Trustees | General Education

As I See It: A need for academic leadership

WORCESTER TELEGRAM   |  April 20, 2016

Harvard President Drew Faust gave a speech at West Point recently underscoring the vital role the humanities play in forming effective leaders. She singled out West Point’s “general liberal arts education” and its ability to graduate leaders with “broad-based knowledge of both the sciences and the humanities, and the ability to apply that knowledge in a fluid and uncertain world.” Quoting from the Iliad, where Achilles’s tutor calls him to be “a speaker of words and a doer of deeds,” she asked the West Point cadets to heed that call and to “lead on behalf of the nation. Lead also on behalf of the liberal arts.”

But what President Faust failed to do is assert leadership herself. Listening to her, one would think that the problem with the liberal arts is politicians who dismiss anthropology or call for more “welders and fewer philosophers,” or short-sighted legislatures that refuse to send more dollars to the wide maw of American higher education.

Yes, the liberal arts are in crisis, but the solution is not more money or fewer conservative politicians. The solution is leadership in American higher ed.

And President Faust — and too many others — are missing in action.

Rather than offering more words and pointing more fingers, it’s time the academy was a doer of deeds. It’s time academic leaders took seriously their obligation to prepare the next generation for leadership. Too many surveys show that students leave college with vast gaps in their knowledge and skills that will leave them ill equipped to succeed in career and community.

It’s time the academy embraced 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, and economics. This is what West Point does when it comes to liberal arts education—and colleges across the country should do the same.

Different institutions will develop different curricula; but what is urgently needed is an end to the often tendentious, narrow, and cafeteria-style curriculum that now passes for the humanities and social sciences in most of our colleges and universities.

Take Harvard, by way of example. Despite the president’s proud claims, students can graduate without ever studying the U.S. Constitution, without ever taking a survey in American history or government, without ever taking an economics course or intermediate-level foreign language.

Meanwhile, student and faculty dissatisfaction in Harvard’s general education has been so great that it led to a revamp last fall and spring. Because the revised program allows students to take up to half of the required courses pass/fail, it would seem to signal, yet again, a lack of commitment to a serious and rigorous general education curriculum.

A survey of more than 1,100 colleges and universities around the country by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni,, has found that only 3% expect their students to study economics, only 13% require intermediate foreign language, and a mere 18% expect their students to take a foundational course on American history or government. We should not then be surprised when our surveys show that large numbers of college graduates cannot identify the term lengths of members of Congress or the Bill of Rights, or when 10% believe that Judith Sheindlin—Judge Judy—sits on the Supreme Court.

Fortunately, some institutions are leading the way. As President Faust duly notes, the military academies offer happy exceptions to this aimless—and costly—sea of curricular choice. Officers at West Point, which receives an “A” in ACTA’s survey, are required to study literature, along with their very demanding roster of STEM courses, unlike students at 64% of the other schools surveyed.

In 2014, Christopher Newport University added new sections of economics in order to provide all of its graduates with a foundation in writing, history, literature, economics, foreign language, math, and science. In announcing the curricular changes, President Paul Trible observed: “Our purpose is to form good citizens and leaders, and that is why we study the liberal arts and sciences and have a rigorous core curriculum. We want our students to lead lives of meaning, consequence and purpose. We call that lives of significance.”

There is a crisis in the liberal arts, but it is self-made. When it comes to curricular reform, it is indeed time that the academy became “both a speaker of words and a doer of deeds.” Institutions with visionary administrators, faculty, and trustees have an opportunity to set a new paradigm focused on creating a coherent and thoughtful curriculum that will produce graduates with the skills and knowledge needed to be leaders.


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

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