Higher Education- a Morass of Muddled Missions

By Wilson, Bradford P. | The World and I, June 1998 | Go to article overview

Higher Education- a Morass of Muddled Missions


Wilson, Bradford P., The World and I


John Tagg is on the mark in his description of both the dismal state of general education and the apparent unconcern of colleges and universities regarding what students are actually learning during their undergraduate years.

In 1996, the National Association of Scholars (NAS) published The Dissolution of General Education: 1914-1993, a study of the general education requirements at the fifty leading institutions of higher learning in the United States. The authors of the report examined the course catalogs of these institutions for the academic years that began in 1914, 1939, 1964, and 1993. What they found was a startling decline in the formal structure, content, and rigor of general education since 1914, with the most significant fall-off occurring in the period since 1964.

Take the size of the general education requirement, for instance: In 1914 an average of 55 percent of the credits necessary to earn a bachelor of arts degree had to be taken within the general education requirement. The figure decreased to 48 percent in 1939, 46 percent in 1964, and just 33 percent in 1993. Furthermore, this reduced number of courses could be chosen from a greatly expanded menu. The average number of undergraduate courses in the catalog of each institution increased by a factor of almost five since 1914 and almost doubled between 1964 and 1993.

The significance of this curricular shift can be appreciated by looking at the consequences for the study of history, a subject few would deny is essential to thoughtful citizenship and human understanding. The percentage of institutions with history requirements fell from 38 percent in 1964 to 12 percent in 1993. Furthermore, the average number of courses available without prerequisite to fulfill that requirement where it existed increased from two in 1964 to thirty-one in 1993. Thus, at the few elite institutions still harboring a history requirement in 1993, it was possible to fulfill that requirement by taking a narrow course in any number of subfields, instead of a comprehensive introductory course common to most undergraduates. A number of other studies have since been published by state affiliates of the NAS showing the same pattern of curricular flabbiness and fragmentation in state university systems. (See, most recently, the report of the Virginia Association of Scholars, The Troubling State of General Education: A Study of Six Virginia Public Colleges and Universities.) As the Russian proverb has it, the fish rots from the head down.

Of course, there are many faculty members and academic administrators who see nothing but progress in these changes. The new curriculum, they argue, has liberated students from the tyrannical confines of the traditional curriculum. Outdated notions of what students should learn have given way to democratic openness to innovation and student autonomy. Best of all, according to a vocal minority on the campuses, what structure remains in general education is increasingly in the service of multiculturalism and diversity. The traditional curriculum's emphasis on the nature and origins of civilization through the study of enduring works of philosophy, sacred texts, and literature has been supplanted. The new curriculum filling the vacuum left by the abandonment of the old one is increasingly hostile to the claims to moral and intellectual merit of the twin sources of Western life, Athens and Jerusalem. And rather than approaching the study of non-Western cultures in the spirit of scientific inquiry--through mastery of foreign languages and scrupulous regard for the truth--the multiculturalist dispensation betrays the idea of the university by jettisoning the disinterested search for truth in favor of radical social and political agendas.

LOSS OF PURPOSE

John Tagg rightly criticizes our colleges for having become "bureaucratized assembly lines for academic credit" and for having "largely ceased, at the institutional level, to know or care what their students learn. …

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