Ignoring History

As Santayana famously said, “those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.” But I would add that those who ignore history will find themselves lost in an increasiomghly confusing world. For all we know many of them would vote for a megalomaniac demagogue for president! Can you imagine??!!

I have referred in the past to the excellent group in Washington, D.C. — The American Council of Trustees and Alumni — that is acting as a watchdog over American higher education, drawing attention to the fact that the colleges and universities in this country (including most of the so-called “prestige” colleges) are failing their students. One of their favorite topics is the astonishing ignorance of American college students, across the country, regarding the history of their own country.

As we know, high schools no longer require a civics course, which would attack the problem a bit. But many do not require history either and the colleges that used to fill in those gaps are increasingly inclined to simply teach what the students want to learn rather than what they ought to learn. Call this a lack of confidence on the part of college faculties who lack conviction about what it is students ought to know. Or call it simply a lack of courage. But whatever we call it, it demonstrates why there is such wide-spread ignorance on the part of an electorale that has elevated a moron (and, some have said, a sociopath) to the position of one of the major candidates for president of this country — though one must note the exception of the students at Harvard in the Republican Club who recently voted (for the first time in Harvard’s history) not to endorse the Republican candidate for president! However, I stand by my generalization: this exception proves the rule, as they say.

In a recent publication by the A.C.T.A. we read about the depth of ignorance of which I speak:

“In surveys commissioned by the ACTA less than 20% of respondents could identify — in a multiple-choice survey — the effect of the Emancipation Proclamation. Little more than half could identify the purpose of the Federalist Papers. Only 23% could pick James Madison as the Father of the Constitution.

“American colleges and universities are failing their students. . .only 18% [ of those institutions] require students to take even one course in U.S. history or government. . . .

“Despite the colleges’ purported commitment to the noble ambition of training graduates ‘to be responsible and active participants in civic life’ or ‘civic leaders for our society,’ American history has disappeared not only from the schools’ general education curricula, but also from the requirements for history majors.”

The report goes on at some length. But you get the idea. People from other countries who must take citizenship tests to become citizens in this country and earn the right to vote are asked to know more than those born in this country who are simply assumed to know enough to pull the right handle in political elections, or color in the correct box. It is appalling. But it certainly helps to explain why there are so many in this country who are prepared  to vote for Donald Trump and who hate Hillary Clinton because they have been told by those sitting on the political right that she is the devil incarnate. Without thinking they believe what they hear.

In a word, the failure of educators to take their responsibility seriously in helping students gain control of their own minds is at least partially responsible for the wide-spread ignorance in this country that has become gallingly apparent in recent months. But parents must also take responsibility for not demanding that the schools teach their kids what they need to know in order to become informed citizens of our democracy, and for insisting that their college-age kids avoid the Humanities and Arts (where they might learn to think). There’s plenty of blame to go around. But in the meantime, we are faced with a close presidential race when it ought to be a blowout!

The Business of Education

Jeffrey Selingo, the editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education, has written a book titled College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means To Students. In his book he says, flatly, that “American higher education is broken” and lays to rest any faint hopes people like me have that the creature will somehow take on new life and make possible the education of generations to come. The creature has turned into big business and, like all businesses, it will adapt to changing circumstances and the demands of its clientele or perish. As one of the people Selingo interviews remarks, “In other industries, those who don’t innovate go out of business. . . Higher education shouldn’t be any different.” In a word, education is business and, like so many institutions in this country, including the Church, it has adopted the business model and is all about making a profit — not educating young minds. And in order to do that higher education will have to become whatever its prospective buyers want it to be, like Walmart. Selingo is not in the least sanguine about the current state of things; he recognizes the importance of the liberal arts to the students themselves who must acquire the skills of communication and thought to succeed in any enterprise whatever.  In a particularly telling passage he expresses his dismay:

“More than ever, American colleges and universities seem to be in every business but education. They are in the entertainment business, the housing business, the restaurant business, the recreation business, and, on some campuses, they operate what are essentially professional sports franchises. As colleges have grown more corporate in the past decade, they have started acting like Fortune 500 companies. Administrative salaries have ballooned, and members of boards of trustees are chosen for their corporate ties, not for their knowledge of higher education. Colleges now view students as customers and market their degree programs as products.”

