Academic Being and Nothingness

, George C. Leef, Leave a comment

Do American college graduates have a coherent understanding of the world? Very few do. We have our universities to thank.

A new paper just issued by the Pope Center, “From Christian Gentleman to Bewildered Seeker: The Transformation of American Higher Education” by Russell K. Nieli takes a sweeping view of college education in America, from the colonial days up to the present.
Nieli shows that the point of going to college used to be the acquisition of a coherent body of knowledge about the world so that the individual might understand its interconnectedness. Today many schools offer the student nothing but a smorgasbord of courses that give little more than a bit of vocational training. Missing entirely is any effort at to achieve what used to be thought a “well-rounded” education.

Nieli’s purpose is to explain how this unhappy metamorphosis came about and he accomplishes that purpose beautifully.

Higher education in America began as a religious endeavor. Various Protestant sects established schools whose primary objective was the training of clergymen. Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth, Nieli reminds the reader, were created by Congregationalists; Princeton by Presbyterians; Penn, Columbia, and William and Mary by Episcopalians; Northwestern, Vanderbilt, and Duke by Methodists, and so on. Not every student, of course, actually entered the ministry, but the moral and spiritual education of students remained the highest priority.

Even the early state universities, such as the University of North Carolina, were modeled after the avowedly religious institutions. And as late as the 1880s, the founders of Stanford University, even though not affiliated with any religious denomination, emphasized the moral and spiritual dimensions of education.

Throughout the 19th and well into the 20th centuries, most colleges and universities in the United States had a curriculum solidly based in the liberal arts. Nieli points out that the thinkers of the Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment were widely read, including such notables as John Locke, Adam Smith, Joseph Butler and Thomas Reid. These authors “integrated moral, spiritual, and social concerns in varying ways that tried to do justice to the dual imperatives of high morals and sound practical judgment.” In those days, the mission of colleges and universities was to train people for good citizenship, more than for particular occupations.

After the Civil War, however, some of the leading American universities started to copy the model of the research university that had developed in Germany. The crucial difference was that professors devoted much of their time to specialized research. While the liberal arts curriculum was not abandoned, the new research areas were where “the action” was. They proliferated and the numbers of courses available in each discipline grew. Literature and the humanities declined in importance, says Nieli, as “natural science, economics, and vocationally-oriented graduate and business programs” increased. The result: “a clear loss of educational cohesiveness and shared educational mission,” says Nieli.

A few educational leaders held out. In 1885, for example, Princeton’s president James McCosh said that he was troubled by the fact that a student at Harvard could graduate without taking a single course dealing with religion or morality. But try as they did, educators like McCosh couldn’t do much to change trends.

They could, however, protect the older educational concepts by instituting at a few schools core curricula that exposed all students to some of the most significant writings of western civilization – what came to be known as “great books” programs. Columbia University and the University of Chicago were especially known for their efforts at combining a traditional program of learning with the activities of a research university.

Such efforts helped to preserve a few oases of liberal arts education in the middle of the 20th century, but for the most part, the college curriculum became increasingly fragmented and geared toward occupational training. And then the 1960s happened.

Nieli refers to the “destructive generation” – professors and compliant administrators in the 1960s and 70s who wanted to banish the remnants of the traditional curriculum in favor of a kaleidoscope of courses on multiculturalism, feminism, environmentalism and other “isms.” Then, in a famous confrontation at Stanford in the 1980s, activists chanted “hey, hey, ho, ho, Western culture’s got to go” in their quest to get rid of a part of the curriculum that required students to study key aspects of western civilization. They won. In the spring of 1988, Stanford dropped a three-semester core that focused on classics of western philosophy and literature, replacing it with courses on “oppressed groups” and their views. Often, the students were not so much taught about different cultures as taught that western culture is uniquely bad.

Nieli advocates a college curriculum that has room for vocational study but gives each student a grounding in the fields that used to comprise the pillars of college education. It would, he believes, alleviate “the drift and anomie among college students that is so endemic today to the a la carte university.”

Commenting on Professor Nieli’s paper, former president of St. John’s College John Agresto, agrees. “The best students still cry out for an education that speaks to them of what’s important and how to integrate that knowledge into a coherent whole,” he says.

