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.

 

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More Of Same

In my numerous (innumerable?) jottings on the sorry state of higher education these days I have tended to focus most of my attention on the undue emphasis on athletics in “higher” education along with the seemingly endless athletic scandals that have been a part of the collegiate climate. To be sure there have been many and they continue to be revealed at an alarming rate. But there is more.

The remarkable group in Washington D.C. that keeps an eye on the level of education in America today, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, shares with us other information that is almost as alarming as the scandals above mentioned. For example,

• Clemson University is spending $55 million on an athletics complex that will feature a mini-golf course, sand volleyball courts, laser tag, a movie theater, bowling  lanes, and a barber shop. This recreation palace is not open to all Clemson students or even to all Clemson athletes. It is reserved for the exclusive use of the Clemson Tiger football team!

• The University of Michigan added 77 new full-time positions to its athletics department between 2004 and 2014 adding $13 million to its payroll. That included the hiring of a longtime NBA marketing executive as “chief marketing officer” for Michigan’s athletics — a position that didn’t exist prior to his hire!

• The University of Mississippi college football program had a payroll that grew from $212,702 to $2,170,676 over the course of a decade.

And these are all public universities and the athletes are the ones who claim they are exploited and insist they should be paid to play. While there’s some truth in their claim, at least at Clemson their case would be a hard sell. But, wait, there’s more!

• Last year rapper “Big Scan” headlined at the University of Minnesota’s homecoming concert. His booking fee was a staggering$75,000. To add insult to injury, the University charged its own students $20.00 each to attend the concert.

• California State University at Fullerton is set to spend almost $400,000 on this year’s “spring concert.” It hasn’t yet even announced who’s performing.

• The University of Michigan built a dorm featuring a luxury dining hall where students can enjoy salmon fillets, lamb, and shark.

• The University of Massachusetts at Amherst has a dining hall with a pub, saunas, and ten racquetball courts.

All of this is occurring at a time when the quality of higher education is on a downward slide. Incoming students, even at “select” colleges and universities, are often required to take remedial courses; grade inflation is rampant — to the point where Columbia University medical school won’t take Harvard graduates because they all have a 4.0 grade — the “A” grade has become meaningless; “entitled” students demand that courses be easy and they be given high grades, just as they will do when they graduate and seek employment with little work and high salaries; core academic requirements have been all but gutted at even the most prestigious universities despite the fact that students are generally less well prepared for college work than they were a decade ago and the average college student has little knowledge of history or political science, reads and writes at a grammar-school level, and cannot calculate the tip in a restaurant.

To make natters worse, colleges are introducing courses and majors that have little or no academic merit and will leave the student unprepared for a changing and complex future. For example:

• Plymouth State University offers a B.S. in “Adventure Education” to “teach you how to use the Great Outdoors to expose children, adults, and at-risk populations to challenging adventures, personal growth, and self-discovery.”

• Bowling Green State University offers a B.A. in Popular Culture. Students can earn a minor in Folklore.

• The University of Connecticut offers a B.F.A. in Puppet Arts.

It would appear that the problems in higher education at a time when costs are skyrocketing do not attach themselves only to athletics scandals. There is something rotten in the state of higher education and there appear to be very few who are either aware there is a problem or willing and/or able to do anything about it. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni continues to work to raise awareness in the hope that alumni, at least, will bring pressure to bear on the colleges and universities that take large amounts of student’s money without offering them much in return. But, as you can imagine it is an uphill battle at a time when competition for bodies in the classroom is ferocious and “entitled” students are led to expect that they will be provided a quality education in a country-club atmosphere where the football game and the party on the weekend are the main concern. Education be damned! Where’s the beer?

The Blind Leading….

Readers will recall when recently the football team joined a young man on the University of Missouri campus who was fasting in order to effect change on that campus regarding alleged racism and the unwillingness of the administration to deal with the issue. The football team threatened to refuse to play and the result was the desired resignation of the president. There is no doubt about two things (1) racism is a poison and needs to be stamped out wherever it appears, and (2) a Division I football team refusing to play speaks louder than words.

There was much hullabaloo about the event and a number of articles and posts on social media — including a post by yours truly. One of the better articles attempted to put the event in perspective and led in with a photograph of the football team, with its coaches, after they had their way. A caption under the photo grabbed my attention:

“In just 48 hours a sub-500 football team affected [sic] a change that could have a monumental impact on the world of college athletics — athletes controlling what happens on campus.”

Think about this. The fact that this group of athletes was successful — in light of the fact that previous attempts by football teams failed to bring about change, as in the case of Northwestern’s team that wanted the players to unionize — indicates the power of extortion. There can be no doubt that the threat of non-playing at a time when revenue from TV and attendance is very much at stake had an important impact on the decision of the president to resign. After all, colleges and universities are becoming increasingly about business and profits (just ask the University of Iowa where a businessman with no academic credentials whatever was recently hired as president). But as an educator the thought that festers in my soul is the thought that football players can “control what happens on campus.”

Now, if this refers simply to the elimination of other cases of racism and other forms of bigotry on college campuses, so much the better. That’s as it should be. But if the influence of athletes threatening to withhold their services can effect “what happens on campus” generally one must pause. Clearly, this group of athletes was inspired to do the right thing and they were effective. But the thought of a group of athletes, or a group of students of any stripe whatever, holding a gun to the head of the administration and faculty to effect change in, say, curriculum is worrisome indeed. Such a thing is not totally absurd., as hinted at in the caption quoted above.

