Are our colleges and universities open forums for debate and idea testing or institutions of enforced political correctness? The answer is troubling based upon a detailed study last year of America’s top ranked liberal arts colleges by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.
The results of the study are reflected in recent events at Dartmouth, the University of Missouri and the incident at Yale with a student screaming at a dean to resign for defending the apparently shocking concept known as free speech.
Our nation does not have a common denominator of race, ethnicity or religion, but we are united by a constitutional republic that is really quite complicated. We have separation of powers, state governments, local and federal governments, bills of rights and concepts like majority rule while protecting minority rights. These concepts and principles must be taught to each generation or else our union becomes many from one rather than e pluribus unum.
Our top colleges flunk the test of teaching our common core values.
What are students learning?
The council assessed the state of general education at 29 elite liberal arts institutions.
Only five out of 29 schools even have course requirements in literature, and only three require a survey course in either U.S. government or history. Only two schools require that undergraduate students take a college-level course in economics.
To put this in context, a student at Bates College can avoid taking a survey course in U.S. history, but can fulfill his or her “General Education Concentration” with courses such as “History of Alien Abduction” or “Decoding Disney: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Animated Blockbuster.” Students at Colby College can fulfill their “First-Year Writing” requirement by taking a course in “Popular Music Criticism.”
Middlebury College students can meet their “Historical Studies” requirement with “Food in the Middle East: History, culture and Identity” (whose course description asks the all important question, “Who invented baklava?”). At Bowdoin, students can fulfill their “Humanities Division Requirement” with “Prostitutes in Modern Western Culture” or “History of Hip Hop.”
The decline of interest and support for the humanities and social sciences is dangerous given their crucial role in democratic decision making.
Some of the most prestigious liberal arts colleges even boast that they set no general education or liberal arts requirements at all for their students: Smith College asserts that “education can never be defined by a listing of subjects or skills,” while Amherst College insists that students appreciate “being supported in their choices … .”
In summary, the elite liberal arts colleges are not guaranteeing the kind of liberal education that prepares graduates for informed participation in representative government and the challenges of a dynamic, global economy.
A traditional liberal arts education provides the ability to think critically about the world. The “anything goes model of general education offered by many of today’s top liberal arts colleges is a lazy and cynical substitute,” says the council report.
Do schools promote a free exchange of ideas?
The University of Richmond’s student handbook prohibits “disruption,” a category so Putinesque that it makes anything the school deems “disorderly conduct” or “inappropriate behavior or expression” subject to disciplinary action. Wesleyan University prohibits “actions that may be harmful to the health or emotional stability of the individual or that degrade the individual or infringe on his/her personal dignity.” That prohibition is so broad it can silence discussion on any controversial issue about which even one person may take offense.
Middlebury College’s General Conduct policy is distressingly vague: subjecting “flagrant disrespect for persons” to disciplinary action. Macalester College’s student handbook warns that individuals “will be held accountable for postings that are not respectful of Macalester College community standards,” (whatever those are).
Vassar College refuses to foster free speech, stating clearly in its faculty and student handbooks that it values “civility” over a commitment to free speech:
Under the rule of civility, individuals within the community are expected to behave reasonably, use speech responsibly and respect the rights of others. Genuine freedom of mind is not possible in the absence of civility. Wow!
What is the cure?
The council recommends that we restore the liberal arts core curriculum. Do not assume students arrive at college with a common foundation of core skills and knowledge about our government or our civil liberties.
Recent results of a Department of Education National Assessment of Educational Progress survey suggest how significant the challenge is based on ignorance before college. Today, just 20 percent of fourth-graders, 17 percent of eighth-graders and 12 percent of 12th-graders are at grade level proficiency in American history.
Liberal arts colleges need to embrace a deliberate and disciplined curriculum that will ensure students have a common foundation in essential skills and knowledge including U.S. history and our economic system. “Different institutions will develop different curricula, but it is imperative that school leaders — trustees, administrators and faculty — thoughtfully determine what college graduates should know and be able to do.”
Second, eliminate restrictions on the free exchange of ideas, such as speech codes and limitation of controversial topics to only specific “free speech zones” like London’s Hyde Park.
Third, require, as future leaders in a democracy, at least a survey course in U.S. government and history with enough chronological and topical breadth to expose students to the sweep of our history and institutions. Narrow, niche courses like the history of jazz should not count for the requirement.
These and other steps are needed if our carefully balanced and nuanced government is to be understood — and last for the difficult centuries ahead. Without it a man on a white horse will someday prevail.