“When students try to impress us by saying they’re double or even triple majors, what they want us to hear is that they are trying, against all odds, to take in as much of the world as they can. When they favor ‘interdisciplinary’ courses, they’re trying to tell us that they’re looking for the interconnectedness of the universe and not just a bit here or piece there. The best students still crave a meaningful education about the most important human matters and hope the world will make some sense to them.”

I think that Agresto is right. Many young Americans want something more from their college years than merely a pile of credits for courses ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. Unfortunately, many more want to get a college degree with as little effort as possible and are largely indifferent to the content of the courses as long as they’re entertaining and don’t call for too much work. An educational equivalent of Gresham’s Law appears to be at work, with bad education driving out the good.

In any case, for a concise, excellent overview of the changing focus of American higher education, Nieli’s paper is the thing to read.

George Leef
is vice president for research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

Academic Being and Nothingness

, Malcolm A. Kline, Leave a comment

Most colleges and universities boast bigger and bigger tax-subsidized budgets every year but slide deeper and deeper into irrelevancy annually.

Boston College’s 36-year-old Black Studies program stands out among the dinosaurs. Taught by 27 full and part-time faculty, the program boasts 30 students flocking to minor, not major, in the discipline.

Don’t expect that ratio to change any time soon. The program’s new director, Cynthia Young, is an expert in “radical politics and culture, black diaspora literature and culture, comparative urban ethnic literatures and cultures and cultural theory,” according to The Boston College Chronicle. Fresh from the University of Southern California, where she was a professor of English, Dr. Young is the author of the forthcoming Soul Power: Culture, Radicalism and the Making of a U. S. Third World Left.

Traditionally, universities have been the repositories of tradition and knowledge. Paradoxically, when they try to get with the times, they lose their purpose, although they can still provide junkets to campus sages on occasion. At the University of Utah, “[t]eaching experiences have ranged from an honors think tank in ethics and genetics, to Darwin’s role in the history of philosophy, to an environmental ethics course that measured trash accumulation in dumpsters on campus to help in a University waste audit and recycling project.”

These are the highlights of the University of Utah’s program achievements in its Department of Philosophy. And one of the assistant professors in the department proved that, contrary to the assertions of Kermit the frog, it is easy being green. “Also this spring,” the department chair announced, “Anya Plutynski will be leading a study abroad course in environmental ethics for the environmental studies program—in Costa Rica!”

In a letter to “alumni and friends of the philosophy department,” Leslie P. Francis, the chair lady, also made a pitch for funding scholarships. Her appeal showcased a letter from one of these scholars. “I want to become a professor in the end but would like to have the ability and knowledge of the practice of law,” Brin Bon wrote. “As a professor, I want to study/teach Philosophy, Gender Studies, Classical Languages, and Law (to name just a few possibilities).”

“My other interests, academically, are in Gender Studies and Classical Greek.” It sure sounds as though the University of Utah does take recycling seriously.

No discussion of academia’s downward spiral would be complete without an update on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. David Hodges, a sophomore journalism major from High Point, undertook to survey professors’ attitudes towards communism. Don’t laugh.

“What was more surprising than the lack of overt support for communism, however, was the lack of support for capitalism,” Hodges wrote in the Carolina Review. “While some professors admitted that there were flaws in communist thought, they did not praise capitalism.”

“In fact, socialism had several supporters.”

That may explain why clubs such as Choice USA and Feminist Students United do not have a difficult time finding faculty advisors. Groups such as these seem to be playing a game of “Can you top this?” with their counterparts on other campuses to see who can provide the most shock value.

“On Nov. 10, Choice USA and Feminist Students United hosted Orgasm Awareness Day,” the Carolina Review reported. “Representatives of the organizations stood on Polk Place and showed passersby how to properly put condoms on a banana and told them a slew of fun facts about orgasms.”

“The event also featured a sex toy museum.”

You can see that presiding over a campus such as this would be a demanding job. Maybe that’s why the chancellor wanted a raise.

“At the Nov. 11 Board of Governors meeting, the Board voted to raise Chancellor Moeser’s salary to $309,897—a $35,100 hike,” the Carolina Review reported. “What does he do to deserve this salary?”

“Because he really cares about diversity and building more buildings in Chapel Hill.”

Malcolm A. Kline is the executive director of Accuracy in Academia.