As things now stand, it’s a booming business. There has been “an almost insatiable demand for college credentials.” And that is what education is now all about: credentials. Students approach colleges and universities in order to get a tailor-made program that will prepare them for the careers they hope to pursue for the rest of their lives. They refuse to buy off the rack: they want their suits made-to-fit. This is, after all, the age of entitlement. And the colleges are adept at meeting those demands, instituting 300 new majors in 2010 alone — added to the 1,400 already extant — to make sure they can attract and hold the growing demand and give the kiddies what they want. Gone are the days when folks like Robert Hutchins dreamed that colleges should be beacons rather than mirrors. They are mirrors, pure and simple. If they have not completely jettisoned the basic core requirement in the liberal arts — which used to be what higher education was all about — they have pared it down to a series of electives in a smattering of academic disciplines that guarantees the student very little knowledge about a range of unrelated subjects. This hardly passes muster as education in which the young are liberated from narrowness of vision and the short-sighted view of the world we associate with business where it is all about short-term profits. Despite the fact that these students have no idea what they  ought to know in order to propel them into a changing world and that they are practically guaranteed to change their career objectives several times before they are forty, they plunge ahead into a college that feels comfortable and take the courses that the brochures and marketing professionals hired by the colleges have assured them will guarantee them success and happiness here and now, and forever more.  Please note, the message is all about “information,” and, as Selingo points out, there is very little talk about how to process that information — i.e., how to think. This oversight is reflected in the results of the Collegiate Learning Assessment test given to currently enrolled upperclassmen in which over the years, especially, students who major in the more popular fields, such as, education, social work, and business tend to score low and follow-up research indicates that they are among the least successful college graduates — “three times more likely to be living at home with their parents, more likely to have run up credit card bills, and less likely to read the newspapers or discuss politics.” But, hey, caveat emptor.

The effects of the changes are widespread. For one thing, students “have come to regard their professors as service providers, just like a cashier at the supermarket or a waiter in a restaurant. . . . who must constantly innovate to serve students better, servicing students’ curiosity and their desire to apply knowledge to create impact.” This has resulted in a “major power-shift” in the classroom in which the students call the shots and evaluate their professors in the social media — hard graders scoring low. Selingo recounts a case in which an elderly biology professor who was giving low grades to his students was summarily removed from his classroom, in mid-semester, and replaced by another, younger professor who immediately boosted the grades of all students remaining in the class by 25% (many had already dropped out). After all, we don’t want to displease our customers: they might take their business elsewhere. And we wonder how grade inflation became rampant in the colleges and universities!

I have always felt as though I was on the bow of a huge ocean liner pissing into the wind as the ship heads blindly and very erratically into the unknown. I have this fear that the captain learned his trade online and hasn’t the slightest idea how to captain an actual ship — how to manoeuver in the fog or avoid icebergs. I have grown hoarse over the years trying to fight the inevitable — and I have known all along it was inevitable. And despite the groups like the American Council of Trustees and Alumni who have joined me on the bow of the ship trying to insist that colleges hang onto at least a semblance of a core, liberal education in the midst of handing out easy credits for whatever happens to be the day’s most popular fad, it seems clear that the future of education has been determined. From the perspective of the colleges and universities, the students are customers, they are not young people who need to be put in possession of their minds. In fact, their minds pretty much belong to the corporations that have molded them and who now own the colleges and universities and influence what students will learn in order to become obedient followers of the corporate piper in years to come.

