Dumbing It Down

When I was hired in 1968 to start a philosophy program and coordinate a required Freshman course called “Ideas In Flux” at a brand new state college in Minnesota I had high hopes. I was only four years out of graduate school but I had already taught a number of the great books to “marginal students” at one of the many colleges that flourished in those days to keep young men out of the draft — colleges with non-degree programs designed for students  who were simply enrolled in order to avoid going to Viet Nam. I was therefore determined to initiate a reading program in what was then a brand-new state college, with better students presumably, that would challenge the students and inspire the faculty who taught them. All faculty were required to teach at least one section of “Flux” a year and all Freshmen were required to take three quarters of the course to provide them with a foundation to build on later in their major fields of study.

The first quarter focused on the question “What Is Man?” a title that would be regarded as sexist today and not allowed by the PC police. I thought long and hard about the reading list and came up with selections that would be challenging but not too difficult for the average student, especially if he or she had the guidance of a dedicated faculty member. I submitted the reading list before arriving on campus, and it included (among other works) the very short, eminently readable, masterpiece by Pico Della Mirandola, The Dignity of Man. The remaining works sounded, perhaps, less imposing (I don’t remember), but in any event the entire list was rejected by the Dean of Faculty as too difficult for their students. An anthology was selected by a committee at the college before I arrived on campus and I was informed that this would be the text. I was to read the selections before the classes met each week and submit questions for the faculty members to ask in order to generate discussion within their groups.

Many of the classes were successful, but more were not. A large number of faculty members resented having to teach something out of their area of expertise. One of them, when faced with a small paperback dealing with the basic concepts of Freudian psychology, told his class that he didn’t understand a word in the book and said they didn’t have to read it. Here was an excellent educational opportunity wasted: they could have explored the text together! Eventually the Freshman requirement was dropped, primarily because so many faculty resented having to teach outside their disciplines where they were busy building up their major requirements, despite the fact that a number of them not only enjoyed teaching the subject but raved about the success they were having. For one thing, it got Freshmen students involved at the start of their college career, since the classes were small and encouraged discussion. For another, it gave interested faculty members a chance to explore intellectual territory they were unfamiliar with — though, as I found out, many saw this as a threat!

I have always been angry that the Dean of Faculties had turned down that initial reading list that included books he had almost certainly never read and probably had never even heard of. I fought that battle for several years with him and with others on the faculty. But, being young and powerless, I lost the battle in the end. But I always thought the students were being cheated: they were being regarded as less able than I knew they were. And the reluctance of so many of the faculty to fully support the course didn’t help. If you aim low, I thought, you will hit low. Instead of stretching the minds of the students (and many of the faculty) which was the initial intent of the course, the trend was downwards. “Dumbing Down the Curriculum” it has since been called. And we see it happening all over the country, at all levels.

I recall the first time I read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason as a Junior in college. I had no idea whatever what the man was saying. But after a presentation on the subject by one of the tutors and struggling with the very difficult material myself, and especially after meeting with other students in a seminar and discussing the book, I finally began to see what Kant was saying. It was difficult going, but the end result was extremely satisfying. It was like striking gold after hours of work in a dark cave! I went from a slightly better-than-average student at a technical high school memorizing and regurgitating dull material to a more mature student committed to lifelong learning.

We deprive our students of that sort of experience by selling them short, by assigning easy reading material and taking them by the hand to lead them through it — or encouraging them to read Cliffs Notes! They will never know what they have missed, and that is truly sad.

John Stuart Mill once said that we will not know what is possible until we attempt what is impossible. I have always thought that was a profound thought, and that even so-called “average” students could benefit from walking, even briefly, in the company of genius. Instead of dumbing down the curriculum we should raise it to heights we may think the students (or faculty) cannot reach. They just might surprise us!

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Picking and Choosing

As the twentieth century dawned Charles Elliot, president of Harvard College, introduced elective courses to the world. At that point it seemed to make a modicum of sense — after all the young men (no women, of course) who attended Harvard were on the whole well prepared for college work and had a pretty good idea what they wanted to do with their lives. And as Elliot said they were in a better position to determine what courses they needed than their professors who were not omniscient. Indeed not. But even at the time the argument wouldn’t hold up to scrutiny. The professors were not omniscient, but they had a better sense of what young men would need to prepare them to go forth in a changing world than the young men themselves.

At that time education was not as focused on jobs as it is now and the young were better prepared for college — compared to today’s entering college students. But if elective courses were questionable in Elliot’s day they are even more so today, given the facts noted above — and they are facts, sad to say. To make matters worse elective courses are now common in high schools as well as colleges where they have become commonplace.

By 1983 more than 50% of the units required to graduate from high school in thirteen states were elective courses, that is, courses young kids could pick and choose among at random. And that number has proliferated since that time. Not only were the courses elective, but they allowed students to take “life adjustment” courses such as “Life and Leisure,” “Home and Family,” Tools of Learning,” Work Experience,” and “Occupational Adjustment.” Often these courses replaced required courses in such things as civics and history, among others. The idea was to whet the appetites of disinterested and unmotivated students to keep them in school and hope that they learn something by the way. Research done by a variety of disinterested sources reveals that the vast majority of those graduating high school students are ignorant of their own history and how the government works. A great many of them also have difficulty reading, writing, and figuring — the three things that have always been the staples of basic education. As a consequence, roughly half of the students who enter college today are required to take remedial courses in spite of the fact that there are some exceptional teachers in the high schools who are asked to do the impossible for very little money.

I must confess at this point that I attended a high school in Baltimore where the entire “college-prep” program was laid out beforehand. I had no electives. I then attended a unique college in Annapolis, Maryland where the entire four years were spent in reading the “great books” and taking four years of required courses leading to a liberal education. I never questioned the right of the faculty to tell me what I ought to study. If I were choosing my own reading material I might have chosen to read trash like Atlas Shrugged, if you can imagine!  It was simply a given that the faculty knew what would best prepare me and my classmates for a changing world — contrary to Mr. Elliot.

Needless to say, I think Elliot was terribly wrong, even in his day. Admitting my bias I would still maintain that today’s students — especially — need to be told what to learn by faculty who are admittedly not omniscient, but who know more than the kids do. How on earth can we expect a disinterested, ill-prepared 17-year-old person to know what college courses will make them wiser and better informed? We can’t. But we do. We hand them a course schedule and turn them loose on hundreds of courses of unequal weight and benefit and hope for the best.

I think it is time to admit that Elliot’s experiment in education went terribly wrong and that the colleges should shore up their basic requirements, at the very least. However, the trend is in the opposite direction as general courses are shrinking in our colleges and universities while electives and major requirements gain in numbers. This is a mistake from the students’ point of view as it makes them increasingly narrow at a time when they need greater breadth of learning across a wide panorama of subjects.

College faculties must take responsibility for the education of the young people who come to them embarrassingly ignorant and who are supposed to leave several years later able to make informed decisions that greatly affect their lives. The job of these faculties is not to turn out historians, poets, artists, accountants, or biologists. It is to turn out educated citizens. As things now stand, college professors refuse to take responsibility as they fight over territory and seek to protect their academic domain while the students look on perplexed and disinterested and wonder where the party will be this weekend after the football game.