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Why higher education is neither.

Why Higher Education is Neither

There must have been 20 of them that first morning. Hand-written, hastily scrawled nots on pink and yellow pages; most folded neatly, nearly all dated with the precise time--each seeking a place on the waiting list for a course in Contemporary Literature. Nothing could have been more heartening to the anxiety-ridden graduate student teaching it than such a sight, distracting her as it did from her feelings of woeful incompetence and lack of training as a teacher.

Some of the notes came adorned with smiling little happy faces; others were peppered with exclamation marks; yet others addressed her formally, deferentially. Their authors were evidently desperate for--were, in fact, living for--a chance to take the course, which incidentally happened to fulfill the second writing requirement at the University of Virginia's School of Arts and Sciences.

Dear Ms. Mundy (thenotes typically ran, though a few presumed a first-name basis right away);

I would like to enroll in your Contemporary Literature course but was not admitted in registration. Please put me on your waiting list. I am thinking about majoring in English, and your course will make or break the decision for me. The reading list looks really interesting. I'll see you in class on Thursday. Thank you. Yours Truly, A. Undergrad 228-91-6855

The graduate student didn't know what to do. Nowhere is it written that if undergraduates didn't get admitted into a course by U.Va.'s computer registration, they should leave the instructor a note and show up in class on the first day; but somehow, mysteriously, some just knew to do it. Heartened to imagine that her course was considered so essential, the graduate student collected the notes and agonized over fair ways to rank them. Pull them from a hat? Number them as they came in?

In the end, half didn't show up at all. At U.Va., it turns out that the prudent student writes 10 desperate notes to 10 different instructors and simply enrolls in the first course that opens. Instead of satisfying the writing requirement with Contemporary Literature, she can knock it off with Physics 383: "Descriptive and Synoptic Meteorology." Or European History 542: "Popular Religion." Or Astronomy 313, "Observational Astronomy." Or--hard to believe as it may be--if those courses are closed the student can try "Seminar in Japanese Buddhism," "The German World After 1918," or "Australian History." In fact, any one of exactly 82 courses will satisfy the writing requirement.

The note-writing and other game-playing that begin the semester at U.Va. and most American universities raise a series of pointed questions to which higher education has no good answers--and which lead us, in fact, to suspect that what passes as higher education quite often is neither. The questions: If this overbooked course is deemed so important that it inspires desperate competition to get in, why is it being taught by a mere graduate student? If the knowledge being conveyed by the course is so fundamental, why are so many students getting shut out? And given the supposedly essential nature of the course, why are students permitted to take any number of scattered, often weak alternatives?

B.U. lets U.B.U.

The answers point to the bane of higher education: a con-job known as distribution requirements. Falsely advertised as a university's way of guaranteeing educational coherence, distribution requirements are in fact no more than a smoke-and-mirrors curricular trick. Listen to the way the U.Va. course book touts its rules: "The requirements for this degree are intended to introduce students to a broad spectrum of knowledge and to develop in them the skills and habits of learning." Such language is grand. Such language is also conveniently vague--just right for reassuring gullible parents that their sons and daughters are mastering the basics of history, literature, art, and science.

What most universities aren't saying is that they couldn't care less what kind of history, art, or science the student tackles. The laxity takes two forms. One is the old-fashioned "gut" course, the class of little substance that promises an easy grade. At Berkeley, the student can meet fully half the natural science requirement with "The Age of Dinosaurs," whose main required reading is a set or prepared class notes sold in the university book store. Students at UCLA last year could meet half of their science requirements with "Geology 150: The History of Los Angeles," once voted one of the country's 10 easiest courses.

The second, and perhaps more pervasive, problem isn't the course's ease but its narrow scope. At Boston University, students can satisfy full half of their humanities requirement with a course on "The New England Poets." It's easy to imagine such a course being rigorous indeed. And worthy--Robert Frost, Robert Lowell, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau are all on the reading list. But by combining New England Poets with another equally narrow course (for instance, "Whitman and Dickinson") the B.U. student can satisfy the entire humanities distribution requirement without ever hearing a symphony, reading a philosopher, or looking at a painting; without, in fact, knowing anything about literature other than that produced by a handful of American poets. Solemn coursebook promises aside, distribution requirements ensure nothing "broad" at all but instead promote the opposite, a here-and-there dabbling as course openings and convenience permit. In the end, even the brightest students have transcripts with more holes in them than an Ollie North alibi.

