College Students Get a Soft Landing: Few Are Required to Master Basics

Article excerpt

Something's missing on America's campuses.

The nation's leading institutions of higher education have abandoned the core academic requirements once considered essential to a liberal arts education and to the preservation of a democratic society, says a study being released tomorrow.

This institutional reluctance to let freshmen and sophomores know that some courses and subjects are worthier than others has its roots in the '60s, the National Association of Scholars reports after scrutinizing requirements for a bachelor's degree at 50 of the nation's most prestigious institutions of higher education.

Commitment to structured general education requirements and rigorous standards for completing them have "largely vanished" the past 30 years, and there has been a "purging . . . of many of the required basic survey courses that used to familiarize students with the historical, cultural, political and scientific foundations of their society," the report says.

"This neglect has placed America in danger of losing the common frame of reference that for many generations has sustained our liberal, democratic society," said Stephen H. Balch, president of the NAS and co-author, with research director Rita Zurcher, of "The Dissolution of General Education: 1914-1993."

The NAS, an organization committed to "rational discourse" on the campuses, looked at how general education requirements in literature, history, science and other areas - typically completed in the first two years of college, before students specialize - changed over 80 years. The study focused on four years: 1914, just before World War I; 1939, before World War II; 1964, the beginning of America's decade of social upheaval; and 1993.

The findings included an explosion of course offerings, many arcane; fewer mandatory courses (9.9 in 1914; 6.9 in 1964 and 2.5 in 1993); fewer courses with prerequisites; and less rigor in content.

The prevailing attitude is that students are responsible for their own learning.

"It's less a philosophy than abdication of responsibility," Mr. Balch said. "It's a faddish notion that without prior education or training this generation can re-create the world without guidance. Academe has an attachment to broad-based egalitarianism and is uncomfortable with the notion of any kind of authority, even intellectual.

"The curriculum is a vast smorgasbord. Students pick and choose as they please. They can go through their entire education without any form or pattern to it, advancing toward specialized goals, but there are no broad frameworks."

The study also found fewer thesis requirements; less study of English composition, math, science and foreign language; and "vanishing" history, literature and philosophy requirements. And the school year got shorter (204 days in 1914, 195 days in 1939, 191 days in 1964 and 156 days in 1993). "I wouldn't disagree at all with the trend; I do disagree with the analysis and implications," said Eric Davis, professor of political science and vice president for information technology at Middlebury College in Vermont. Mr. Davis was dean for curricular matters at Middlebury from 1991 until this year.

"There are far fewer required courses at Middlebury," he said. "One reason is that knowledge has just exploded. Also, the types of career and postgraduate tracks followed by graduates is much different today than 30 to 40 years ago. …