Students & Parents | General Education

The Terrible Erosion of the College Curriculum

FORBES   |  November 7, 2013 by George Leef

At one time, it was common for colleges and universities to have a core curriculum for all students—courses that were thought to provide the foundation of a well-rounded education.

For decades, however, we have been sliding away from such curricula. At a great majority of schools, the core curriculum long ago gave way to a “distribution requirements” system under which students satisfy their general education requirements by choosing a course or two from several broad categories such as mathematics and social sciences.

In their promotional materials, colleges usually pay lip service to the ideal of an education that is both broad and deep, leaving students with a strong foundation for life. The trouble is that at many schools, the curriculum has become so unwieldy that it is possible for students to graduate without ever taking any of the courses that we would formerly have regarded as pillars of a college education.

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) has been studying the general education requirements at numerous colleges and universities for years and its What Will They Learn? report reveals that very few have curricular requirements that come close to ensuring that their students receive a solid general education.

In ACTA’s analysis, colleges ought to cover these seven areas in their general education requirements: [U.S. history or government], English composition, literature, foreign language, economics, college-level mathematics, and natural or physical science. Schools whose core or general education requirements included six or seven receive A grades; those that covered four or five received a B; those covering only three received a C; those covering only two received a D; and those covering one or none of those subjects received an F.

The results: Just 2 percent of the schools studied merited an A, 36 percent a B, 31 percent a C, 23 percent a D, and 8 percent an F.

ACTA’s report correctly observes, “In their course catalogs and mission statements, colleges frequently extol the virtues of broad-based ‘well-rounded’ liberal arts education. However, these worthy sentiments often do not translate into worthy general education requirements.”

It’s bad enough that so many colleges and universities are content to let students graduate with gaping holes in their knowledge, but even where a school has an apparently good core requirement, students can often fulfill that requirement with a course that is so narrow or trendy that it mocks the idea of “general” education.

A recent study published by the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy (where I serve as director of research) exposes that problem. That study, General Education at UNC-Chapel Hill observes that “general education can be the most valuable part of a student’s college education, It emphasizes skills, knowledge, and reasoning that are applicable to all careers.” While UNC-Chapel Hill actually appears to be better than average in the ACTA grading scheme (receiving a B), upon closer inspection, its general education curriculum is badly undermined by the fact that students may choose from a huge “smorgasbord” of courses to fulfill their requirements. Many of those courses are hardly the building blocks of a solid core education.

Here are just a very few of the dubious courses that fulfill general education requirements at Chapel Hill: The Stage Musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Food in American Culture, The History of Hip-Hop Culture, Sex and Gender in Society, Guerrillas and Revolution in 20th Century Latin America. Maybe those are worthwhile courses (or maybe not), but they shouldn’t satisfy a student’s core requirements.

How has this come to pass?

Many tenured college professors enjoy teaching courses in their special fields of interest. It’s a nice way to get paid for talking about their intellectual hobbies. And often they manage to persuade their superiors to designate those courses as fulfilling general education requirements, thereby increasing the number of students who will sign up. The profusion of courses that count for general education at colleges and universities (UNC-Chapel Hill has a lot of company in this regard), is evidence of one of the serious problems in higher education, namely that administrators tend to let the faculty rule the roost.

As a result of the widespread weakness of college curricula, many young Americans graduate from college with pathetically weak understanding of our history, governmental institutions, and our economy. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s Civic Literacy Program has put a spotlight on that problem. ISI developed a sixty-question multiple choice exam covering basic knowledge students have in those areas. The exam was given to large numbers of freshmen and to seniors and the results were disquieting. Most of the freshmen failed the exam, but so did most of the seniors.

That is, many students coasted through college with scant improvement of their knowledge in those key areas. Moreover, many of the schools that were the worst with respect to gains by their students on ISI’s exam happen to be regarded as “elite” institutions—Yale and Duke for example. Conversely, some small and little-known schools where there is still something resembling a good general education program showed strong gains for their students.

One more facet of the curriculum problem is that even where a school has what looks like a strong core, some of the particular courses that comprise it may be taught in a way that greatly lowers or even negates its educational value. For example, a course labeled as American History might be turned into an extended exercise in proselytizing for a Marxian view of our history. Students learn few facts, but a great many opinions masquerading as facts.

I am not saying that students cannot get a solid education in college. What I am saying is that, at many schools, the student who wants one will have to look hard to find the courses that give them such an education. Otherwise, they’re apt to spend (and borrow) a lot of money and devote years of their lives to getting a degree that signifies nothing but persistence in piling up credits.


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