The growing number of restrictions on our speech and thought are alarming. Increasingly, there are things we must not say or think lest we hurt the feelings of someone somewhere. And while the impulses that have taken us in this direction are well-meaning and even laudable, they threaten to constrict thought and speech to the point where we are struck dumb.

In reading the Australian sociologist John Carroll’s book on Guilt published in 1985 I came across a passage that would today get some folks riled up. He is speaking about the

“. . .pervasive influence that the Romantic movement has had on modern Western sensibilities [that] require us to look into the guilt that flows through the high sublimation of its literature. . . .The hostility to the constraints of society, the elevation of spontaneity of feeling and sensitivity, of passion over reason, of art over work, all suggest identification with female traits, and hostility to the signs of the patriarchal father — order, control, artifact.”

The suggestion that there are “female traits” would be dismissed by the outraged radical feminists among us as completely out of order. And this despite the fact that those traits are evident and important. In fact, if our culture were less masculine, less inclined to violence, to control and take, and more feminine, more compassionate and caring — more in tune with our “Mother Earth” — we would all be better off. The point here is that constraining speech and thought by insisting that certain words and phrases are out of order results in the dismissal of those ideas that might help us understand more clearly what is going on around us.

The list of taboo words and phrases grows as the Political Correctness Police on our college campuses strive to turn them from educational institutions into Care Clinics. The irony here should be obvious: the desire to purge our college campuses of nasty and hurtful thoughts is in every way an expression of the “female traits” of which Carroll speaks and that desire is heartily supported by the feminists on college campuses who also object to the notion that there ARE such things as “female traits.”

But the problem goes even deeper as we hear about comedians such as Jerry Seinfeld who will no longer visit college campuses because of the restrictions on his comedic thrusts — which, let’s face it, are very gentle to say the least. Have we, after all, lost our sense of humor? The notion that there are growing numbers of things we simply should not allow anyone to say (or think) places restrictions not only on comedians but also on others who would say things on campus that might hurt someone’s feelings. But, surely, we should point out that someone somewhere will be hurt by something that someone says at some time. Of all places, college campuses should allow the free expression of ideas and speech in spite of the fact that something someone says might hurt someone’s feelings. That’s just the way of the world. In protecting our students from hurtful words and thoughts we hamper their intellectual development.

As quoted recently in a publication by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, this point was made evident on the campus of Williams College in Massachusetts where 400 college professors signed a petition

“. . .to adopt the Chicago Principles. The petition states, ‘While there is an understandable desire to protect our students from speech they find offensive, doing so risks shutting down legitimate dialogue and failing to prepare our students to deal effectively with a diversity of opinions, including views they might vehemently disagree with.’ . . . Students have issued a counter-petition in which they argue that the unfettered free speech supported by the Chicago Principles harms minority students.”

The ACTA has taken a stand with the 400 faculty members. But the likelihood these days is that the college will side with the students in the end.

The problem, of course, has worked its way outside the walls of academe as political correctness is all the rage. José Cabranes was a recent recipient of the Merrill Award presented by the ACTA. He tells us we are faced with a choice between “academic freedom or civilizational decline.” Free speech and free thought must be encouraged at the very least to the point where it actively provokes violence toward others — not only on college campuses, but also at political rallies where the clear goal is to win over folks to a restricted world view in which only those who agree with those who seek power are allowed to speak. Somehow, we must find a balance.


STEM And The Liberal Arts

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a group in Washington, D.C. that is attempting to hold the feet of colleges and universities to the fire as far as academic core requirements are concerned, recently awarded a prize to the President of Purdue University, Mitchell E. Daniels, Jr.  The interesting thing about this is that Purdue is primarily an engineering school — or Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, if you will — and it is taking the lead in finding a place for the liberal arts at the heart of its academic program while insisting that young people at that university be guaranteed the right to hear conflicting points of view: none shall be turned away (as is increasingly the fashion today). This is interesting  because the liberal arts around the country are suffering from neglect and in many cases those who are charged with their defense are the most active in their dissolution.

In any event, at Purdue whatever reform or restoration that might take place is happening from the outside since, as Daniels points out, help from the inside, from among those faculty who actually teach the Liberal Arts, is not likely. Growing numbers of them are intent on bringing down the tradition and replacing it with the latest fad popular among those who would refashion Western Civilization to conform to their own idea of what it should be.

