with issues that require them to think across disciplines or reflect on difficult questions about what matters and why.” She and the committee look for “students who wonder, students who are reading widely,” but “the undergraduate education they are receiving seems less and less suited to that purpose.” Wilson gave four examples of what she meant by this:
An outstanding biochemistry major wants to be a doctor and supports the president’s health-care bill but doesn’t really know why. A student who started a chapter of Global Zero at his university hasn’t really thought about whether a world in which great powers have divested themselves of nuclear weapons would be more stable or less so, or whether nuclear deterrence can ever be moral. A young service academy cadet who is likely to be serving in a war zone within the year believes there are things worth dying for but doesn’t seem to have thought much about what is worth killing for. A student who wants to study comparative government doesn’t seem to know much about the important features and limitations of America’s Constitution.
These recent graduates were among the very best of their time, but they seemed to Wilson noticeably less accomplished than those seen by the committee in past years.
We’ve seen abundant evidence that the one-party politicized campus does not and cannot teach students to reason, to write, or to read anything complex with adequate understanding, and that it produces graduates with dismaying gaps in their general knowledge and particularly in knowledge of their own society’s governance and history. All of which is certainly alarming. But the level of our alarm should rise even higher when we contemplate one simple fact: teachers in high schools and elementary schools are all trained in colleges and universities. This should suggest that we are likely to find a corresponding deterioration in teaching at those levels too. And we do. The rot of higher education has spread to the K–12 schools and now undermines our whole educational system.
Complaints about the quality of education in the high schools are now so common that they are no longer news. Even the college faculty who have so poorly educated the nation’s schoolteachers complain bitterly about incoming freshmen being inadequately prepared for college. Arum and Roksa found that “40 percent of college faculty agree with the statement: ‘Most of the students I teach lack the basic skills for college-level work.’” It seems never to occur to the complaining college faculty that this must ultimately be their own fault—for where else do high school teachers get their education? While there is broad agreement that teaching in K–12 schools has deteriorated greatly in recent years, the question of who trained the teachers is always missing from the complaints.
High Schools Are Failing in Much the Same Way
An independent nonprofit education reform organization that the nation’s governors and corporate leaders set up, called Achieve, published a report in 2005 saying that college instructors “are the harshest critics of public high schools.” Nearly half (48 percent) are dissatisfied with the preparation that students are receiving in American public high schools, according to the report. More specifically:
Large majorities of instructors are dissatisfied with the job public high schools are doing in preparing students for college when it comes to writing quality (62%) and their ability to read and comprehend complex materials (70%). Majorities of instructors are dissatisfied with their preparation in a number of other areas, including their ability to think analytically (66%), their work and study habits (65%), their ability to do research (59%), applying what they learn to solve problems (55%) and mathematics (52%).
Today, an astounding proportion of the students entering higher education must take remedial courses when they begin, which means that they are not prepared for college-level work even in terms of minimal formal requirements. In the California State University system, for example, over half of all entrants must do remedial work. In other words, less than half of those entering the system are even minimally prepared for college. Why are teachers in high schools and elementary schools not doing a better job of preparing their students for higher education?
A major part of the problem lies in the schools of education that credential teachers, as Rita Kramer found when she undertook the research documented in her devastating book Ed School Follies: The Miseducation of America’s Teachers, published in 1991. Kramer’s research showed convincingly that the low quality of the public schools was the result of the political preoccupations that animated teacher training in the nation’s colleges. She visited numerous schools of education across the country, studying and evaluating how they prepared their students for teaching careers. She found an astonishing uniformity of opinion on one central issue:
The goal of schooling is not considered to be instructional, let alone intellectual, but political.
The public school, once charged with the task of transmitting the common culture and imparting the skills required to understand it, participate in it, and extend it, has come to be seen instead by those who prepare men and women to teach in it as an agency of social change.
