The “Four Olds” of American Higher Education

That trends come and go in education is a maxim that needs no explanation. Under the guise of innovation, faddish pedagogical strategies and well-funded reform movements are as sure as the sun rises. The best of these innovations serve to enhance teaching and learning. The worst, and by far the majority, are often presented as a panacea for all classroom or institutional ills. American higher education is not immune from such novel and often detrimental changes. Funding from charitable foundations, foreign governments, and state and federal grants play a role, as does the influence of current social and political visions.

But it is not only that new theories and practices are being born—or born again and again—but also that long-standing methods and centuries-old practices are now being crucified. Modest, incremental change under the banner of innovation has been eclipsed by radical, systemic change in the name of “social justice.”

Although this list is not exhaustive and much has been written about the downfall of certain disciplines, like classics, e.g., “Who Killed Homer,” or the demise of higher education altogether, it offers the reader an outline of the present transformation of academia. The “Four Olds” of American higher education currently under siege are: the lecture, equality, academic freedom, and Western curriculum (teaching Western civilization).

The Lecture

In September of this year, two biology instructors from the University of Washington wrote an article in Inside Higher Ed called, “Is Lecturing Racist?” They argue that, due to the effects of racism, the way we teach must change for the sake of “equity and inclusion.” They claim that professors ought to nix the lecture and teach only using active learning techniques. They encourage professors to, “stop talking so much—at least in their classrooms.”

Now I have taught a few survey courses in American history, both at the university and community college level. And I’ve spent more than 18 years inside and outside the classroom training post-secondary (and high school) peer tutors in the basics of learning theory to promote active learning and Socratic dialogue in tutoring sessions. If there is one thing I have staked my career on, it is the value of active learning. But this article all but demonizes the lecture. This is shortsighted and, frankly, foolish.

Case in point: “In fact, recent evidence indicates that lecturing actively harms underrepresented minority and low-income students.” Much more nuanced and evidenced-based are the recommendations and strategies of the K. Patricia Cross Academy. Enhanced classroom engagement techniques followed by a variety of classroom assessment strategies, in my estimation, can be improved and expanded. But to suggest that there is no place for the lecture is wrong and ignores the strong research-supported value of direct instruction for all students.

Equality

Giving every student the exact same resources is equality. Equality acknowledges the patchwork of students and endeavors to help all the patches fairly. Equality individualizes students and allows professors the freedom to judge student work solely based on merit. Equality even calls for looking at all the data on why there is an achievement gap. Conversely, giving resources based on the needs of students is equity. Equity not only acknowledges the patchwork but enforces a rigid matrix of ethnic, racial, and gender affiliations—the “holy trinity” of the academy—and assigns disadvantages to some groups and privileges to others. Equity places students in affinity groups and encourages professors to judge student work based on perceived hardships. Equity assigns the blame for the achievement gap on the institution and professors only.

One anonymous but oft-quoted definition of equity is that, “equity doesn’t mean the same for everyone; it means that everyone gets what they need.” In 2015, the Center for Urban Education, a national leader in higher education equity, wrote “Five Principles for Exacting Equity by Design.” In it they argue that power asymmetries impact student success outcomes. To mitigate these asymmetries and other exclusionary practices, including racism, the institution (most especially professors) must not treat all students as though they are the same. These are their words!

The elimination of equality as an institutional virtue and the promotion of equity instead is made most clear in the “colorblind education is wrong” crusade. Where professors and the broader institution were once taught to treat students equally, not based on perceived physical characteristics, they are now taught to use curriculum and instruction to explicitly focus on race. Rather than emphasize the laudable Martin Luther King goal of equality in the classroom, equity is used to overtly distinguish individuals and distribute resources by race.

Western Curriculum

At one point in the early 2000s I was newly married and needed to matriculate quickly to achieve the goal of every new husband: a decent paying job. I made the cautious and ambiguous choice to enroll simultaneously in a master’s program in history (I was still working on languages!) and a credential program. Should life fall apart, I would teach Jr. High history rather than pursue a Ph.D. in the field. In one of my credential program classes, I recall a student telling the professor that he would not include any DWEMs in his curriculum—he wanted to teach high school English. The professor and I were dumbfounded. What was a DWEM? Turns out DWEMs are Dead White European Males.

