College students around the country are returning to school this weekend. What are they going to learn when they get there? Not what they should, according to a recent publication of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, titled “What Will They Learn? A Report on General Education Requirements at 100 of the Nation’s Leading Colleges and Universities.”
That report finds that many of the nation’s most celebrated colleges fail to guarantee that their students will graduate with a solid foundation in the skills and knowledge once considered the essential to higher education.
Very few institutions have followed the lead of Brown University, which allows its students complete freedom to design their undergraduate programs. Most institutions impose some requirements but, the report finds, these too often give the appearance of providing a general education rather than the reality.
For example, one might find at a typical selective college that students are required to take one course in writing, one history course, a course in literature, a natural science course, a course in math or quantitative reasoning and, perhaps, a foreign language.
On its face, that list comes close to what the council’s report deems essential to a general education program: English composition, a literature survey course, a survey course in U.S. history or government, a semester of basic economics, a semester of college-level mathematics, a course in the natural sciences and three semesters of a foreign language.
In practice, however, the report says that too many colleges allow students to satisfy their subject-area requirements with courses that do not really provide the breadth or depth of knowledge in those fields that a true general education requires.
Where a writing requirement exists, it can too often be satisfied by courses that do not focus on the nuts-and-bolts of composition but are, instead, little more than introductory courses in other fields. Where a math requirement exists, it can too often be met by remedial, high-school-level courses or by computer science courses that teach the use of software rather than programming and algorithmic thinking.
Science requirements too often can be disposed of by courses for non-majors carefully scrubbed of all actual science content, lest they be too daunting for non-scientists. Few institutions still require survey courses in history and literature that would expose all their students to a common set of books and ideas. Instead, colleges typically allow students to take any history, literature or social science course—however narrowly focused it may be—to satisfy what is called “area distribution” requirements.
One might defend this practice by arguing that providing more choices is always good. But that argument fails for two reasons.
First, because it misconceives the nature and purpose of education. It is necessarily the task of those who have learned and studied much to help novices distinguish what is truly valuable and important from what is merely flashy and striking. To the extent that colleges substitute student choice for faculty direction, they abdicate that responsibility.
Second, because to defer so much to student choice is to treat higher education as a business like any other and students as customers, whose every taste and desire must be satisfied. Ironically, many colleges full of earnest, left-leaning professors, who would be appalled to think of themselves as running a business and horrified at calling students “customers,” act in precisely that way.
Colleges and universities claim a privileged place for themselves in American society. Concretely, that privilege takes the form of an exemption in many jurisdictions from paying property taxes. The exemption traditionally has been justified because of the public service colleges and universities provide by preparing academically inclined young people for positions of responsibility in American society.
Because we, as a nation, expect leaders to communicate effectively, to understand scientific results as they bear on questions of public policy and to make sense of quantitative information, we have every right to demand that colleges teach these skills, which many institutions now only purport to require.
In a society as vibrant, diverse and mobile as is America today, colleges and universities would do a great service by creating the bonds of an intellectual and moral community by exposing all their students to a set of common books and by teaching the essential principles underlying the American political system.
Unless our colleges and universities stop acting like businesses and start acting again like educators, the higher education “industry” will lose its claim to the special status it has so long enjoyed.
Joseph R. Reisert is associate professor of American Constitutional Law and chairman of the Department of Government at Colby College in Waterville.