Kramer also found that the low level of skills and knowledge in public schools was strongly correlated with the politicization of university ed-school programs. Worse still, she discovered that the well-documented ignorance of the nation’s history and its institutions among high school graduates was the intended result of a conscious policy choice rather than of neglect. Schools of education “denigrate the history of the institutions that made us the nation that we are,” Kramer found. Further, “Any knowledge or appreciation of that common culture and the institutions from which it derives, I found conspicuously absent in the places that prepare men and women to teach in our country’s public schools today.” Her final judgment was that we need to “place knowledge itself at the center of the educational enterprise” if we are going to have better teachers and better schools.
Kramer’s recognition that a clear policy choice lies at the root of the problem is highly important, because when anyone notices that our schoolchildren are doing badly, it is often assumed that this must be happening because teachers are ineffective or neglectful. For example, a study of education done in California in 2011 found the same distressing results we’ve already seen in other studies, but its title immediately spelled out an interpretation for which there was no basis in fact: “Consequences of Neglect: Performance Trends in California Higher Education.” Yet it wasn’t neglect that made California at that time thirty-ninth among all the states in its share of eighth-graders who scored at the proficient level or better on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. This result might seem strange when set against the fact that California has the most developed and prestigious system of state-funded universities and colleges in the world. But this is what happens when that powerful system of higher education is spreading dysfunction and political radicalism instead of knowledge and mental acuity. When college campuses stop teaching students how to think and instead tell them what ideology they must commit to, that dereliction of duty trickles down to the high schools and produces the same kinds of disaster in both places.
Teacher Education Is Heavily Politicized
Rita Kramer’s study of education schools is now nearly thirty years old, but more recent work confirms that nothing has improved in the meantime. Jay Schalin looked at three major university education schools and compiled a list of the ten authors whose works were the most frequently assigned in courses. He found that every person on that list “is highly political and holds beliefs far to the left of ordinary liberals.” More generally, Schalin concluded: “Teacher education has become one of the most politicized corners of academia, an institution that is already out of step with the rest of the country politically.”
To summarize: students who graduate from the heavily politicized radical campus cause yet more educational destruction by importing the same incompetent and politicized teaching into the public schools.
Severe damage to our entire educational system is only part of the harm that the one-party campus does. It damages our society in many other ways, not the least of which is sabotaging the path to advancement for underprivileged and minority students.
Access to first-rate higher education—genuine, uncorrupted higher education—has always been a powerful force for social justice in the broadest sense. Education is the great leveler. Nothing has done more for opportunity in our society than an excellent system of higher education. Historically, it has propelled whole groups of have-nots to full equality. Not so very long ago, large populations of recent immigrants—Italians, Irish, Jews—began life in America as the downtrodden poor, but access to first-rate public education enabled them to become fully integrated into American society and to enjoy all of its blessings. Excellent public education was the engine of social change for these large immigrant populations in earlier generations, and soon enough the result was senators, Supreme Court justices, and even U.S. presidents from those populations.
The point can’t be stressed enough: excellence in higher education has been a highly effective engine of social change for large groups of people who were once the country’s have-nots but are now well represented at every social stratum and in every walk of American life. It really produced results. But it worked only because it was real education, not the sham offered by the present diversity regime on campus. Students were given a thorough grounding in the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of their civilization. They became genuinely educated people who as a consequence were able to move upward. A diploma was important only because it represented the level of education that an individual had reached; the skills and knowledge that the diploma represented were what really made the opportunity possible.
A measure of optimism was crucial to this process: a belief in the essential fairness and effectiveness of the system overall, despite some obvious pockets of unfairness. Students had to believe that it was worthwhile for them to work hard to master ideas and knowledge because their mastery would be recognized and would equip them for rewarding careers.