The cure is the core--the core curriculum, that is--a few carefully designed courses that all students must take and that ground them in the world's great books, events, and ideas. The goal is to cut across the narrow boundaries of academic departments, and lay the foundation for a student's later, more specialized study. While definitions of what to include will of course vary--Milton may be in on one list, out on another--still the result will almost certainly be impressive, and infinitely better than the anything-goes philosophy of the distribution requirement.

At Columbia, for instance, every incoming freshman must take the school's vaunted year-long course in Contemporary Civilization. Its reading list includes Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Adam Smith, J.S. Mill, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, among others. Every student must take Literature Humanities, which includes Homer, Aeschylus, Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, the Bible, Dante, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Goethe, Jane Austen, and Dostoevsky. Similar courses cover the great traditions in art, music, and the natural sciences. Everyone may have their pet omission: Where's Aquinas? The Brontes? But what a striking difference there is between Columbia's promise of broad spectrums and those at U.Va. and B.U. It's not that Columbia students can't go on later to study New England poets; it's that they can't graduate by studying only New England poets.

Yet only a handful of American universities are built upon a true core, while hundreds, ranging from Harvard and Yale down to the average state university, let their students settle for the hit-and-missness of distribution requirements. It's, as a parent paying through the nose to educate your children, this makes you angry--it should. The reasons for it lie in the bureaucratic incentives of the modern university, where power over the curriculum is lodged in academic departments more concerned with their own interests than with those of their students. To the department chair, distribution requirements mean guaranteed students, and guaranteed students mean money and power. If, as a parent who-s bought this academic ruse, this makes you livid--well, it should. It is, finally, a form of contempt toward your kids.

In fact, whether you have kids or not, there's a good chance that you, gentle reader, wasted much of your own college time in similar fashion, mastering the Beats but knowing nothing of Aeschylus or Augustine, Byron or Burke. And if that leaves you feeling pissed at your alma mater--it should.

Harvard's core lite

Fortunately, the absurdities of college curricula have drawn an increasing amount of fire in recent years. Unfortunately, it's almost exclusively card-carrying conservatives who are aiming the gun. William Bennett made curriculum reform a favorite bully pulpit subject during his tenure as education secretary. Allan Bloom's attack, The Closing of the American Mind, earned him a nationwide best seller. So did that of E.D. Hirsch. What's unfortunate is that while the conservtive reformers have diagnosed the ailment correctly--curricula diluta--they've tended to offer a suspiciously narrow cure: a canon composed almost exclusively of Western, and male, influences. Liberals have responded by dismissing the idea of a core altogether--ceding leadership to the Right--rather than working to institute their own core, one that preserves greatness as the standard but doesn't stop at William Bennett's borders.

The struggle over curriculum reform is not new in America but has been going on for more than 100 years; and it's one in which the good guys usually lose. The once-classical core began to fragment with the rise of electives in the 1870s, and with the rise of the Ph.D., which elevated specialization and began parceling universities into autonomous departments. By 1900, Harvard, for instance, had abolished every course requirement on campus, with the one exception of English composition. At Harvard and elsewhere, students were on their own.

The rebellion against this fragmentation began most notably perhaps at Columbia, where, by the 1930s, a Great Books course begun by John Erskine had expanded into the kind of core curriculum that still exists there today. Columbia's good fortune lay in having not only such a comprehensive curriculum but some of the country's best teachers to teach it, people like Lionel Trilling, Mark Van Doren, and Jacques Barzun. the University of Chicago installed a similar regimen, under the leadership of Robert Maynard Hutchins as president; St. John's in Annapolis took the idea to an extreme, devoting its students' entire four years to the study of Great Books.

By the mid-forties, Harvard began taking note of these reforms, and of its own moth-eaten curriculum. The school's subsequent experience, on up to today, is useful to consider, since Harvard so often sets the tone for other universities. In 1945, James Bryant Conant, the university's president, issued a plan much like Columbia-s--a mandatory regimen of basics before moving on to a major and specialization. But the school's faculty rebelled, stalling efforts at reform, then as now.

