What would Thomas Jefferson say if he looked at the curriculum of most American colleges and universities, including the University of Virginia, which he founded, and William & Mary, his alma mater? Actually, we know what he did say in 1818 about the things all students at the university must master. He said it is the duty of higher education “to expound the principles and structure of government.” He also specified political economy, mathematics, physical science and more.
Today, neither the University of Virginia nor William & Mary requires students to take a single class on the institutions of government that Jefferson worked to create, nor do they require economics. In that, they are, sad to say, much like the overwhelming majority of colleges and universities around the nation.
A survey of core requirements at more than 1,100 American colleges and universities recently published by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) reveals that little more than 18 percent of them require a foundational course in American history or American government. And in the shadow of America’s Great Recession, only 3.3 percent of our colleges and universities require economics.
ACTA’s recent survey of the civic knowledge of college graduates revealed the consequences of these lax requirements: One-third of college grads could not identify — in a multiple choice survey — the Bill of Rights as a group of constitutional amendments; nearly half couldn’t choose the correct term lengths for members of Congress; and 10 percent chose Judith Sheindlin, best known as Judge Judy, as a member of the U.S. Supreme Court.
And it isn’t only history, government and economics that are absent from the requirements that could reasonably be expected of anyone who aspires to a college diploma. Virtually every college is committed to diversity and multiculturalism, but less than 13 percent require their students to do the serious work of multiculturalism and acquire at least intermediate-level skill in a foreign language. They reduce multiculturalism to a cliché at a time when Americans most urgently need to think globally.
And as American employers call for more graduates with proficiency in the science, technology engineering and math (STEM) disciplines, more than 40 percent of our colleges and universities do not require a college-level math course.
ACTA’s survey focuses on seven indispensable areas of collegiate study: expository writing, literature, intermediate-level foreign language, American history or government, economics, mathematics and natural science.
The shocking result of its large survey is that, all told, nearly two-thirds of the nation’s institutions of higher education require three or fewer of these essential subjects. More than 100 schools, some of them elite and expensive, require only one core subject, or in some instances, none at all, boasting of the freedom of their programs.
Instead of the core of foundational courses that equip all graduates to face the challenges of a competitive, ever-changing job market and the obligations of informed citizenship, we find a menu of choices, sometimes numbering into the thousands of courses. A student might choose such classes as “Horror Films and American Culture” (University of Colorado–Boulder), “Vampires: History of the Undead” (Richard Stockton College), “History of Electronic Dance Music” (Bates College) or “Rock Music and American Masculinities,” (Hobart and William Smith Colleges).
The nation pays a dear price in productivity for lax curricular standards. A 2014 Gallup survey of business leaders showed only 11 percent strongly agreed that college graduates are equipped to succeed in the workplace. Shockingly, America spends more per pupil in four-year colleges than any other developed nation, in fact, nearly twice the average of other nations.
Students, parents and policymakers need to demand more from the schools they so generously support. Boards of trustees need to hear the mandate to set academic policies that ensure that a college diploma signifies a graduate ready for career, community and citizenship.