During a dedication at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., President Harry Truman issued a prophetic warning. If future generations of Americans failed to fully understand the content and fundamental principles of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, these documents “would be no better than mummies in their glass cases,” mere “idols whose worship would be a grim mockery of the true faith.”
Truman’s emphasis on the importance of an educated populace is unmistakable. Still, one organization says that many American colleges and universities haven’t gotten the message.
According to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), fewer than 15% of the 173 institutions it surveyed require their students to take an introductory course in American history or government. It’s just one of many educational shortfalls that the Washington, D.C.-based watchdog has highlighted through its What Will They Learn? initiative.
“What Will They Learn?” started as a national initiative about a year ago to make sure that universities deliver on their promise to educate students,” says David Azerrad, a senior research with ACTA. “This means having a sound core curriculum and rigorous general education requirements. It’s not a comprehensive assessment of everything students learn. We ask a very precise question. What schools have curriculums that cover the basics?”
Under the initiative’s ranking criterion are seven subject areas: composition, literature, foreign language, U.S. government or history, economics, mathematics, and natural or physical science. Each institution receives a letter grade based on how many of these subjects it requires students to take.
Six or all seven gets an A; four or five, a B; three, a C; two, a D; and one or none, an F. It appears straightforward enough, yet Azerrad admits that the initiative’s grading system mystifies some—especially with SAT scores, selectivity measures, and name recognition driving highly popular college guides like that from U.S. News & World Report.
“Occasionally, there are people who can’t get past the fact that we gave Harvard a D and the University of Arkansas an A,” he says. “We’re putting education before reputation. When a university preaches the importance of a full and well-rounded education, basic literacy and mathematical skills included, we want them to honor it.”
And with good reason, too. Findings from studies over the last ten years paint a dismal portrait of deficiency and ill preparedness.
In 2003, the U.S. Department of Education’s National Assessment of Adult Literacy found that 31% of college graduates could read and understand a complex book. In 2006, a study by the Society for Human Resource Management reported that less than a quarter of employers thought graduates of four-year colleges were “excellently prepared” for entry-level positions.
Azerrad believes this is due in large part to the watered-down core curriculums endemic in American higher education. The problem, he observes, isn’t so much whether a school has general education requirements, but rather the courses that fulfill them.
“A lot of universities have core requirements that students can satisfy through classes that bear little relation to the subject itself,” Azerrad says. “For instance, the University of Massachusetts, Amherst has a course called ‘Problem Solving with the Internet,’ which fulfills an analytical reasoning (math) requirement, and Cornell University, a class built around martial arts films that meets a literature requirement.”
The old standards that for years worked so well—Shakespeare, Byron, Plato, and Descartes—it seems have lost some of their grip over course catalogues thick with flashy or just plain different topics. Azerrad effortlessly rattles off additional examples like a humanities class on the history of electronic dance music and an American culture course based on a Japanese drum.
The result, he asserts, is that students pay a lot of money for a thin and patchy education. To date, only eight of the 173 institutions assessed under the What Will They Learn? initiative have made the A list—a disparity that Azerrad blames squarely on those running the schools.
“As Aristotle said, the person who knows guides the person who knows less,” Azerrad remarks. “The professors and university administrators have a duty to guarantee that students receive the basic skills they need to become productive, well-rounded members of society. Our goal is to make sure that this happens.”