At any particular historical moment, the people who have the greatest stake in excellence in public higher education are those looking to move up the social scale—the have-nots of their time. This means that if public higher education is now seriously deficient in any respect, the groups most harmed will be ethnic minorities, because those are the people who need it most at this particular moment. In recent decades our society has recognized the need to empower black students to climb the social ladder by means of higher education, as Italians, Irish, and Jews had done before them. But just when they needed it to lift them to full equality, it was no longer there for them. And it was the campus political radicals who took it from them, even as those radicals claimed to be their friends and supporters.
These last decades have made it abundantly clear that higher education cannot have direct social and political goals without becoming seriously corrupted. Paradoxically, something that the politicized campus prides itself on—the advancement to full equality of minorities—has been severely impeded as a result. The domination of higher education by radical political activists has been a tragedy for black students, and this is a national scandal.
The crux of the matter is that control of the education that should have led to full equality in the mainstream of our society is now in the hands of people who loathe that mainstream. The kind of education that in past generations has elevated low-status immigrant groups would stand in the way of the radicals’ social agenda by strengthening the status quo, which they want instead to weaken. To move up, minority students need to attain mastery of their civilization’s accumulated knowledge, but political radicals don’t look at the history of their society and see knowledge and wisdom; they see only a record of oppression. They have no great respect for its institutions or achievements, and they want to make sure that their students don’t either. Those radicals are alienated from their own society and they want to infect their students that alienation—even when in the case of black students that will take away their precious chance of climbing the ladder. We should be under no illusion: campus political radicals are a thoroughly selfish group who never stop to think who is being damaged by their pursuit of power.
Radical activists sabotage and derail minority student progress in numerous ways. By telling minorities that racism is still undiminished everywhere, they undermine confidence that trying to succeed is worthwhile. By denigrating society as it is, they undermine a desire to seek a better place in it. By dismantling the coursework that would give minority students mastery of their society’s history and institutions, they prevent their acquisition of that mastery. By telling minority students that they should be reading writers ethnically similar to themselves, they cut them off from the wisdom of the great writers of the past and steer them instead toward minor figures who like themselves are alienated and obsessed with racism. When minority students are told that it is to their advantage to read mediocre writers who have not stood the test of time instead of writers of the stature of Shakespeare, they are betrayed. All of this destroys black educational opportunity and is a recipe not for minority success, but for failure.
For minorities, the transformation of the curriculum by radical activists has been nothing short of catastrophic. When Jesse Jackson marched with students at Stanford University chanting “Hey Hey, Ho Ho, Western Civ has got to go,” he was helping to destroy the chance of upward mobility for the groups that he claimed to be leading and championing. He was putting a rigorous, well-rounded education in the great classic writers and thinkers out of their reach just when they needed it most. And the resulting dumbing down of the education of high school teachers guaranteed that black students would arrive at college with a handicap every bit as great as it has ever been. Denying black students a mastery of the way that modernity came about denied them a fair chance of advancement. When you see high black unemployment, especially young black male unemployment, blame campus radicals. An old test of any action is: cui bono? In whose interests is it? Alienation from their society, ignorance of its development, its achievements, and its essential nature may be in the interests of radical zealots, but it is absolutely not in the interests of black students. College administrators who talk endlessly about diversity imagine that they are nobly supporting minority students when they are actually selling them out. Black students on the way to getting an excellent college education are, in effect, being waylaid by political radicals intent on diverting them from that goal to use them for their own purposes.
Not only are black students not moving up—they are actually losing ground as the gap between them and other students is increasing. This is another of the dreadful findings of the research by Arum and Roksa. It was already well known that African American students enter higher education with much lower Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) scores than do their white counterparts. But Arum and Roksa found that “During their first two years of college, white students gained 41 CLA points, while African-American students gained only 7 points.
As a consequence, the gap between African-American and white students increased over time.”
It’s worth dwelling on this sad result. Higher education should be closing the gap between black and white students. Instead, it’s increasing the gap: black students slip further behind their white counterparts because of their college experience. That development is so devastating for the future of our society that it ought to make everyone drop what they are doing right now and devote themselves to reversing it, but that won’t happen, and it won’t happen because the people who are doing it don’t really care about anything but their own selfish political goals.
