Phi Beta Cons

A Rejoinder on Legislative Efforts

Clark Patterson argues that legislative efforts to ensure intellectual diversity may undermine efforts to regain a coherent core curriculum. This is an interesting perspective on the issues of intellectual diversity and academic excellence in the modern academy.
But I think, with all due respect, that it’s also inaccurate. Far from undermining curricular reform, appropriate legislative oversight of the campus environment is fully consistent with restoring academic excellence and structure to college curricula. Here’s why.
Evidence is mounting that, rather than adhere to scholarly standards in the classroom, professors are pushing political agendas in the name of critical thinking. Numerous studies by ACTA and others outline the sorry educational consequences of an academic environment that looks more like indoctrination than education.  
Given increasing evidence of a problem, and the failure of trustees, administrators and faculty to address it voluntarily, it is not surprising that legislators have raised concerns.  And when they came to ACTA for help, we suggested one approach—the idea of requiring a simple annual report. This is the principle underwriting model legislation drafted by ACTA and currently proposed in Missouri and other states. The contents of the reports are entirely up to the institutions—so the bill does not mandate how professors teach, nor does it micromanage the universities. It’s simply an accountability measure, designed to show the public how institutions ensure the open exchange of ideas. It subscribes to Justice Brandeis’ famous philosophy: “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” 
Insisting that our colleges and universities promote a learning environment that exposes students to a variety of political, ideological, religious, and other perspectives, when they are relevant—and that is language in the Missouri measure—goes directly to academic accountability. It underscores the public’s proper interest in seeing that professors perform according to professional scholarly standards. It does not, as Patterson suggests, undermine the development of a core curriculum.
To the contrary, appropriate legislative oversight draws attention to the ways in which faculty interests have been allowed to supersede student needs; the way academic freedom has been interpreted to condone academic irresponsibility; the way the prevalent curricular model of unlimited choice has allowed narrow, trendy and tendentious classes to proliferate—at the expense of coherent requirements that convey the great heritage of human civilization.
Faculties should not be hired to pursue their personal interests and pet projects, but to uphold the academy’s public purpose of ensuring that students receive the well-rounded education our future leaders deserve. By drawing attention to what is happening in the classroom, legislators can help raise public awareness about the sorry state of higher education and register the public interest in something more than the diffuse and often politicized set of courses we now call the college curriculum.


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