 

In Defense of Education

I have referred in my blogs to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, an independent group in Washington, D.C. that has been working since 1995 to improve the quality of America’s colleges and universities — to restore the word “higher” to higher education, as they would have it. I have supported this group from the beginning because I am convinced, like Madison and Jefferson, that our democracy cannot survive without an educated citizenry and it is clear that our schools are failing. My hope is that if the ACTA can apply pressure from above — to the faculty, alumni and trustees, the power-brokers at our institutions of higher education, then that pressure will be felt all the way down to K-12 where the problems that begin at home are exacerbated. To this point, the ACTA is having remarkable results and deserve the support of all those who care about the survival of our unique form of government, whether they have kids in school or not.

There are those, of course, (including many of those employed by the schools themselves) who deny our schools are in trouble. But as the recent annual report from the ACTA points out,

“Instead of providing students with a broad-based liberal arts education, too many schools allow the students to pick and choose from a smorgasbord of niche courses on ‘hip’ topics. 82% of schools do not require a basic survey course in U.S. History or Government, over 95% don’t require a course in Economics, and over 40% don’t require any college-level mathematics. Instead, students take courses like “The Fame Monster: The Cultural Politics of Lady Gaga” and “The Sociology of the Living Dead: Zombie Films.”

As a result, as President Anne D. Neal of the ACTA points out in her report,

Surveys show that college graduates, including those from elite institutions, lack fundamental academic skills and are ignorant of the very basics of citizenship. They don’t know the term length of Congress and they can’t identify the father of the United States Constitution.”

Further, I would add, they cannot determine the amount required to tip in a restaurant and an alarming number of them graduate from college at an eighth-grade reading level.

Clearly, there is a problem. As noted, the ACTA’s goals are to return “higher” to higher education, to hold colleges and universities accountable, to keep tuition and costs affordable for students, to reduce the number of support staff and administrators and to reduce the bloated salaries of administrators, protect academic freedom, to restore rigor and real accountability to higher education. As Ms Neal puts it,

“Ours is a call for an education of intellectual growth, an education that expands perspectives and liberates minds, an education that prepares students for career and community.”

These are worthy goals, indeed. And they are being achieved by this remarkable group of people as more and more institutions turn to them for assistance in re-thinking curricula and planning for the future. If, as hoped, this puts pressure on the lower grades to prepare their graduates better for the challenges of a viable education and for life after school, this can only help get our democratic system back on track. It seems at the moment to have lost its way and the failure of the schools is, at least in part, responsible.

 

Bright College Days

It’s time to debunk another cultural myth, folks! In the 50s and 60s college was sold to young people as a way to increase their income during their lifetime. That doesn’t seem to work any longer, so the marketing tune has changed though the object is the same: sell the product to disinterested young people who don’t quite know what to do with their lives. The latest marketing ploy is to get these people into college by promising them the four years will be “the best years of your life!” If it’s true, it is very sad. But this, in fact, is the approach Claire used on the sit-com “Modern Family” last season to persuade her spaced-out daughter Haley to apply to college, referring to the parties and sporting events. It seems to be the best she or anyone else can come up with, though Claire says it with conviction. Again, how sad.

The “best” years of a person’s life should not be identified with four or five years of mindless partying, though if one watches the TV on Saturday morning and sees the young people flocked around the cameras on “College Game Day” on ESPN, and reads about the amount of alcohol consumed on college campuses these days, the myth seems to be true —  if we insist on identifying “best” with pure, mindless pleasure.

The problem is, of course, the colleges have to find a message that will resonate with high school students who are by-and-large miseducated, spoiled and self-indulgent, and who are unable to relate to the kinds of things that will in fact make them better and more successful human beings. So the marketers have latched on to the “best years of your life” mantra, and it seems to be working, at least for those kids whose parents can afford it. In fact, it works so well that a great many students actually resent it when their professors try to get them to do the work necessary to complete their courses and move on to the next level. Even in my teaching days, students talked about little else than the party(s) coming up on Thursday night (!) or over the weekend. Except for the honors students, I don’t think I ever heard the students generally talking about the subject matter they were learning about in their classes. The classwork almost seemed to be an intrusion into what they regarded as the real reason they were in college. But, of course, that was what they were told.