We have here a classic vicious circle: the minority high school deficit leads to preferences in college admissions, preferences lead to political radicalism on campus, campus radicalism leads to a deterioration in the education of high school teachers, more poorly educated high school teachers increase the minority deficit, and that leads to even greater demands for preferences. Though the intent of college admissions preferences is to provide upward mobility for minorities, what they really do is reduce the quality of a college education by promoting a force that cripples it.
Another way in which the prospects for the advancement of black students are damaged by the radicalized campus lies in the creation of departments that from their inception have been hotbeds of alienated radicalism, namely, departments such as Black Studies. These departments were often instituted as a response to demands from a few black students, ostensibly as a recognition of and gift to them. Nothing could be more self-defeating than these “gifts.” Those departments simply keep black students out of major fields with real content and mire them even deeper in the alienated radicalism that impedes their progress. There they will be at the mercy of racial ideologues who whip up more alienation with endless racial harangues that teach them nothing of value while preventing them from learning anything else. What our society needs are black mathematicians, lawyers, chemists, and simply citizens well educated in the knowledge and traditions of the civilization of which they are a part. Black Studies programs generate only grievance and alienation that interfere with those goals. Far from promoting what we as a society need, they sabotage it. Nothing has damaged black progress toward full equality as much as control of the campuses by political radicals who have preyed upon them and used them as cannon fodder in their war against their own society.
It is sometimes said that the ranting of politically radical faculty on college campuses does little harm because students see through it and laugh at the folly. And that may well be true for many students, though it should not reassure us to think that they are having so much of their time at college wasted by fools.
The radicalized campus is spreading its tentacles into more and more areas of national life. Radical leftism dominates in state bar associations and even in many philanthropic foundations. Journalism schools have made that profession more brazenly partisan than it has ever been. Even art schools are now politicized, as Michael J. Pearce has described: “In art schools dominated by politically motivated professors, social justice activism dominates the work of many students, who can feel pressured into acting and working just like their mentors.” One result is an increase in dropout rates and in school closures. Pearce asks pointedly, “Why would a student interested in an art career want to pay for a degree that leads to a job in political campaigning or unemployment?”
The politicizing of academia has a multitude of far-reaching consequences. The distinguished economist Walter Williams sums up the effect on our culture trenchantly, but not unfairly:
Many of the nation’s colleges have become a force for evil and a focal point for the destruction of traditional American values. The threat to our future lies in the fact that today’s college students are tomorrow’s teachers, professors, judges, attorneys, legislators, and policymakers. A recent Brookings Institution poll suggests that nearly half of college students believe hate speech is not protected by the First Amendment. Of course, it is. Fifty-one percent of students think that it’s acceptable to shout down a speaker with whom they disagree. About 20 percent of students hold that it’s acceptable to use violence to prevent a speaker from speaking. Over 50 percent say colleges should prohibit speech and viewpoints that might offend certain people. Contempt for the First Amendment and other constitutional guarantees is probably shared by the students’ high school teachers, as well as many college professors.
Brainwashing and indoctrination of young people have produced some predictable results, as shown by a recent Gallup poll. For the past 18 years, Gallup has asked adults how proud they are to be Americans. This year, only 47 percent say they are “extremely proud,” well below the peak of 70 percent in 2003. The least proud to be Americans are nonwhites, young adults, and college graduates.
If Williams is correct, the nation must find a way to repair this heavily corrupted higher education. With every day, the damage done to the country by the politicized one-party campus increases. The problem is not simply that we are spending a fortune on higher education with little to show for it in the way of educational benefits. Overshadowing even the enormously serious question of the time and money being wasted is the damage to the social fabric of the nation and to its political life. Before we consider some possible remedies, we’ll look deeper into the condition of the campuses to see what miserable places they have really become.