Daniels recently addressed a group at the A.C.T.A. and some of what he says is worth quoting because I have said many of the same things, but I am a small voice and many might think it is an isolated voice and also somewhat strained and even frantic in its concern for what I regard as some of the most important factors operating within — and without — the Halls of Ivy. Daniels, for example, reminds us that:

“The concerns most often voiced about the current university scene — conformity of thought, intolerance of dissent and sometimes an authorial tendency to quash it, a rejection of the finest of the Western and Enlightenment traditions in favor of unscholarly revisionism and pseudo-disciplines — these and other problems are not unique to the liberal arts departments, but a host of surveys document that they are most common and most pronounced there.

“A monotonously one-sided view of the world  deprives students of the chance to hear and consider alternatives, and to weigh them for themselves in the process of what we call ‘critical thinking.’ . . .

“Former Stanford Provost John Etchemendy has written, ‘Intellectual homogeneity weakens the academy’; he labelled the ad hominem attacks that homogeneous tribes often directed at dissenters as ‘the death knell of inquiry.’ Perhaps Princeton’s Keith Whittington has stated the point most concisely: ‘Ignorance flourishes where free inquiry is impeded.’ . . . .

“Conformity of thought, enforced by heavy-handed peer pressure and reinforced by self-perpetuating personal practices, has by now achieved come-tragic proportions. At one prestigious eastern university a friend recounts that, when he asked the history department chairman if he had any Republicans on his faculty, the answer was, ‘Have any? We don’t know any.'”

Another recipient of an award from the A.C.T.A., Paul S. Levy, joined Daniels in his concerns over the state of the colleges and universities today. He began by quoting Yeats and then commented as follows:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

    Are full of passionate intensity. . . .                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         “This is what is happening on our campuses today: group think, suppression of speech, knee-jerk conclusions, a disdain for facts and proof, assumptions of guilt rather than innocence.”

What Daniels and Levy are referring to here is the alarming tendency — even among so-called “prestige” universities — to refuse certain speakers to be heard on campus because their political leaning is not in the proper direction coupled with the presence on campus of those within the faculty who refuse to allow conflicting points of view to be heard. Critical thinking is not at the top of the list for those who see as the only worthwhile academic goal the radical transformation of the university, and ultimately contemporary society itself, to fit the mold they hold dear to their hearts — a mold that is not all that clear either to  themselves or those who listen to them rant.

Now I have voiced many of these  concerns over the years in this blog, but I think it important that my readers hear another voice or two — and voices at the forefront of the fight to preserve what is precious and vital to the continued existence of what we call “civilization.” This is not right-wing clap trap. It is a serious situation within the academy that threatens our free society. And while the battles that go on within the walls of the Ivory Towers of academe might seem trivial and unimportant to those without those walls, it is not. As Levy maintains,

“. . .we are living the fact that what happens at American universities and colleges affects our entire society. We are at risk.”

Daniels elaborates:

“The worn out jokes about the stakes being so low in higher education debates do not apply to this one. In the struggle to define what a genuine liberal education should be, the stakes could hardly be greater, because it can be argued that we have never needed effective teaching in the liberal tradition more than today. Even the most gifted young people often emerge from today’s K-12 systems appallingly ignorant of either history or the workings of their own nation’s free institutions. Authoritarians of both Left and Right are eager to take advantage of their ignorance. There was a reason that the last sultans of the Ottoman Empire banned the teaching of literature and history throughout their realms.”

And, indeed, in Huxley’s brave new world literature, philosophy and history are ignored by the citizens as they blindly seek pleasure and follow the lead of those who would establish the latest trend. But that, of course, is fiction.


Popular Culture

I have written recently about how the movements that begin within the hallowed halls of academe tend to find their way outside those halls much like a scientific experiment that went wrong in a science-fiction movie. The most recent example of this is the notion of “alternative facts” that almost certainly is the bastard offspring of the postmodern movement born in Germany and France and now in ascendency in American Universities that stresses such things as the denial that there is such a thing as truth.

