ACTA in the News | Core Curriculum

Americans are very well-schooled. Well-educated is another matter

THE HILL   |  November 9, 2023 by David Masci

According to a recent Wall Street Journal/University of Chicago survey, 56 percent of Americans now think college is not worth the cost — up from 40 percent 10 years ago. This shift in attitudes is often correctly chalked up to factors like rising tuition and student debt, dwindling career opportunities for many graduates and unpopular or woke campus politics.

But many people also seem to implicitly or explicitly understand that higher education is not always delivering on its core mission of, well … higher education. Put another way, we are seeing a growing realization that while people who graduate from even the best universities might be well-schooled, many are not well-educated. And this could have dire implications, not just for individual students, but for the entire country.

A few decades ago, I began to notice that many of the recently minted college graduates I was working with had surprisingly wide gaps in essential cultural and historical knowledge. Casual conversations revealed no idea who Dante was, what William the Conqueror conquered or what happened at the Appomattox Courthouse, to cite just a few real examples. What made these revelations so surprising and even paradoxical was that these folks were generally very smart and had attended some of America’s best universities. I have encountered this phenomenon so often since then that I’m no longer surprised when it occurs.

This is troubling on a number of levels, starting with the well-worn but valid notion that good citizenship and by extension democratic self-government hinge upon our population having an understanding of our common culture and history and the governing institutions that grew out of them. As Winston Churchill said, “A nation that forgets its past has no future.”

But most of us no longer know much about our past. Even though more Americans are going to college than ever before, another recent survey showed that only 1 in 3 adults in the U.S. would pass a basic citizenship test. And as we’ve seen in recent weeks on campuses around the country, a knowledge vacuum can easily be filled with dangerous ideas.

More importantly, millions of students are being denied what is quite possibly the greatest gift our society can bestow upon them: an education that opens the door to the life of the mind — one of continued and enriching learning, productive self-examination and curiosity about our world. Of course, building such a life requires more than knowledge. Developing critical thinking skills and a love of learning are also important. But without a solid foundation of real historical, scientific and cultural knowledge, such a life is simply not possible.

That’s because context is vitally important to good thinking. You may be excellent at connecting dots, but that won’t help you if there are few dots to connect. And you can’t outsource this; Google is not a substitute for real erudition.

Of course, the higher education establishment is not entirely to blame for our ignorance pandemic. Primary and secondary schools are also failing students in this regard. But, in the past, college was where many people began building and deploying the intellectual capital that would carry them for the rest of their lives.

While I had a mother who encouraged me to read and a number of excellent high school teachers, it was at university that I discovered the late quartets of Beethoven, the frescoes of Masaccio, “Citizen Kane” and the novels of Dostoyevsky. University was where I first read the Federalist Papers, the dialogues of Plato and the great historians, from Thucydides to Liddel Hart. 

Perhaps most importantly, it was at college that these and countless other touchstones of learning began to shift from individual points of light into constellations of understanding.

That was 40 years ago, when it was still common for students (particularly in the liberal arts) to spend much if not most of their first two years on campus working their way through a required core curriculum that focused on ensuring graduates were exposed to the great ideas, the great art and the great story of our country and the civilization upon which it is based. But even then, some colleges, particularly elite institutions, were already dismantling these essential core requirements. Today, according to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, most colleges don’t require students to take any history or literature courses. That needs to change.

The higher education establishment has to once again provide students with a grounding in history and the arts and sciences. That means restoring a rigorous liberal arts curriculum and requiring all who graduate to complete it. 

As one professor told me long ago, “My job is to instill in you love of learning and provide you with a scaffolding of knowledge to help you get started.” That should be every college’s creed and mission.

This piece appeared on The Hill on November, 8, 2023.


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