Jonathan Marks: “Liberal Education Corrects Our Narrowness”
Jonathan Marks has been an educator for almost a quarter century, and is currently Professor and Chair of Politics and International Relations at Ursinus
“The Fame Monster: The Cultural Politics of Lady Gaga”; “Blame It on the Bossa Nova: The Historical Transnational Phenomenon”; “The Sociology of the Living Dead: Zombie Films”; “Fairytales: Russia and the World.” No, these aren’t the names of the newest hit cable show—these are courses offered at accredited U.S. colleges and universities.
On Wednesday, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) released its newest version of What Will They Learn, a detailed evaluation of colleges based on their core curricula requirements. As opposed to the U.S. News and World Report rankings, you will not find Ivy League colleges in New England among their top ranked. Instead, schools such as Colorado Christian University, Baylor University, and St. John’s College in Maryland landed among the 2 percent of schools on ACTA’s “A list.” By contrast, schools such as Harvard, Yale, and Stanford all received “D” rankings.
While Harvard and Yale are undoubtedly top-notch universities in many senses, What Will They Learn challenges us to look into exactly what we are signing up for when we send our kids to ivy-clad institutions at $40,000-plus per year.
ACTA bases its rankings on the quality of an institution’s core curricula. Schools must require courses in composition, literature, foreign language, U.S. government or history, economics, mathematics, and natural or physical science. All pretty standard, right? Well, the reason Harvard, Yale, and Stanford received “D” rankings is that they require only two of these core subjects for graduation.
Today, too many Americans are graduating college without the quality education in basic subjects they need to make it in the job market. That’s one reason more than half of graduates can’t find full-time work in their field of study. While deciphering the meaning of Lady Gaga’s lyrics may be a fun conversation starter at your next social gathering, it won’t give you good talking points for your next job interview.
More concerning, however, is the broken promise many of these institutions offer their students. For instance, Middlebury College promises its students that its “liberal arts curriculum will challenge you for the rest of your life. Four years of intellectual and personal growth prepare students to meet the challenges of responsible citizenship in a complex, changing world.” However, Middlebury requires none of the subject areas on which ACTA bases its criteria, earning the school an “F.” It is difficult to “meet the challenges of responsible citizenship” without taking a class that reads the Constitution.
If all that isn’t enough, What Will They Learn reveals that the four-year graduation rate among the 1,091 institutions they studied is just 40 percent. ACTA’s report calls for higher education institutions to live up to their promise to consumers and provide a quality education that allows students to graduate in four years with jobs waiting for them when it’s all over. Until then, we’ll have students who are better able to prepare for a Zombie Apocalypse than for a chemistry quiz.
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