Put yourself in a professor's shoes and the reasons aren't hard to imagine: By defining some things as "essential," the core would tacitly label others as inessential--and what faculty member wants his life's work thus labeled? What's more, if the core included, say, Shakespeare, it would strip the English department of its exclusive Shakespeare rights--a key way of attracting students into the department. Including Adam Smith would pose the same threat to Econ; Plato to Philosophy, Mozart to Music--they're ours, you can hear the department chairs growl. And what, perhaps, was more threatening still, someone would have to each these ambitious interdisciplinary courses: a laborious endeavor that would take faculty away from their narrow and secure specialities (and, hence, away from the assurance of publishing, the key to career advancement). Cutting Conant off, the faculty beat back the idea of a core and substituted a set of General Education choices instead--in effect, a set of distribution requirements.

The initial damage was limited. Students could choose between "The Social Inheritance of Western Civilization" (emphasizing events) or "Western Thought and Institutions" (emphasizing ideas), but they still wouldn't graduate without knowing the basic foundations of their civilization. While it's true that these offerings were more dominated by Western tradition than they should have been, still they demanded that the student master a broad intellectual framework.

By the 1960s, however, such demands fell into disrepute, and the enthusiasm for "relevance" arose. New academic fashions sprang up everywhere--Afro-American studies, women's studies, folklore and mythology--and each faction demanded that its courses, too, should satisfy the General Education requirement. Harvard's General Education Committee decided, in its words, to "let a thousand flowers bloom," and the pollen soon filled the air. The number of General Education courses exploded from 37 in 1964 to 120 in 1978, and included such basics in any undergraduate's repertoire as "The Making of Australia," "The role of Women in Irish Society," and "The Classical Music of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh." Similar changes took place across the country; Brown went even farther--abolishing all requirements outside the major.

Recognizing the incoherence of its program, Harvard in the mid-seventies again sought to institute a core curriculum. What it got--and what remains--is a program that William Bennett calls Core Lite, a fake core that, in fact, is just another set of distribution requirements. The parents who peruse their daughter's 1989 Introduction to the Core Curriculum will see it grandly touted as "an attempt to say what it means to be broadly educated today. . .an introduction to the requirements for a vigorous life of the mind." Editors at The Harvard Crimson know better. "The Core sure won't give you a coherent picture about Western history, scientific advances, or philosophical thought...." the recently warned students, "you could graduate from Harvard without ever having read Shakespeare, understood Newton, or thought about Plato."

The reasons for the reform's unraveling were familiar: the faculty fought tooth-and-nail against a plan that would require ambitious interdisciplinary teaching; rival departments engaged in pork-barrel politics to ensure that their own favorite offerings were included in the mix. Thus by 1988 the "Core" had bloated out to include 145 courses in 10 different distribution areas.

Gut glut

The problems with this system are familiar. One, there's the gut. Here's how the Crimson editors describe "Thought and Change in the Contemporary Middle East," which satisfies the core's foreign cultures requirement: "[Professor Nur] Yalman greeted the masses with a morsel of his winning wit: 'I know you're all here just because there's no final exam." Most professors recoil at the thought of teaching a course rumored to be an amazing gut. The magic in this case is that Nur wallows in it."

Two, there's the potentially tough, but narrow, offerings that, taken together, comprise not a core but a sliver. A Harvard student can satisfy the three Literature and Arts requirements with the following: "Beast Literature," "Monuments of Japan," and "The Celtic Heroic Age." Ah--so that's what it "means to be broadly educated today"!

Realizing that someone might catch on, Harvard built in an answer: the core seeks to convey not specific material but only "major approaches to knowledge...what kind of knowledge and what forms of inquiry they are used, what their value is"--everything, that is, but the knowledge itself. The high-brow elaboration of this decision goes something like this: alas, in today's rapidly changing society, any body of knowledge is both unfathomably large and subject to becoming quickly outdated; therefore, what's important is to teach people how to think. Sounds profound--but why can't a student's major approaches to knowledge" be honed on Dante as easily as on "Beast Literature"? The blunt explanation: the system of faculty privilege triumphed again.

Such hokum is now the university norm. Boston University promises its distribution requirements will "achieve for the student a functional and creative competence in...each major division of the curriculum." But we've seen how a student can be said to have gained "functional and creative competence" in the humanities by cobbling together "New England Poets" and "Whitman and Dickinson" (that is, if the student passes by "Stalking the Wild Mind," a study of the occult whose readings include tea leaves and tarot cards and that also satisfies the distribution requirement). The social sciences requirement, meanwhile, can be satisfied with the combination of "Comparative Family Systems" and Folksongs and Social History." The midterm for the latter consists of making a tape of folksongs--"not exactly a tough exercise," says one student currently enrolled. The course, designed for 25, ballooned this year to 100.