This anecdote just touches the fringe of the politically driven, anti-Western civilization agenda. It is far worse than one individual high school English teacher deciding not to teach the rich heritage and undeniable accomplishments—and, indeed, the misdeeds—of the Greeks or British or Americans. Rather, it is emblematic of the practical consequences of anti-Western bigotry in American higher education.

In place of the Western canon, a hodge-podge of curricula which amounts to a “globalizing multiculturalism,” as Stanley Kurtz puts it, has been introduced and fortified. Rhetorically, multiculturalism is two things at once: a positive appreciation and renewed study of all cultures (who would disagree with that?) but also promoted deconstruction of Western civilization, while emphasizing only the positives of lesser-known cultures. Moreover, where there are shortcomings in these cultures and civilizations, the blame is almost universally foisted upon Western civilization. In other words, Western civilization and its accomplishments are minimized while world history and non-western cultures are maximized. History majors and all students should have an opportunity to study a wide variety of history, but not at the expense of “acquiring knowledge of the civilization of which they are apart.”

Academic Freedom

Academic and intellectual freedom is the highest principle of the academy. I would go so far as to say it is the sine qua non of higher education. Without it the very people that make the institution an institution—faculty who work together on teaching and learning—cease to offer an independent, unfettered source of knowledge and inquiry. Faculty who cannot criticize and question or are constrained in some way so as to not openly share their research and findings (or opinions!) are operating in a system that is fundamentally not a university. Students in this kind of “institution” are no longer making a unity out of a diversity of curricula, but are operating in and by an uncritical conformity.

When faculty are free students are free. Free to study and share their findings. Free to invite even the most unorthodox speakers to campus. Free to debate and offer counter-positions. But in today’s academy the unhindered pursuit of truth and fear of questioning the new orthodoxy leaves both professors and students as conformists to the central planners.

Academic freedom is one “Olds” that we absolutely cannot allow to be eliminated. Its ethos is stated succinctly in the 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure: “Academic freedom … comprises three elements: freedom of inquiry and research; freedom of teaching within the university or college; and freedom of extramural utterance and action.”

Conclusion

During the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, the Maoist faithful aimed to eradicate the “Four Olds”—old ideas, old customs, old culture, and old habits of mind. As a New York Times article from 1971 explains, China was transformed. The New York Times acknowledged that the Chinese People’s Republic operated within a “Marxist totalitarian framework.” As I examine the modern university, I see that there is an ideological framework that seeks to eliminate old practices, will not allow contrary views, and demonizes those that question the new ideas, new customs, new culture, and new habits of mind in American higher education.


Image: Samuel E. Morison, Public Domain

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Ray M. Sanchez

Ray M. Sanchez is Faculty Coordinator of Academic Success Centers at Madera Community College in Madera, California. He has a M.A. in History from CSU, Fresno. He may be contacted at ray.sanchez@scccd.edu.

2 thoughts on “The “Four Olds” of American Higher Education

  1. When the root motivational inspiration for your ideologically driven desire for changes in the way of doing things (that happen to be foundational to the development and evolution of a free and inquiring mind) is essentially a craving for revenge which cannot and will not name itself, then the ultimate attack on freedom itself becomes apparent.
    What we do with that knowledge is the question of our age.

  2. Active learning in STEM courses makes little sense. I have never understood the value of students listening to other students justify why they picked a specific answer–especially if their answer turns out to be wrong. It may even inhibit learning. Moreover, the re-vote step may merely indicate students were pressured to accept another student’s answer. It does not mean they understood anything about why it was the correct answer.

    Blaming the lecture for achievement gaps is the easy way out. It avoids dealing with what is more likely the root cause: the students didn’t have the necessary prerequisites for the class to begin with.

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