One of the heads of this movement that would reject all “modern” academic courses of study in history, literature, philosophy, and sociology is what is called “popular culture.” This is the study of such things as movies, television shows, comic books, and the like. This movement, in addition to rejecting the notion that history should be written without footnotes because it’s only a matter of subjective opinion anyway, has given birth to the following sorts of phenomena — as recently reported by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni:

• Rice university offers a first-year writing intensive course titled “Star Wars and the Writing of Popular Culture.”

• Appalachian State University requires its freshmen students to take a first-year seminar to help them develop “creative and critical thinking abilities.” Seminars this spring include “Death (and Rebirth?) of the Hippie.”

• The English department at the University of Pennsylvania — an Ivy League School — offers a course on “Wasting Time on The Internet.”

And this is just a tiny sample at a time when a recent poll of college graduates revealed that:

• 34% could not identify correctly when Election Day is held.

• 25% could not identify Tim Kaine as a candidate for vice president of the United States.

• 50% could not name Franklyn Roosevelt as the last president to win more than two elections to the presidency.

A number of colleges and universities now offer not only courses in Popular Culture, but also majors in that field as well as PhDs for those who want to go on to teach in that  academic “discipline.” And, A.C.T.A. concludes, “When many of our colleges and universities treat popular culture and entertainment as subjects worthy of serious study, it surely isn’t surprising that so many college graduates can’t identify key civic leaders, events, and their significance.” Indeed.

So what? you might ask. The answer is, of course, that this is coming at a time when we need young people who can think, and who can think critically. The recent election should have proven how vital that is and how far short we are falling as a nation. In this regard, there are two major problems that lie at the heart of this movement. To begin with, courses in Popular Culture emphasize information at the cost of thinking about information. I shall return to that notion in a moment. Secondly, the movement shoves aside other courses in the college curriculum that actually might help put young people in possession of their own minds, make them intelligent, critical thinking adults who can discriminate between a well-qualified candidate for president, say, and a complete fraud.

To return to the first point, it has been shown in tests conducted years ago that there are certain academic courses that help young people to think. This is reflected in tests such as the LSAT that students take in order to enter law school. Law requires critical thinking skills and the fields that do well, it has been shown, are mathematics, economics, philosophy, engineering, English, Foreign Language, Chemistry, Accounting, and History (in that order). The fields of study that score lowest in the LSAT are those that stress information and memorization. I shall not mention them out of respect to those who wasted their time and money earning degrees in those subject areas. But Popular Culture would certainly be at the top of that list if it had been offered at the time these studies were conducted.

The point is that the sorts of shenanigans that are going on behind the hallowed halls of academe have consequences for those who pay little or no attention to what is going on there. The graduates who have shown themselves to be badly informed about American history and government and also unable to think critically grow in number while those that cannot use minds filled with drivel increase accordingly, fostered by colleges and universities now being run as businesses, catering to the whims of their “customers.” And this at a time when our democracy desperately needs intelligent, well-informed, thoughtful citizens.  Courses in such non-fields as “Popular Culture” are the sort of things that guarantee that this will not happen.


Academic Freedom

Back in the day when I was teaching at the collegiate level we worried about academic freedom. In those days, it amounted to insisting that administrators allow faculty of differing opinions and philosophical convictions to speak their minds without recrimination. It also insisted on equal pay for equal work. It degenerated into unionization which, while it did raise salaries and save the careers of a number of faculty members, it also set a tone that I always felt was inimical to the ideals of collegiality that ought to be found on college campuses. But then I have been spitting into the wind so long my saliva is about used up.

Of late, however, the university faculties themselves are interfering with academic freedom. Increasingly, they are refusing to allow speakers to speak on campuses across the country, “controversial” figures like George W. Bush, Madeleine Albright, George Will, Paul Ryan, Condoleezza Rice, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Bear in mind that the universities that denied these people a voice on their campuses, because of student and faculty protests, are so-called “prestige” academies — places like Brandeis University, Stanford University, Boston College, Rutgers University, University of Minnesota, Yale University, and others of equal standing.

