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.


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.