It is doubtful any more that young people would be willing to take on the huge loans and the hard work of preparing for challenging courses for four years unless they were convinced it was going to be fun. It should be fun, of course, but it should also be much more. It does the young a disservice to lower the appeal to their level and not make them stretch and grow — like selling them toothpaste. One would like to think that they would respond to the challenge provided by the promise of intellectual and emotional growth. But not in this world; not as we know it. So the myths will persist and the colleges will not only promise them fun but do their level best to turn the colleges themselves into country clubs. They might change slightly, but they will lead the young into a new world that isn’t really all that different from the one they know, and one that doesn’t threaten them with challenges they are unprepared for because an indulgent society keeps telling them they are brighter and better than, in fact, they are.

The difficulty is compounded by the fact that so many of America’s colleges that promise their students a “liberal education,” even the most “prestigious” of those colleges, have lost their way and have forgotten their fundamental purpose, which is to free young minds. As a recent book published by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni points out, of the twenty-five most prestigious liberal arts colleges in the United States — as identified by that oracle of  Truth, U.S. News and World Reports — twenty are “falling short” of their express purpose. They all have a weak general education program (which is where the liberal arts are housed these days, if they can be found anywhere), at a time when students come out of high school with little or no real preparation for college work. They need those core courses now more than ever before. Of the seven core subjects that the ACTA has identified as central to any meaningful education “twenty [ of the prestigious] schools required three or fewer. . . five required none at all.” The irony is that the colleges make the assumption that the students no longer need these basic subjects at a time when the students’ needs couldn’t be any greater. The truth of the matter is, as noted above, the colleges seek to attract and retain students and tough subjects only get in the way.

At the same time the presidents of these small colleges, some with enrolments as low as 2000, are making close to half a million dollars in annual salaries, with houses and cars thrown in for good measure. And they have gathered around themselves a coterie of highly priced, like-minded administrators and “support personnel” whose goal is to make sure the institution operates in the black, no matter what the cost to the students in dollars and real achievement. As a result, tuition rates are out of control and in order to keep students in school the quality of what they are paying for is on the decline.

The good news is that the A.C.T.A. is slowly but surely putting pressure on the colleges and universities around the country to get their act in gear by going public with the embarrassing data their research continues to turn up. They understand fully the difference between what the students want and what they need, and they also realize that only by bringing the cost of tuition down (by, among other things, lowering the high salaries of overpaid administrators) can the colleges hope to make education more affordable for more students, thereby taking some of the pressure off the faculties to further dumb down the curriculum in order to attract and retain students. These are good things, to be sure, and it does offer a glimmer of hope. In the meantime, parents of college-bound students would be well advised to check the A.C.T.A. website to see whether the college their children might be considering is worth the thousands of dollars it is sure to cost.

History Lessons

The American philosopher/novelist George Santayana famously said that those who refuse to read history are doomed to repeat its mistakes. In one of his recent blogs my friend BTG expanded on Santayana’s comment by noting the exemplary behavior of Paul O’Neill, C.E.O. of Alcoa who apparently was one of the few who listened to Santayana: he insisted that his employees at Alcoa own up to and learn from their mistakes so they would not repeat them. In doing so, he improved communication within the company and managed to turn around a struggling company and make of it a success.