Students, often led by militant faculty with hidden agendas, are becoming increasingly strident in their opposition to ideas they regard as a threat to what they regard as social justice. In a word, they have their minds made up and cannot allow alien information to intrude on their convictions and deeply held beliefs. Increasing numbers of universities, in a word, are becoming closed systems that refuse to allow outside information to penetrate if it is determined by the vocal element on campus that those ideas are somehow harmful. There are exceptions, but they are increasingly rare.

Coupled with this intolerance in places that ought to be open to all ideas no matter how radical or outrageous, is the growing ignorance of the students and a great  number of the faculty. A recent study by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni determined that:

• Nearly 10% of recent college graduates think Judge Judy is a member of the Supreme Court.

• Less than 20% of those college graduates know the effect of the Emancipation Proclamation.

• More than a quarter of the college graduates did not know that Franklin D. Roosevelt was president during World War II.

• One-third did not know Franklin D. Roosevelt was the president who spearheaded the New Deal.

And so it goes. To augment their ignorance, many of those students, while enrolled, were involved in a variety of campus protests, including a group from Brown University that complained of the emotional stress and poor grades that followed from the months they spent protesting! They blamed the university for insisting that they complete coursework and demanded “incompletes” on their course work.

On many campuses protest seems to have become an end in itself as self-indulgent students increasingly complain about their course requirements and about the poor grades they receive as a result of their unwillingness to complete those requirements. And in many cases, intimidated or sympathetic faculty take the side of the students rather than take the lead in showing them the way out of their ignorance by opening them up to new intellectual horizons. For many who teach, followers are what it’s all about — especially those who give them praise in on-line evaluations that often determine how full or empty their classroom might be. The pressure to be popular, to give students a “break,” is immense and helps us to understand grade inflation. Pressure was immense when I taught and it has only increased as students’ sense of entitlement has grown by leaps and bounds in our permissive society.

In the end, the trend toward closing doors (and minds) to new ideas, coupled with the increasing tendency to ask little of spoiled students who complain when asked to do what they really would rather not do, will reduce our academies of higher learning to country clubs and mental health clinics where students can feel safe and protected from the realities of the world “out there.” In a word, universities are rapidly becoming more concerned about the “well-being” of the students than about their intellectual growth. This does not absolve members of college faculties of their responsibility to prepare their students for the real world; it merely recounts what seems to be a growing trend in academia.


Failing To Deliver

I have from time to time bemoaned the fact in these blogs that our schools are failing to educate students. I have also noted that the American Council of Trustees and Alumni in Washington, D. C. has decided to do something about the failure of the colleges and universities, in particular. I would argue that the lower grades are failing their students as well, but the approach of the ACTA is to embarrass higher education into cleaning up its house in the expectation that this will require that the lower grades do so as well. If, for example, colleges and universities required two years of a foreign language upon entrance (as they once did), then high schools would have to provide such courses for those students who plan to attend college (as they once did). And this is true even for such basic things as English grammar which is now being taught in remedial courses in a majority of the colleges across this great land of ours — and a few professional schools as well — if you can imagine.

In any event, the ACTA recently sent out a mailing to help raise monies to further their cause. In that material they sent along some disturbing facts that help them make the case for a solid core requirement in all American undergraduate colleges to provide their graduates with the basic tools they will need in order to be productive citizens in a democracy and better able to advance in whatever profession they chose to follow after college. They identify seven areas from composition and literature to mathematics and science which all colleges need to cover; moreover, they have found after an exhaustive survey over several years that the vast majority of American colleges get failing grades. My undergraduate college received an “A” grade, but my graduate school received a grade of “D” because their undergraduate core includes only foreign language and science. If you want to know more you might check out their web page ( The only question that is not raised in their material is why the high schools aren’t teaching these basic courses. One does wonder. In any event, here are some of the facts that they bring forward to make their case against so many of our colleges today:

Even after the highly publicized television series on the Roosevelts, “recent college graduates showed, in large numbers, that they simply don’t know or understand what the Roosevelts did or even the difference between Teddy and Franklyn.” Further, one of the ACTA’s recent surveys showed that “More than half of college graduates didn’t know that Franklyn D. Roosevelt served four terms in office; A third of college graduates couldn’t pick FDR out from a multiple list of the presidents who spearheaded the New Deal; Barely half of the college graduates could identify Teddy Roosevelt as leading the construction of the Panama Canal.” The problem extends much further than failure to know about the Roosevelts. In general terms, quoting from an editorial in the Wall Street Journal,

“A majority of U.S. college graduates don’t know the length of a congressional term, what the Emancipation Proclamation was, or which Revolutionary War general led the American troops at Yorktown. . . .The reason for such failures, according to a recent study: Few schools mandate courses in core subjects like U.S. government, history, or economics. The sixth annual analysis of core curricula at 1,098 four-year colleges and universities by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni found that just 18% of schools require American history to graduate, 13% require a foreign language, and 3% require economics.”