One excuse frequently made for such a flim-flam system is that while some courses, like "Folksongs," are open to all comers, others, like "New England Poets," are "upper-level" courses that therefore assume prerequisites--other, more central, courses. But the prerequisites themselves are typically unspecified and routinely waived; on most campuses, no one checks. In New England Poets, for example, "The professor assumes the students have taken the background courses," explained the B.U. department secretary. Prerequisites are as flimsy as the distribution requirements themselves.

The University of Texas pledges its requirements will ensure "a meaningful pattern and coherent sequence." But its history requirement can be fulfilled with "Great American Trials" and "Artists in American Society"--a combination that happens to omit such historical incidentals as the fall of Rome, the Middle Ages, the American Revolution, the Civil War, the Russian Revolution, the Chinese Revolution, and the dismantling of the British Empire. The Social Sciences requirement can be met with two of the following three: "Sports and Society"; "Archaeo- and Ethno- Astronomy of the Americas"; and "Gypsy Language and Culture." According to a U.T. dean, fully half of the college's Fine Arts requirement can be met with a course on Persian carpets. That's right. Persian carpets.

"A cop out"

The point, of course, isn't that any of these courses are inherently worthless. Even a course in Persian carpets has the potential to teach a student a great deal not only about carpets but about Middle Eastern history, politics, economics, and religion. In fact, with a great teacher and smart classmates, it's possible to argue that a student could leave the class in Persian carpets with more lasting insights into human spirit and endeavor than those provided by any other course in his entire college career. It's possible, but not likely, since, driven by the pressure to publish, his teacher may be more preoccupied with polishing his latest article than provoking his students, and most of his classmates care considerably less about the Middle East than they do about knocking off that Fine Arts requirement. The bigger point is that it's all fine and good to study Persian carpets; some freedom to dabble can be the most wonderful part of a college education. Some...but only when the student's interest is real.

To gauge the amount of dabbling now going on, consider the following report from the National Endowment for the Humanities: more than 80 percent of college students graduate without a course in American history; almost 80 percent graduate without a course in Western civilization--and 37 percent graduate without any history course at all. About 77 percent graduate without studying a foreign language. And 45 percent leave school without ever taking a course in American or English literature.

Pressed on figures like these, educational administrators will adopt a more apologetic voice than the one employed in the coursebooks. "This cafeteria curriculum of loose distribution requirements doesn't provide a balanced educational diet," says Joseph Horn, the associate dean of the college of liberal arts at the University of Texas. "Students take what they want and not for any of the reasons they should."

"No one thinks the distribution requirement system is a system with great integrity," says Russ Edgerton, president of the American Association of Higher Education. "It's a cop-out in the sense that an institution doesn't have any conviction about what courses are more important than others."

Iago who?

With books like those by Hirsch and Bloom on sale at every mall in America, the message about the woefulness of higher ed may be getting throgh to the general public. But it's not getting through to most members of the liberal elite. This failure not only strengthens the hands of the entrenched faculty interests who will guard departmental privileges to the death but also leaves the idea of a core curriculum in the hands of those conservatives, who, as liberals fear, will fill it with a Western bias.

Taking Jacques Barzun's idea of the goal of a core--"to take the student and show him a mirror of the world"--today's liberals should be working to ensure that the mirror reflects all the world's great traditions. Certainly the mirror of contemporary civilization, these days, would include Islam; in music it would include the African-American tradition of jazz; in art, it would include Chinese painting. Unfortunately, curricular reformers of the left sometimes insist on a pollster approach, that seeks to apportion great books along quotas of gender and ethnicity. While West African sculpture's place in the history of art should be secure, that of, say, pre-18th century women writers in the history of literature isn't. How many, besides Mrs. Aphra Behn, were there? Few, despite recent efforts to find them.

Mastering a great tradition does something else that's important, something that Harvard's "approaches to knowledge" tack doesn't do--it grounds the student in the common vocabulary of his society. The student who passes up Shakespeare for Beast Literature may have a difficult time when he reads a political column describing Richard Darman as George Bush's Iago. In a case like that, a single word can convey a world of understanding.

