February 22, 2014

PETER BERKOWITZ: How to Improve Our Colleges and Universities.

Liberal education is in decline. And professors and administrators at our best liberal arts colleges are hastening its demise.

Much has been written about liberal education’s skyrocketing costs, its failure to provide students with the knowledge and intellectual skills they need to succeed in a competitive globalized economy, and its burdening of students with massive debt. But these big problems are only part of the story. . . .

Given several recent studies, there is reason to believe America is being short-changed by its colleges and universities.

Last year the National Association of Scholars published “What Does Bowdoin Teach? How a Contemporary Liberal Arts College Shapes Students”; Harvard University issued “The Teaching of the Arts and Humanities at Harvard College: Mapping the Future”; and, acting on a request from Congress, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences produced “The Heart of the Matter.”

Together they paint a disquieting picture of general curricula without focus or form; humanities disciplines suffering plunging enrollments; a self-perpetuating left-liberal campus orthodoxy entrenched by courses offered and not offered, visiting speakers chosen and not chosen, and written and unwritten speech codes; along with disciplinary procedures that treat due process as a crude impediment to justice.

Gathering and synthesizing pertinent data from publicly available sources including academic catalogues, institutional websites, and media accounts, a cogent new report from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, “Education or Reputation: A Look at America’s Top-Ranked Liberal Arts Colleges,” confirms the dire findings. The report focuses on the “Top 25” small residential liberal arts colleges as determined by U.S. News & World Report (several ties brought the total number of colleges counted in the Top 25 to 29).

Our top-ranked liberal arts colleges have eviscerated the core curriculum. Of the Top 25, ACTA reports, “only two require an economics course. Only three require a survey in U.S. history. Only five require a survey course in literature.” Amherst College, Grinnell College, Hamilton College, Middlebury College, and Vassar College have open curricula with no requirements. Bates College, Bowdoin College, Haverford College, Oberlin College, Smith College, Swarthmore College, Wesleyan University, and Williams College do not require undergraduates to study literature, American history, the principles of American politics, or economics.

Our top-ranked liberal arts colleges, while aggressively promoting multiculturism, have incongruously demoted language study. The majority of them do not require students to achieve even intermediate-level proficiency—the equivalent of three college semesters of study—in a foreign language.

Our top-ranked liberal arts colleges have discouraged the free exchange of ideas and free inquiry. According to a study by the redoubtable Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, incorporated by ACTA into its report, all of the top liberal arts colleges seriously impair freedom of speech.

It’s like they’re more about fleecing and indoctrinating students than about educating them.