ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

Back to Basics

September 6, 2005 by ACTA

In 2004, ACTA released a report on the disingenuousness of American higher education's claims to provide a strong, broad educational grounding for all students. Entitled The Hollow Core: The Failure of the General Education Curriculum, the report demonstrated how the vast majority of colleges and universities had abandoned any real commitment to ensuring that students receive a liberal arts education, showing instead how schools have adopted a "smorgasboard approach" that substitutes a glut of disconnected choices for a focussed concentration on a precisely defined set of core requirements. What most schools offered, in practice, was a lot of lip service to the idea of a liberal education, and not a lot more: no real direction, no real emphasis on what knowledge is essential, no real effort to ensure that crucial skills are acquired.

Jay Mathews' current piece in the Washington Post suggests that at some schools, anyway, the core may be making a comeback--and that students are very happy that this is so. At Pennsylvania's Ursinus College, all freshmen take a course called Common Intellectual Experience that exposes them to essential works by such writers as Plato, Montaigne, Locke, and Nietzsche. The response to the requirement, which was instituted six years ago, has been enormously positive. It has created a more intellectual atmosphere on campus (where students have been known to choose Nietzsche over TV), and it has taught young adults how important it is--as citizens of a democracy, and, more basically, as human beings--to study the history of ideas.

Only about 65 colleges in the country require freshmen to take the same core course or courses, among them Reed College, Columbia University, Colgate, and George Washington. More often, schools let freshmen choose from a wide range of "freshman seminars" that cater to whatever special interest or curiosity a given student may have, but that do nothing to create a common intellectual culture or to provide a shared basis for thoughtful discussion. At Northwestern, for example, freshmen can choose among seminars on the cop show Law & Order, the anthropology of food, the search for extraterrestrial life, the history and economics of coffee, earthquakes, and more. All sound very interesting; none sounds like it offers anything in the way of a solid, educational core.

Mathews spoke to ACTA president Anne Neal about these courses:

Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, said one reason why most colleges do not have a common course for freshmen is because "it's much easier not to." The number of courses at all schools has grown rapidly, each with its advocates.

Faculty commitment to research also plays a role. "Professor Jones is researching Tibet, so he wants to teach a course on Tibet," Neal said. "But the reality is that faculty are there to teach students, and the question is, what do our students know when they graduate? Have they received a coherent and rigorous education, or have we simply given them a patchwork of classes and a curriculum where everything goes?"

Neal points to one of the great ironies of today's "student-centered" college curriculum: Under the guise of offering students choice, colleges and universities are in fact enabling faculty to abdicate responsibility for ensuring that they provide a meaningful and coherent education for undergraduates. The "smorgasbord" approach may look good to students, but those who really benefit are the teachers who never have to stretch beyond their own immediate interests.

The Post has partnered with Technorati to track blogs that are talking about its articles. There are some glitches yet--not all the links work--but the list is worth watching all the same to see what kinds of responses Mathews' timely piece provokes.


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ACTA's take on:

News Roundup

Opinion: Great Books for a Brainwashing

The Wall Street Journal, Andy Kessler 

Has College Gotten Too Easy?

The Atlantic, Joe Pinkser 

The Consequences of the Government Shutdown for Higher Ed

Chronicle of Higher Education, Lindsay Ellis and Lily Jackson 

College Bloat Meets ‘The Blade’

Wall Street Journal, Tunku Varadarajan

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