Phi Beta Cons

A Gutted Report

Last week, I argued that the single most important thing the Education Department’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education could do was insist on the importance of nationwide curricular reform. America’s colleges and universities desperately need to restore a solid, substantive core curriculum to replace the “hollow core” that currently dominates undergraduate programs across the country. I urged the report’s authors to spell out for governors and the trustees they appoint the signal importance of general education to our democracy’s future.
Now the Commission has released its
second draft — and what a disappointment it is. Gone is the hardhitting, honest language of the early draft, removed to appease those who found it offensive. Gone, too, is the first draft’s attention to curricular issues. Instead, what we find is a studiously process-oriented report centered on how to make colleges and universities more accessible, more affordable, and more accountable. Lots of space is devoted to how to ensure that more people get to college, and that more of those who get there graduate with degrees. But very little space is devoted to discussing what constitutes a college education, and what space is devoted to this topic concentrates on urging pedagogical innovation (chiefly by incorporating technology into teaching), and on promoting science and math education. As such the report begs the very questions the Commission was originally charged with answering.
The disappearance of curricular issues from the Commission’s report is to my mind the single most disturbing thing about it. ACTA’s study,
The Hollow Core: Failure of the General Education Curriculum, informed the first draft of the report (see page 14). Its influence is missing from the second draft. Let me spell out what the first draft recognized–and what the second draft erases.
The “hollow core” curriculum–which caters to research-oriented faculty by de-emphasizing teaching, disserves students by asking them to believe that picking and choosing courses from a vast and trendy array of overspecialized classes constitutes education, and encourages rampant grade inflation–accounts in large part for both the abysmal showings of American students on literacy, numeracy, and reasoning assessment tests. It also accounts for their appalling lack of civic and historical knowledge. As ACTA notes in Losing America’s Memory: Historical Literacy in the 21st Century, 81% of seniors from the top 55 U.S. colleges and universities can’t pass a high school level history exam; worse, none of the institutions surveyed required a course in American history, and three-quarters required no history at all. Students can today fulfill distribution requirements in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences without actually mastering much of anything. General knowledge in traditional subjects is devalued and electives incivics often take a back seat to diversity-oriented course requirements that focus on the holy trinity of the multicultural university: race, class, and gender.
The report stresses the need to ensure that students graduate with the skills they need to function in an increasingly competitive global economy–but fails to address the fact that students don’t graduate with those skills because the undergraduate curriculum is not designed to ensure that they acquire them. The report also fails to note that today’s truly educated American needs more than skills–he or she also needs a strong grasp of what democracy is, what citizenship means, and why they matter.
In the absence of a strong mandate to revamp the curriculum, colleges and universities are hardly likely to do so. The authors of the report must connect the dots for governors, trustees, administrators, and other higher education officials. If they don’t, no one will. And if that happens, the Commission will have wasted an opportunity to reclaim higher education that is not likely to come along again.

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