The truly astonishing (and distressing) thing is that an increasing number of American colleges and universities allow “Mickey Mouse” courses to count as core courses: the University of Colorado offers “Horror Films and American Culture.” UNC-Greensboro considers “Survey of Historic Costumes” a core course, and Richard Stockton College of New jersey lets students satisfy the core history requirement with “Vampires: History of the Undead.” I kid you not. These are examples picked at random from a list that continues to grow as college faculty seek to draw students to their classes (and thereby guarantee their jobs) without any consideration whatever of the benefits of such courses — or lack thereof — to the student. Believe me, I know whereof I speak. As former Harvard President Larry Summers wrote recently:

“The threat today is less from overreaching administrators and trustees than it is from prevailing faculty orthodoxies that make it very difficult for scholars holding certain views to advance in certain fields.”

What Summers is speaking about is the determination of a great many faculty members at our colleges and universities to teach courses they want to teach simply to increase enrollments or, perhaps, to remedy what they perceive as past injustices; most are unwilling to teach courses that draw on Western tradition, the subject matter that has informed generations, because they firmly believe the works of “dead, white European males” are at the core of what is wrong with the world today. Worse yet, they discourage their students from taking such courses and disparage their colleagues who want to teach them. In my experience, many of these same people reveal their own ignorance of the very tradition they turn their backs upon and deny to their students. And they certainly don’t care whether the courses they teach instead will benefit their students in the long run — which would appear to be the central question.

The ACTA seeks to publicly embarrass trustees and alumni at American colleges and universities into putting pressure on the administrations and governing boards to remedy this situation. And it is working. The organization has attracted a great deal of attention to the problem and keeps a list of the colleges and universities that have modified their core requirements; they annually gives grades to all in an attempt to draw attention to the fact that in so many cases parents and students are simply not getting their money’s worth — especially given the escalating costs of college tuition these days.

What’s Wrong Here?

The independent organization known as The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, located in Washington, D.C., has come out against the bloated salaries and expanding numbers of administrators at American colleges and universities in the face of higher costs of tuition and the poor graduation rates and mediocre showing of college graduates upon graduation. More importantly, they engage in an ongoing check on the academic credentials of America’s colleges and universities and grade them according to their core requirements. This examination covers the basic subject areas they think every educated person should know something about, namely, Composition, Mathematics, Economics, U.S. History, Foreign Language, Literature, and Science and their grades rank from A to F. Very few colleges and universities in this country garner an “A” grade.

Seemingly unrelated to this fact is the consideration that football coach Nick Saban at the University of Alabama was recently given an extension on his contract that will guarantee him somewhere between $7 and $7.5 million a year. Undergraduate students pay out $92,000 apiece in tuition, room and board for their four years of education at Alabama even though fewer than half of them actually graduate. Alabama did not make the A.C.T.A.’s “A” list, needless to say.

Additionally, Florida State University will play for the national title in football and their star quarterback recently won the prestigious Heisman Trophy — despite the fact that there are still allegations of rape against the man that have not been cleared up. Playing for the national championship in football will bring the university millions of dollars in revenue. Students at Florida State pay about the same as those at Alabama for tuition, room, and board and the university has a slightly higher graduation rate. But that university also fails to make the A.C.T.A.’s “A” list.

I’m just sayin’…………

Core Curriculum

In a post I called “A Modest Proposal”  in May of 2012 I suggested that it might be possible to devise a core curriculum that college students could take online prior to enrolling in college to pursue their degree. It is not the best of all possible worlds, because online college courses are known for their high drop-out rates and there is simply no substitute for one-on-one teacher/student engagement in the classroom. But given the fact that the vast majority of our colleges are simply not requiring their students to do much more than wander aimlessly through a maze of elective courses — with no rhyme or reason — coupled with the rising costs of higher education, my proposal seemed the lesser of evils, as it were.

