Opinion: Clarion Call

Today’s students get to dictate what constitutes a general education

Clarion Call No. 156
Universities ostensibly provide students with rigorous training to prepare them for their chosen field. There’s more to it than that, however, because if it were only that, the students could skip the addlepated rigmarole that has become an accepted part of what’s blithely called “the college experience” (which amounts to hazing or coddling, depending upon one’s fealty to the campus’s hair-trigger socialist bent) and go directly to a private provider of vocational training. Universities also purport to provide life preparation, turning students into citizens prepared not only to work, but also to be leaders in their respected fields as well as communities.

Indeed, that is their reputation. It is their legacy from centuries of universities adherence to teaching the liberal arts. The name derives from the Latin liber, freedom. As explained by Gene Edward Veith, Jr., and Andrew Kern in their 1997 monograph Classical Education: Towards the Revival of American Schooling, the ancient Greeks and Romans believed “a liberal education was necessary for a man to be free. Slaves would receive vocational training, but free citizens required an education that enlarged the mind and cultivated the soul.”

The liberal arts originally numbered only seven disciplines (the trivium of grammar, logic, rhetoric, and the quadrivium of mathematics, music, astronomy, and geometry), Veith and Kern wrote, which prepared students for studying the sciences: “natural science (which included both the physical and the metaphysical), moral science (which included history, politics, and law), and theological science(the study of religion and first principles).”

The idea of a liberal education naturally expanded with newer disciplines, but its idea remained relatively intact at universities (often considered the “general education” portion of the collegiate education) until about midway through the last century. Several critical changes took place that greatly affected universities to their cores: the G.I. Bill expanded college opportunities to thousands of servicemen, the land-grant universities grew in prominence, the Baby Boom generation greatly increased the number of students enrolled (helped by promise of draft deferments during the Vietnam War), community colleges increased, and so forth.

Meanwhile, the vision of the purpose of higher education began to shift from an elite class’ proving ground to a more egalitarian notion of every student’s logical next step in furthering his education. Tuition increases driven by this large shift in demand annually outstripped inflation. Concomitantly, public higher education began to rise in prominence.

During the tumultuous changes of the last half-century, the idea of a liberal education also changed. Many of the new order of college students didn’t care for academic rigor; they wanted their degree, because after all, they’re paying for it. Their attitude was, The customer is always right, and universities, by and large, agreed.

Paul Trout wrote about this new student class in his Spring 1997 Academic Questions article, “Disengaged Students and the Decline of Academic Standards”:
“They do not read the assigned books, they avoid participating in class discussions, they expect high grades for mediocre work, they ask for fewer assignments, they resent attendance requirements, they complain about course workloads, they do not like ‘tough’ or demanding professors, they do not adequately prepare for class and tests, they are impatient with deliberative analysis, they regard intellectual pursuits as ‘boring,’ they resent the intrusion of course requirements on their time, they are apathetic or defeatist in the face of a challenge, and they are largely indifferent to anything resembling an intellectual life.”

Having changed with the times so that they enrolled so many “disengaged students,” universities were faced with having to change their academic structure to suit their tastes. Thus the academy began to relinquish its role as arbiter of what constitutes higher learning in order to provide students with a scavenger hunter’s list of suggested classes before turning them loose into a bazaar of course offerings. The trivium was replaced with the trivial as navel-gazing academic disciplines cropped up featuring gender, ethnic, and sexual-preference “studies” classes taught by professors of the corresponding gender, ethnicity, and sexual preference, and “pop culture” (the study of what’s popular today — People magazine, Ph.D.) classes displacing the study of history and classic works of art, music, and literature.

Also, as academic disciplines multiplied, new theories of collegiate instruction were proposed, with increasing politicization. As Roger Kimball wrote in the introduction to his 1990 book Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education, “while there are important differences and even struggles among these various groups, when seen from the perspective of the tradition they are seeking to subvert — the tradition of high culture embodied in the classics of Western art and thought — they exhibit a remarkable unity of purpose.”

These groups, a hodge-podge of anti-establishment viewpoints, make up what Frederick Crews called “Left Eclecticism” in his 1986 book Skeptical Engagements, which all have “an understanding, ultimately borrowed from the Marxist ethos, that analytical and theoretical discourse is to be judged primarily by the radicalism of its stance. The schools of thought thus favored make sharply divergent claims, yet all of them set themselves against allegedly repressive Western institutions and practices.”

The problem by century’s end had become so widespread and well-known that the Intercollegiate Studies Institute found publishing success with multiple volumes of its guidebook, Choosing the Right College: The Whole Truth About America’s Top Schools. The guidebook was purposed to help students and parents find, in the words of William J. Bennett in the introduction, the “important and impressive academic departments, professors, and universities [that] still exist” given that “The widespread abandonment of academic standards and moral discipline, the politicization of all aspects of campus life, and the deconstruction of academic disciplines have devastated the traditional mission of the liberal arts curriculum.”

“In too many classrooms, radical professors teach their students that Western thought is suspect, that Enlightenment ideals are inherently oppressive, and that the basic principles of the American founding are not ‘relevant’ to our time,” Bennett writes. “The result is not education, but confusion — over the importance of knowledge, the universality of the human experience, the transcendence of ideals and principles. In the end, the central problem is not that the majority of students are being indoctrinated (although some are), but that they graduate knowing almost nothing at all. Or worse still, they graduate thinking they know everything.”