The liberal arts are in crisis. And the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences knows it. The Commission’s report, The Heart of the Matter, confirms broad problems with curricula, teacher training, foreign language instruction and civil discourse–problems that ACTA has noted for over a decade. It laudably recognizes that “scholars and teachers should begin to reverse the trend toward an ever-more fragmented curriculum” and “create cohesive curricula to ensure basic competencies.” It deplores severe historical illiteracy and acknowledges that democratic decision-making “Is based on shared knowledge of history, civics, and social studies.” It recognizes that our society too often lacks the ability to engage in civil discourse on life’s big questions–questions that a rich liberal arts education addresses. What it fails to do, however, is summon the necessary courage to demand concrete reform.
The Commission gets it right when it calls for a more coherent curriculum and a common conversation. But it doesn’t go far enough. The fact is: Society thrives when there is a common set of understandings–a common conversation–and the deterioration in our public debate can be traced to the deterioration in the academy of a common core of learning and an understanding of the ideals that bind us a nation.
Too many surveys show that students have vast gaps in their knowledge and skills that will leave them ill equipped to succeed in career and community. As a consequence, the academy needs to embrace a deliberate and disciplined core curriculum that will ensure students have a common foundation in subjects such as math, science, writing, literature, American history or government, foreign language and economics. Different institutions will develop different curricula; but it is imperative that school leaders–trustees, administrators and faculty–seriously address what college graduates should know and be able to do.
Frankly, there is nothing wrong with the liberal arts. What’s wrong is the often tendentious, narrow and cafeteria style curriculum that now passes for the humanities and social sciences in most of our colleges and universities. At the University of Pennsylvania, whose president sat on the Commission, the “Cross Cultural Analysis” requirement may be satisfied by a course entitled “Monsters of Japan” whose course description promises to unravel the implications of beasts such as Godzilla and Pikachu. At Bowdoin, students can fulfill their Humanities Division Requirement with “Prostitutes in Modern Western Culture,” “History of Hip-Hop” or “’Bad Women Make Great History: Gender, Identity, and Society in Modern Europe, 1789-1945.” This is surely no foundation.
The report acknowledges that American students are woefully illiterate when it comes to their history and heritage and it calls for “participatory preparation” at the K-12 level. Would that it have called for rigorous surveys of American history and government at every educational level–with exposure to America’s founding documents. Such study builds on and enhances learning throughout the K-16 continuum. ACTA’s survey of more than 1000 colleges and universities, www.whatwilltheylearn.com, found that only 20 percent expect their students to study a broad survey of American history or government. This failure is against a backdrop of distressing historical illiteracy. A recent Roper survey found that more college graduates could identify Lady Gaga than the general at the Battle of Yorktown.
Intermediate foreign language instruction is very important, as the report makes clear. ACTA’s survey of more than 1000 colleges and universities found that a mere 13.7 percent require students to attain intermediate level competency in a foreign language. At the same time, colleges and universities should realize that semester-long study abroad too often amounts to little more than a vacation on university time and parental (and often taxpayer) dollars.
The academy needs to demand rigor and college level work. Studies such as Academically Adrift show that college students are studying far less than ever before, spending a majority of their time sleeping and socializing. The report by professors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa found that 45 percent of students surveyed had little or no cognitive gain in their first two years of college. They read little and wrote little. Remediation should occur at the community college level and institutions should admit only those students prepared for rigorous college level work.
The system of accreditation should be ended. The quality assurance system that Congress embedded in the Higher Education Act has overseen a massive decline in quality in the humanities and social sciences–with skyrocketing costs. The dissolution of a rigorous general education foundation can, to a large degree, be laid at the feet of accreditors who have allowed diffuse distributional requirements to supplant a strong targeted foundation.
Institutions should let consumers know the value of a liberal arts education. Universities should use nationally normed assessments and publicize their findings, showing cognitive gain (or not) of students studying the humanities and social sciences. The economic reality of the 21st century is that the skills, knowledge, and intellectual agility that come from a solid general education are more valuable than ever: the Bureau of Labor Statistics now reports that workers will hold an average of 11 different jobs between the ages of 18 and 46 alone. A significant number of students will find their careers taking them in directions they had not planned, making a focus on a major short sighted.
The one high note in Academically Adrift was the finding that a rich liberal arts education produced the highest cognitive gains–and, in turn, led to success in the workforce. It’s up to our colleges and universities to show that there are true benefits to a strong general education.