Lo and behold, the group I have referred to in a number of previous blogs, including the blog referred to above, The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, has proposed precisely the sort of thing I dreamed up nearly a year ago. No, I will not sue for plagiarism! I am not the litigious type. I prefer to think that great minds eventually come to the similar conclusions. Clearly, the condition of higher education — which I have alluded to more times than I care to recall — demands some sort of remedy. And the popularity and lower expense of the internet suggests the wisdom of allowing students to get the basic grounding in substantive courses they require in order to become engaged citizens in an ever-changing world. Major requirements and some elective courses can come later in a two-year program on campus.

The ACTA’s proposal is called “StraighterLine” and it allows students to take six of the seven core courses online they have determined are the sine qua non of an educated person — courses in composition, literature, U.S. government or history, economics, math, and science. This curriculum will be available later this year and will soon be followed by a second intermediate-level course in foreign language, thus fulfilling the seven course requirement the ACTA has determined will best serve the students of tomorrow. All courses will be available online at a greatly reduced cost to the student.

Indeed, the seven proposed courses will cost the students less than $2,000.00 and will therefore be very attractive in an era in which costs have skyrocketed and students are graduating with narrow vision  and huge debt. As the ACTA Newsletter said in announcing the program, “The times are changing in higher education. While ACTA’s focus remains on traditional institutions, our message of access, affordability, and quality of education extends to new platforms of learning.” I do not endorse the program without a few qualifications (as one can imagine), but I think it is a huge step in the right direction. I applaud the ACTA for making what I think will turn out to be a vast improvement in American higher education. The faculties of our colleges have fumbled the ball and the ACTA has picked it up and are heading for the goal line. (No, I am not being paid for this endorsement!)

A Modest Proposal

(With apologies to Jonathan Swift!)

There are a number of serious problems facing higher education today. To begin with, as the American Council of Trustees and Alumni has been proving beyond a shadow of a doubt, the vast majority of American colleges and universities are failing to deliver quality education. To make matters worse, the cost of tuition at our nation’s colleges and universities has risen nearly 440% in the last three decades leaving many graduating students deep in debt and discouraging others from even matriculating in the first place. This has given impetus to online “universities” which are proliferating at a dizzying rate while a number of legitimate universities are scrambling to get on board and marginal ones face bleak prospects. I have discussed some of these problems piecemeal in past blogs, but I have not yet discussed them as a whole together with my suggestions for a model that would address many of these problems simultaneously. That is the purpose of this blog.

I have suggested that universities might offer lower-level courses online while requiring that students attend classes on campus during the last two years (at least). I would like now to be more specific, while at the same time addressing the problem of a lack of solid core requirements in most of our nation’s colleges — as shown by studies done by the A.C.T.A. I would suggest that students be allowed to take this core of courses online — including, in semester hours, Grammar and Composition (6 hours), World Literature (6 hours, including 3 hours on campus in a 3 hour “capstone course” in the senior year), Math and Logic ( 6 hours) Natural Science (12 hours), Foreign Language (12 hours), Economics (3 hours), and Government or History (3 hours). This brings us to a total of 48 semester hours for the core. Given that the usual minimum for a B.A. or B.S. degree is 120 semester hours, this is certainly a larger requirement than is usual, but it is reasonable given the legions of uneducated college graduates who have been allowed to attend college for four years taking whatever they want outside their major requirements and are now finding it hard to succeed in the “real” world. In this regard, major requirements, which have exploded of late, should be limited to a maximum of 48 semester credits, leaving at least 24 semester credits for elective courses. If specific disciplines feel the need to pile on more major courses, they would have to encroach on elective courses, or add an additional year. Except for the “capstone course” in world literature this core program could be delivered with lectures and testing done online. Professors would be assisted by T.A.s to respond to questions and grade the tests.

Once the basic core has been completed the students would move to campus and take major classes and elective courses with other students and professors, providing them with a “college experience” that would involve interaction with other learners and teachers. It is essential that at least two years be spent on campus in classes with other students if anything approximating a genuine college education is to be achieved. Human interaction is of vital importance to any meaningful education.

