Recently my wife and I flew from California more than halfway across the country to participate in Parent's Weekend at our younger daughter's college. It's located in what some might call "fly over country." We had a great time meeting members of the college staff, watching a football game and exploring the quasi-rural mid-America setting in which the campus is located. The school isn't affiliated with any church but, as a professor characterized it during a pre-decision visit, is a "mere Christianity" college integrating Faith and Reason.
At a reception for over 1,000 parents attending the weekend event one could not miss the full collection of school pamphlets and brochures spread on tables attended by volunteers inviting us to sign up for various fund raising groups and future activities. I noticed stapled pads of printed bond paper with the herald "The Hollow Core" on the top sheet and picked up a copy.
The twenty-two pages were the effort of an organization based in Washington D.C. – the American Council of Trustees and Alumni – a group "committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability." It was founded in 1995 by Lynne Cheney and former Colorado Governor Richard Lamm, and boasts members from over 400 colleges and universities. Saul Bellow is on their board.
The full title of the report I collected is "The Hollow Core: Failure of the General Education Curriculum" and I suggest that you take a look at it for yourself. It likely was on the table and available for parents because the college takes pride in its core curriculum and wanted to share the reasons for that pride and how the college contrasts with other schools.
In my CE September 19, 2007 article titled "What's College About Anyway" I commented on another booklet that was published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute to provide heads up advice to parents and high school graduates as they make decisions on choosing a college or university. The comments from readers of that column were generally supportive of my contention that parents are wise to be concerned with the lax standards of behavior at many schools. Readers mentioned drinking, the cost of tuition, and alluded to an aspect of education that resembles monkeys being trained to perform. I took that last comment to be in support of those colleges that strive at teaching students how to think, not what to think. The shallow academic courses existing on many campuses are a main concern of both ISI and ACTA.
For the past several years our federal government's Department of Education has intruded into the higher education arena with several regulations affecting colleges. One is casually referred to as "affirmative action." Another is "Title IX" which among other things requires that sports programs at schools be balanced with men's and women's teams. The result has been a growth of women's sports and the elimination of certain men's teams simply due to the limited dollars that schools allot these activities. UCLA's Men's Gymnastics Team, that provided three medal winners at the 1984 Olympics, no longer exists due to balancing; yet there are presently two more women's sport programs at the school than men's.
But it is easily argued that sports participation is not the reason we attend college – learning is – and that's what I'd like to concentrate on with this article.
Lately, the accreditation process – as with what happened with Affirmative Action and Title IX – has increasingly become the tool of choice that the federal government has tried to use in its growing intrusion into the academic arena. Some educators throughout the country are pushing back. What's at stake in their mind is the independence that has characterized educational institutions since our country's founding. You can get a glimpse of the arguments by reading a summary in a May 25, 2007 article appearing in "Inside Higher Education" and at the ACTA web site. What you will find there is what accreditation has not brought by way of quality and meaningful higher education. ACTA wants college trustees and alumni at schools from which they graduate and to which they are asked to provide counsel to be more assertive in promoting a tradition of serious scholarship.
Some readers may wonder why a concern for federal intrusion into the means by which colleges and universities are accredited is a big deal. Remember Roe v. Wade and Griswold v. Connecticut? Yes, those Supreme Court cases were about abortion and privacy, but the decisions hung on points that many argue were nowhere in existing law. In fact, two justices wrote in dissent of Roe, "[we] find nothing in the language or history of the Constitution to support the Court's judgment." That was in 1973.
When you dig into the accreditation controversy you find a number of points of interest. Not only are transferring college students affected by the acceptability of their previous work at their new school, but new players on the field – for-profit colleges like University of Phoenix and National University – are issuing diplomas that require far less time to earn than any traditional college. And post graduate schools and employers are looking at these "Bachelors Degrees" and being asked to believe they represent the same level of scholarship as required of a four year program. It's more than a turf battle.
So What About the Hollow Core?