If a group of students were to put pressure on the administration and faculty to alter the curriculum — to substitute, say, physical education for physics — this would be anathema to everything higher education stands for. I exaggerate, of course, but interestingly enough, the precedent has already been set, and not by a group of football players at Missouri. It was set in the 1960s when militant students took over the Dean’s office in places such as Columbia University and Berkeley and insisted that there be curricular changes.  In a number of major universities during that period a great many core courses were eliminated completely on the grounds that the students found them “irrelevant.” In a word, if the students didn’t want to study, say, world history, then world history was dropped. The faculty and administration capitulated, possibly out of fear. This started a wave of rejection until within 20 years there were very few core courses on any college campus anywhere in this country. As a result, we have seen an increasing number of college graduates who know nothing about anything except those few items that happen to be of interest to them. Many of them cannot read, write, or speak coherently; they know nothing about the way their government runs (or doesn’t run) or about their history, black, white, feminine or masculine; and they have no idea whatever what science is and why mathematics is integral to the exact sciences. They are increasingly susceptible to the drivel that spews forth from the mouths of public figures who want to sell them left-handed monkey wrenches.

Thus, the thought of the athletes running the show is disturbing on a number of fronts. To begin with, it is simply a sign of a power struggle that has been lost by those who should have shown the way, and secondly it suggests the possibility of further changes in the climate of higher education that will move the students farther and farther away from the goal of true intellectual freedom, which should always be the focus of any education. Students should have a say in what they study, to be sure, but they should not be allowed to rule out whatever doesn’t happen to appeal to them at the moment. While education starts in the schools, it bears fruit later on, after graduation. But it needs a start in the right direction or else it will spin in circles and lead the college graduate into blind alleys.

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.

 

The Statue

You have probably heard they removed the statue of Joe Paterno at Penn State and put it in “a safe place” somewhere:

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — Penn State University will remove the famed statue of Joe Paterno outside its football stadium, eliminating a key piece of the iconography surrounding the once-sainted football coach accused of burying child sex abuse allegations against a retired assistant.

I must confess I have been of two minds on this issue for some time. I recently wrote in a blog that the statue should not be removed because its removal would be a falsification of events: it is a rewriting of history. Like it or not, Joe Paterno spent the best part of his life at Penn State and had a tremendous impact on countless lives –both positive and, as we now know, negative. His football teams were a model for the rest of the country, or so it seemed. But in light of recent events and the pivotal role Paterno played in the fourteen-year cover up of his assistant coach’s attacks on young boys, I now think the President of the University is making the correct decision.

I was persuaded by an outstanding editorial in a recent issue (July 23, 2012) of Sports Illustrated that reminded me of something I said in print a number of years ago: the purpose of a university is not to promote football (or sports in general) it is to educate young people. As I said in an article in The Montana Professor: The tail wags the dog at the Division I level. Sports play a disproportionately large role in the university in our day. Perhaps this was a wake-up call to restore instruction to its proper place at the center of the university. In the case of Penn State and its football program, the editors of Sports Illustrated put it very well:

Why not instead [of cancelling the football program] have Penn Staters create the program they always claimed to have? Football is supposed to enhance the academic experience at Penn State as part of Paterno’s Grand Experiment. The school can stop selling the idea and implement it. Use football for a more concrete cause: Profits from the coming season could be diverted to create a facility to study and destigmatize child sex abuse.

I had suggested in my earlier blog a monument to the children who suffered at the hands of Jerry Sandusky, but this is an even better idea: a living reminder of the atrocities that man committed on that campus in memory of the young boys who were the victims. And a program such as the one mentioned here could do immeasurable good in the face of the many terrible events that occurred repeatedly in the last fourteen years on that campus.

Football should never have been allowed to take the place of honor it took at Penn State. No coach should have been allowed to have the power and influence that Joe Paterno had in State College. But as horrendous as this scandal was, we all know this is just the tip of the iceberg. So much money is involved in NCAA Division I football that corruption is rampant on college campuses all across the country as football is given pride of place and education is forced to take a back seat. Let me give you a tiny example of the kind of disproportionate place football has on a college campus, in this case a small university campus involving a small football program with little or no money at stake.

When I was named men’s tennis coach at the University of Rhode Island many years ago I was approached within days by an assistant football coach who informed me that they would be sending their players to my classes from then on so I could “take care of them.” I didn’t know what to say, so I just stared dumbly and smiled. These memories percolated recently when I read the comments made by the janitors who witnessed Sandusky sodomizing a young boy and were afraid to speak up for fear of losing their jobs. In my case, the issue died, fortunately, as I left the university soon thereafter. But I felt the kind of pressure any young person would feel in a large institution when his job is in jeopardy. One can imagine how the faculty feel at a large university where the football coach is king and members of his team are the privileged few. The tail does indeed wag the dog.

It makes sense to remove the statue of Joe Paterno from the Penn State Campus. But  it also makes sense not to deify the football coach on other campuses across the country and not to allow the football program to be the focus of what is going on at that university. We have not heard the last about the scandal at Penn State. As I write this the NCAA is preparing to levy strict penalties against this particular university, to make an example of it as it were. But there are potential scandals aplenty “out there” on other campuses and levying penalties and removing statues — while entirely appropriate — are hardly more than small steps toward restoring the proper order of things at our universities.