My comment in response to BTG was that we seem to be like young kids who prefer to make our own mistakes. I had referred in my blog to the fact that during the turbulent 60s of the last century when the college kids were asking about the “relevance” of such courses as history, those in charge of higher education had no answer and ended up throwing out the baby with the bath water [they didn’t ask me!]. What the kids were asking, in their own inarticulate way, was why they should have to take college courses that didn’t translate into immediate cash value in the marketplace. I used history as an example, but it could apply to most of the courses in the liberal arts which at that time formed the core of most college curricula. In any event, the result of the inability of college professors to respond to their critics at the time was that the colleges and universities started throwing out liberal arts courses that had for generations been regarded as essential to the makeup of an educated person and shifting the focus to the “useful” arts. In other words, we traded job training for education. It didn’t happen overnight, but it has happened gradually and as a society we are the worse for it.

As I say, we are like kids and we want to make our own mistakes. We don’t think the things that happen to other people will happen to us because we are different. Statistics show that seat belts save lives, but we won’t wear ours because we don’t think we could possibly have an accident. We lack that historical, literary, and psychological perspective that deepens and broadens our awareness of what is going on around us. The colleges and universities that have eliminated core requirements have simply exacerbated a cultural situation that breeds widespread ignorance posing as insight and perception. We think because there is an unlimited amount of information out there accessible to anyone with a computer we are wiser than those who went before us. But we are really not all that bright and we habitually refuse to learn from the mistakes our predecessors made.  This is the best possible answer to those militant students who 50 years ago challenged the college faculties to explain why they needed an education: wisdom has been lost in the information glut.

There is a movement which I have alluded to in previous blogs that seeks to right the ship. It is fostered by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which is housed in Washington, D.C. In a nationwide project they call “What Will They Learn?” this group has scrutinized the core requirements of every college and university in this country under a microscope and found virtually all of them wanting. Colleges really don’t require much of anything outside the major requirement; they seem perfectly content to have narrow, ignorant adults going forth with degrees they can hang on their walls that aren’t worth the paper they are printed on. I don’t blame the students. They don’t know any better. But college professors who do in fact live in ivory towers should realize that their job is not to protect their territory and turn out replicas of themselves. Rather, their job is to help young people come to a deeper, more critical perspective of their world that makes life worth living — learn to use their minds, acquire good communication skills, understand history, have at least a nodding acquaintance with poetry and literature, learn to calculate and become scientifically literate. Such people make better citizens and more valuable employees. In the end the liberal arts are the most useful because they liberate the minds of those who come into contact with them.

Political Correctness

In response to a genuine need for greater sensitivity to the chronically disadvantaged in this country there came into being not long ago the serpent “political correctness.” This serpent, originating from the best of motives, has become so large that it threatens civilized discourse itself which was already weakened from constant abuse. We must now watch everything we say for fear we might offend someone somewhere at some point. And the ones who determine what constitutes “offensive” are the offended parties themselves. There is no court of appeal. And that’s the problem.

Some years back Chinua Achebe, the great Nigerian novelist, wrote a scathing essay attacking Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a “racist” novel. Achebe charged that the novel was racist because of the author’s frequent use of the “N” word and his reference to the natives of Africa in less than glowing terms. Achebe’s essay has been anthologized widely and is now considered a classic of its type. I published a rejoinder in Conradiana, the journal dedicated to Conrad scholarship, which was not widely anthologized, incisive though it was! I insisted that Achebe didn’t know how to read a novel, that Conrad did not denigrate the native people — on the contrary — and I defended Heart of Darkness as one of the greatest novels of all time and one that we should continue to read — in spite of the “N” word.

The problem is not whether or not Conrad or Conrad’s novels were “racist,” whatever that might mean, but where we draw the line. Edith Wharton also uses the “N” word with reckless abandon. In fact, writers of her generation pretty much did so because that was the way people talked back then. Use of such words lends the novel verisimilitude, an important weapon in the writer’s arsenal. She also slurred Jews, as did Shakespeare and Dostoevsky, among others. Again, where do we draw the line?