The nature of what is taught in colleges and qualifies as core knowledge originated my examination but it got complicated. And some would argue that's because we have government involved with education in the first place — and I would agree. Whether it is our K-12s or higher education, government introduces a component that threatens the parent as the primary educator in one instance; and due to the strings it attaches to federal financing grants, forces other institutions to adhere to policies affecting admission and accreditation with the potential of dictating course content. If you think I'm overreacting you need to remember Roe v. Wade and the comments in dissent by those two justices; and imagine what a faith based college might do if it were informed by government that the "light of faith" could not inform its search for truth. Not if it wanted to get federal funds.
In ACTA's report on the Hollow Core, they examine 50 universities from throughout the U.S.: The Big Ten, Ivy League, Big Eight, The Seven Sisters (women's colleges which include Smith) and an assortment of schools that include Cal-Berkeley, William & Mary, and Duke. Believe me, it's an impressive list if "widely known" or "elite" are your guides.
ACTA concludes their "wake up call" by asserting that "judging by our sample, colleges and universities … are not living up to their responsibility to provide their students with a solid general education … that will equip the next generation to lead richer and more productive lives." What they found missing were required courses covering "the most important events, ideas or works known to mankind … considered essential for an educated person." Let's look at the basis for those statements.
While college catalogs may say one thing, the course syllabus tells the real story and all too often required classes are shallow and superficial. The report informs us that Texas Tech offers "History and Philosophy of Dress" as a Humanities fulfillment; Dartmouth offers "Ghosts, Demons and Monsters" as a Literature fulfillment; and at the University of Minnesota you can take "Rock Music from 1970 to Present" to fulfill your core requirement. That's just a sample and my own investigation substantiated ACTA's claims and findings. Too many of the classes offered are a joke, even at some "Catholic" colleges.
In order to "grade" the 50 schools, ACTA determined that a solid core should include seven subject areas: Composition, Literature, Foreign Language, Government/History, Economics, Math and Science. I was overwhelmed at the fact that only a few schools on the list included Government/History and NONE of the 50 required a course in Economics. While it may be a dismal science, this failing at the college level may explain why so few in our society understand concepts of the free market, or can make a case for Capitalism. It's also a likely reason why the public is unable to understand the dynamic effects of tax cuts and free trade.
At the Parent's Weekend I met a couple from Michigan whose older son is in an Engineering program at the Big Eight school from which the father graduated. It was one of the twelve schools that with only one core subject requirement received an "F" on the ACTA report card. I thought of the dichotomy in having one child attending a school that ACTA would likely give an "A+" and the other an "F" and still can't reconcile the parent's choice. But it should remain their choice, not bound by federal fiat.
In the November issue of First Things, Fr. Richard Neuhaus shares an anecdote in his "While We're At It" comments about an encounter with a student during a college visit.
"You mentioned the Cold War. Could you say a word on what that was all about?" That came during the Q&A after a lecture at a prestigious university. My talk was on a "big think" topic: tragedy and hope in human history etc., etc. And yes, I could say a word about the Cold War, and more than a word. It is not unusual to find students at the best of schools for whom the Cold War is as distant as the American Civil War, and it is not entirely unprecedented to encounter students who are uncertain about which came first.
In my novel, ReEnchantment, a family is growing in their frustration with their kids' schools. One night during dinner, the father in the story quizzes his high school aged daughter.
"So Julia," he asked. "You're taking American History. When were the French and Indian wars?"
Julia looked up timidly. "I don't think the French ever invaded India, Dad."
Phil looked at Miriam but didn't say anything.
Evelyn Waugh's Scott King characterization of students being "stamped" is an euphemism for the training parents are willing to allow the higher education system to provide in order to justify the return on investment they want in exchange for tuition payments. It's as if they value a paycheck more than a mind that can reason.
By the way, only one college of the 50 earned an "A" on ACTA's report card. It's a Christian school in Texas. You guess.