Behind The Curtain

I made a suggestion in a reply to a comment on a recent post that might be offensive to some readers. But since I have very few readers, I doubt that this is much of a problem. I refer to the comment I made that many faculty members in our colleges and universities have agendas they regard as more important than the central agenda of the college itself, which is to educate young minds. I want to expand on that comment since it might be of interest to some who wonder just what goes on behind the curtain that surrounds our ivory towers. If it doesn’t interest anyone, that’s OK, because I simply want to indulge myself.

There are two aspects to this comment. To begin with there is the plain fact that a great many faculty members have political agendas and they defend these agendas openly by insisting that there have always been political agendas in higher education and they think it’s about time theirs was attended to. This, of course is bollocks because the reading of “dead, white males” (as many of these people characterize the tradition they pillory) does not comprise a political agenda, since none of these dead men agreed with one another about much of anything. Further, those who defend women’s studies on these grounds ignore the fact that Plato, for one, insisted that women could be philosopher kings in his Republic; Thomas Moore, taking a page from Plato, insisted that his daughter be fully educated, knowing she was the equal of any man he knew; and John Stuart Mill wrote the definitive treatise on women’s rights in the nineteenth century and had a wife who collaborated with him in writing his major works on ethics and logic. Further, the classical tradition includes a number of important and brilliant women. It can hardly be said that these men or women had any agenda at all, political or otherwise.

But there is the second aspect of my claim and that centers around the fact — based on my own experience, my talks with others in teaching, and my reading of works by thinkers who have found the subject noteworthy — that very few faculty members in our colleges and universities ever stop to think about what it is they are doing. This is not odd, of course, since very few of us stop to think why we are doing the things we are doing, but it is of special concern in higher education because in the 1960s when the students themselves started to ask why they were required to take “irrelevant” courses such as history their professors had no answer:  they had never given the question a thought. As a result, “irrelevant” courses such as history, philosophy, mathematics, and foreign language and what used to be the core of required courses at the center of our colleges and universities were seriously weakened or  scrapped altogether.

What remained of the core requirement, if anything did remain, became the battleground for college professors who worried about their jobs. Indeed, to my knowledge, this was the only reason in the minds of a great many college professors for keeping a core requirement at all. After all, if there were core requirements, then all students would have to take them and this would build up enrollments in their own subject areas that otherwise might be so thin the administration might start to ask “why? and folks would be out of jobs. So what remained was a giant pizza pie that the faculty all approached in curriculum committees and faculty meetings with knives keenly sharpened and a determination to get as large a piece as possible. This resulted in a plethora of disjointed core requirements consisting of scads of courses (sometimes dozens) in certain broad areas, such as “critical thinking,” and “language arts,” the “social sciences,” and even “science.” I recall a faculty member of my institution insisting that computer science be allowed as an option in the science requirement because it is a science. This showed how ignorant that man was about the nature of science and once again proved the maxim that it is better to keep one’s mouth closed and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt. In this case, the faculty voted him down. But in countless other instances I witnessed the faculty pass on courses that simply didn’t belong because they wanted to guarantee that when it was their turn the faculty would support them — no matter how weak their argument. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours!

In any event, the core requirement has taken a beating over the years and it is what remains, in most colleges and universities, of the liberal arts which are designed to liberate young, poorly trained minds and help them gain freedom from narrow vision, ignorance, and prejudice. Add to this the business of the hidden agendas and things started to go down hill rapidly. Since most faculty members haven’t thought about what higher education ought to be doing, and since they are well-trained in their own academic discipline, they began to increase the major requirements in their own areas of interest and push for courses in areas they regarded as politically important (such as women’s studies and black studies), keeping a sharp eye on the piece of pizza they had carefully carved out for themselves. They saw their jobs as dependent on an increased number of major students; they desperately wanted students to take courses in their pet areas to push their own political agendas; and they knew how vital it was to hang on to the piece of pizza they fought so hard for in the faculty meetings. The fact that none of this has anything whatever to do with education never entered their minds. What mattered is the preservation of their jobs, pushing hard for those subjects they themselves found most interesting or politically important, and hanging on to that precious piece of pizza. All of this at increasing cost to students.

I realize I have made a number of generalizations and while I also realize that there are exceptions to those generalizations I do think my seemingly outrageous claims will hold up to scrutiny, generally speaking.  Unpleasant though it might be, this is, generally speaking, what is hiding behind the curtain at many, if not most, of our colleges and universities, and it might explain why I go on and on about what should be taking place.

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.