The problem doesn’t stop with literary works as a blog in the American Council of Trustees and Alumni publication “Inside Academe” recently points out. The Chronicle of Higher Education fired a writer of fifteen years, Naomi Schaefer Riley by name, because she wrote a piece attacking Black Studies dissertations “for substituting political partisanship for objective research and analysis.” Her piece resulted in 6000 petitioners demanding that she be fired since she was clearly “racist.” Now whether or not she is a racist (again, whatever that means) she was never allowed to defend herself or presented with the evidence of her mistakes, whatever they might have been. Instead of a lively discussion of what dispassionate scholarship ought to be or what racism actually is, she was simply accused and fired. As the blog in “Inside Academe” notes in its final paragraph: “The Chronicle missed a chance to stand up for intellectual freedom and intellectual engagement. They kowtowed to their constituency — the academy — deciding that political correctness was more important than the search for truth and the defense of free speech.” This seems to me to be the central issue here.

Have we really come to the point where claims are disallowed if someone uses an offending word such as “savage,” contends that sloppy work is being accepted in our academies of learning, suggests that a woman was fired because she was incompetent, or an elderly man (such as myself) refused a job because he is unable to lift 200 pounds over his head — when these things may in fact be true and perhaps even important? If so then not only the academy but the wider culture itself has become impoverished and shrinks back on itself out of fear of intellectual engagement and the free exchange of ideas — no matter how disturbing. This is a huge price to pay not to offend someone, somewhere, sometime.

Another College Scandal?

U.S. News and World Report has been ranking colleges and universities for 30 years now. These rankings are dismissed by a number of prestigious colleges as somewhat bogus, but the contest among the vast majority of colleges to improve their rankings has become hot and heavy — and led to improprieties that stink of yet another scandal. In a recent story about the budding scandal (this one not connected with athletics) it was reported that

 “. . .students and families still buy the guide and its less famous competitors by the hundreds of thousands, and still care about a college’s reputation. But it isn’t students who obsess over every incremental shift on the rankings scoreboard, and who regularly embarrass themselves in the process. It’s colleges.

It’s colleges that have spent billions on financial aid for high-scoring students who don’t actually need the money, motivated at least partly by the quest for rankings glory.”

The rankings are based on quantifiable criteria, such as percentage of students who graduate, average ACT scores of incoming Freshmen, and so forth. And since this material is provided by the schools themselves, a number of the schools have been caught cheating: submitting false information in order to get a higher rating. The assumption the colleges make is that a higher rating by the magazine will translate into more students attending the school. And this despite the fact that U.S. News and World Report tells the students not to rely solely on their ratings in making their decision which college to attend. And they don’t. Apparently, prospective students don’t pay much attention to where the school they choose ranks with the magazine, according to a recent study. But this fact is blurred by the related fact that students do admit that the “academic reputation” of the college is a primary factor in their decision. One would think that the college’s rating in U.S. News and World Report and its academic reputation are closely related. So the social scientists who do these surveys need to do some more work to clear this up. But it seems apparent, in any case, that prospective students pay less attention to the ratings than the colleges themselves do — which is why some (many?) colleges have cheated in providing the magazine with skewed data and have given scholarship money to students who don’t need it in order to keep them in school. Tsk. Tsk.

The notion that one can reduce academic reputation to quantifiable data is somewhat problematic in itself. But that’s one thing we do love to do in our society. If we can’t attach a number to it, it isn’t “scientific” enough for us. This is called “scientism,” and has little to do with real science. It is a commitment to the notion that if it looks like science (that is, we can quantify it) it must be science. But we all know that data can be very unreliable; anyone who plays with data at all knows how misleading they can be. Further, not all things can be quantified. How, for example, do we determine that the brightest students are applying to Local College ? Because they have higher scores? But what correlation does intelligence, and especially the potential to do well in college, have to do with a number on a test? Or how do we suppose that intelligence can be measured by an I.Q. rating? How do we rate motivation, for example? Or maturity? There are so many factors that enter into college success that reducing probable success or academic reputation to a number is positively silly. But we do it.