Pre-med students would take the same core as other students, though they might need an additional year at the end in order to prepare for medical school. This would broaden their horizons a bit. The same is true for education students who now take a separate track for most of their undergraduate career, with many “methods” courses that are worthless. After completing their four years of study with an academic major, education students would take a year of internship with a master teacher and learn “methods” on the job. Other disciplines, such as music, for example, would have to decide whether or not it is worthwhile to remain “certified” by outside agencies, as this now translates into a great many courses on top of those that would be sensible for an undergraduate major. In my experience, many music departments, even in smaller colleges, forget that they are not the Julliard — just as many theater programs forget they are not “Actor’s Studio.” I have never seen the advantage, to the student, of piling on major requirements — though it is all the fashion these days. In my day we kept the philosophy major to 30 semester hours in order to allow students to double major — thereby increasing the breadth of their undergraduate program.

The costs to the students would be greatly reduced in this program, while more colleges and universities would survive. And it would involve a shoring up of a very weak undergraduate core requirement that we find in the vast majority of American colleges and universities. The downside is that students would miss a year or two of the human interaction that comes with life on campus and taking classes with other students and live faculty. But this is happening right now and threatens to grow worse in the years to come. This proposal would stem the tide which threatens to overwhelm what is left of higher education in this country.

Inflated Grades and Ethics

In a presentation to an ATHENA Roundtable sponsored by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, former Harvard President Larry Summers made a provoking comment, noting that grade inflation in our schools and colleges is a moral issue. “A society that tolerates the grade inflation of its students should not be surprised when it finds the inflation of corporate earnings in those students 20 years later.” Grade inflation is indeed a moral issue, because it is dishonest and disrespectful for teachers and professors to give students grades they don’t deserve. And the teachers and professors are shirking their responsibility.

There is no question that grade inflation is common in our academic communities and has been for some time. The data are compelling and need not be recounted here. But one glaring example is Columbia University Medical School which no longer gives preferential treatment to Harvard graduates because they all have an “A” average. I recall a few years ago when I was chairman of a large department and had access to copies of grade reports I saw that a number of my colleagues, especially in the education department, simply weren’t giving grades lower than A-. This is absurd. Worse, it is dishonest and, and as I say, disrespectful of the students. They deserve better: they deserve to be treated fairly.

When the lowest grade in a course with 30 students in it is an A- the student who has worked hard and has done really well gets what is essentially the same grade as everyone else. And when the poorer students who have been passed along with high grades graduate and go to work they are in for a shock. Employers are not likely to be so generous. In this regard, one could argue that giving a higher grade than the student deserves is not only disrespectful, but also mean, since it fuels the students’ illusion that he or she has a greater mastery of the material than is in fact the case.

We are fond of saying that the problems we have in the schools merely reflect the larger problems in society as a whole. This may actually be true in this case, though I doubt it as a general rule: some problems in the schools are peculiar to the academic world. But grade inflation is assuredly a symptom of our permissive society. We hate to say “no” to our kids for fear we will stunt their growth and development. That’s what we have been told for years by pop psychologists and we have taken it to heart — even though it is a lot of hogwash. Kids need to be told “no” when they make mistakes; it’s one of the first words they should be taught at home. Further, they can learn important lessons from their failures. That’s one of the most persuasive reasons to keep sports in the schools: sports are one of the few places left where kids are asked to do things they may not want to do and failure is a given. Not everyone can win. And not everyone should be given an A grade when their work is only average.

So what can be done? There’s a simple solution. And that is to record all of the students’ grades with a parenthesis after each grade noting the average grade in that class. Thus if Susan gets an A in biology and her report notes that the average grade in that class was a C- we know Susan did a great job. If Sarah gets a B in sociology where the average grade was B+ we know her performance was below par. The grades will start to mean something and faculty will be more inclined to give honest grades as the reports will reveal how “generous” they were in grading the students in the class. No one wants to be found out!

But in the end, we need to accept the fact that grade inflation is indeed a moral problem, as Larry Summers noted. And in doing so we need to consider what we can do about it instead of simply looking away with a shrug and saying “that’s a common problem; it’s just  the way things are.” It doesn’t have to be.