And we do it to such an extent that the colleges are lying about the numbers to get better rankings in order to attract and keep better students — who apparently don’t pay any attention to the rankings in choosing their college. How ironic!  — and fitting somehow, as these schools should know in the first place that such rankings are bogus and their reputation should not in any way be tied up with such silliness.

Instead, the colleges should concentrate their efforts on cleaning up their collective houses and making sure their academic program is solid and challenging to their students. That’s where the reputation of the college ultimately lies. So that’s where the emphasis should be placed. But it isn’t, as recent studies by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni have shown. The colleges are weakening their core academic programs rather than strengthening them. And this is where the heart of the scandal lies. It would appear that those who decide what is important in our colleges are focused on athletics and national “academic” rankings in such magazines as U.S. News and World Report instead of creating challenging academic programs designed to turn out the brightest alumni who will be successful citizens of a changing world.

In the end, it is our fascination with numbers and conviction that numbers make things more “scientific” and therefore more reliable that leads us astray — taken together with our thirst for competition, to come out on top  (or at least in the top ten). It is a large part of what Jacques Ellul called long ago “the technological imperative,”  which focuses on means rather than ends and on tangential considerations rather than central ones. It is a formula designed to lead to scandal at the very least.

Lowering the Bar

In 1994 the College Board in Princeton, New Jersey — which had been tinkering with test scores for years in order to try to make them more respectable — “took the more dramatic step of simply raising the average test scores by fiat. As a result of the College Board’s decision, the typical score on the math section [of the SATs] will rise by about 20 points, while the typical verbal score will jump 80 points with no improvement in achievement in either area.” This was written (with italics) a year after the “adjustment”  by Charles Sykes in his book Dumbing Down Our Kids.

Some time earlier, in fact, beginning in the early 1970s, the colleges started trashing core requirements on the assumption (false as it turns out) that students were better prepared by the high schools and knew what they needed to learn. Or, more likely, because the faculties at America’s colleges and universities were so narrow in their own areas of specialization they couldn’t answer student challenges when asked why they needed to study such “irrelevant” subjects as history. In any event, the core requirement was reduced or eliminated altogether in many major colleges and the minor colleges soon followed suit. The result, of course, is a rash of miseducated college graduates who know a bit about one subject and practically nothing about anything else.

In the past few years an organization has sprung up in Washington, D.C. called “The American Council of Trustees and Alumni,” headed by Anne Neal who is one pro-active individual determined to reverse the trend. Her group has conducted a number of studies that show how widespread the problem is and make it clear that only a handful of colleges are requiring much in the way of general education. And this in the face of the undeniable fact that the students who now enter college are ill-prepared for college-level work. Even at the so-called prestige colleges (we might say starting with them), students are simply given their heads — except for major requirements, which have tended to increase. The result is a shrinking core requirement — in some cases no core requirement at all — with overblown major requirements and a smattering of elective courses to fill out the undergraduate degree, producing young adults who can barely read, write or figure and who know precious little about much of anything except the material they need to know to pass out of their major.

Neal’s group has had a growing impact as colleges around the country have no idea how to respond to her challenge and alumni are becoming disturbed to think that their diploma may soon be worth less than the paper it is printed on. Whether or not the A.C.T.A. will have any lasting impact remains to be seen. They most assuredly are getting the word out, even in such prestige newspapers as The Wall Street Journal, due in large part to Ms Neal’s tireless enthusiasm. If trustees and alumni finally get sick and tired of the downward spiral which is American education, they can certainly play a role in reversing the trend. If the colleges start to require substantive core courses that enlighten the students and expand their minds, the high schools will have to raise their standards to prepare their students for the more challenging courses they will be required to take in college. And the elementary grades will also have to fall in line or see their students fail later on. This is an unlikely scenario, I admit, but it is the only real hope for American education which seems to be at present struggling to keep its head above the sludge of narrow self-interest, an unwarranted sense of student entitlement, and the illusion that it is preparing its graduates for the real world.