When even the college deans admit that their curricula stink, an obvious question arises: why doesn't the situation change? The answer begins with the realization that ultimate power over the curriculum rests, finally, with professors--especially tenured ones, who can't be removed. If the average college president wants to add a course to his school's curriculum, about the only way he can do it is by going out and raising the money himself. If you're surprised that this powerlessness isn't better known, don't be; what figurehead administrator will take pains to acknowledge his emasculation?

Even a president as boisterous as B.U.'s John Silber--an insistent backer of a core--has had little effect on his school's curriculum. "The faculty insisted on being the one to build any changes from the ground up," explained Alan Marscher, chairman of B.U.'s academic policy committee. Years of hotblooded hassling ensued. The result? This year, the school is offering a voluntary core for about 150 of its 3,547 entering freshmen. The rest will face the same old system of distribution requirements, in which, Marscher explains, despite an attempted tightening, "courses of marginal educational value continue to arise and attract many, many students."

The second thing to realize is that universities are run with the interests of the staff foremost in mind, not the interests of the students. In their focus in their own needs above and beyond those they purportedly serve, universities are like a great many other modern institutions, including, for instance, the medical establishment and most agencies of government. Or, as core champion Robert Maynard Hutchins once put it, "Every great change in American education has been secured over the dead bodies of countless professors."

The faculty's interest in preserving the perverse status quo stems from two maladies: the system of campus budget allocation, and the primacy of the Ph.d., with its emphasis on specialized research. Universities are fragmented into departments and each faces a dual dilemma: one, its professors need to conduct the highly specialized research that allows them to publish and gain and preserve stature in their field; but, two, the department also needs to attract students to its courses, for without students its funding will wither. That is, while most "teachers" feel acute pressure to polish their latest monograph, they also need to entertain the people who cough up the tuition.

Distribution requirements offer the perfect solution. By demanding that students take some courses in history (or English, or art, and so on), the requirements ensure the departments a steady flow of bodies. But by refusing to delineate what, precisely, the students must study, the requirements don't interfere with the professors' research needs--the professors get the bodies, but the bodies don't get in the way. Departments are free to indulge in courses that either stem from, or lead to, the professor's next publication. Thus are born such fundamentals as U.T.'s study of gypsies, courses in which the professor, in effect, offers the student a trade: I'll give you one distribution requirement in exchange for your indulgence while I prepare my next conference paper. The outsider who questions this cozy arrangement will no doubt be denounced as a Philistine; and if the outsider is a parent, such lofty phrases as "academic freedom" may even accompany the indignation.

Of course, such standards as Intro to Western Civ can still be found in the course catalogs of most major universities. That's not to say that such survey courses will stand between that professor and his conference paper, however. The professor gets a way with one or two lectures a week, while responsibility for such professionally unrewarding experiences as leading seminars and grading papers is usually left to graduate students.

The reign of academic specialization creates one more problem that the supporters of core curricula need to keep in mind: most members of today's faculty simply aren't prepared to teach the kind of sweeping courses required by a genuine core. For professors, especialy the younger ones, are the products of the same inadequate educational system they perpetuate. A few years ago, U.T.'s Dean Horn was in charge of a committee that designed a proposed core. "It sounded great until we realized we didn't have nearly the resources to implement it," he says. "[Professors] have great specialties and little general knowledge. They would resist it because they'd have to prepare and gear up and alter what they normally do--they're just not prepared."

Swapping and trading

About the best thing that can be said about today's curriculum is that it doesn't guarantee that students will graduate uneducated; it just fixes the odds heavily in that direction. Arriving on campus, the average freshmen still has a fighting chance, but he will need two rare qualities. First, at age 18, the student must have the wisdom beyond his years to know that, in the decades to come, his life will be better served by a grounding in the essentials of economics than in U.T.'s "Magic, Witchcraft, and Sorcery," which fulfills the same social studies requirement. And since most 18-year-olds arrive on campus thinking more intensely about members of the opposite sex than about either economics or witchcraft, this quality is somewhat rare.

Second, it isn't enough to have decided, of one's own violation, to pursue basic economics. The wise student must then posses the bureaucratic skills needed to get in. On those rare occasions when a truly talented teacher tackles a broad and worthy subject, the competition for a spot is likely to be severe.

Here, beyond the promises of coursebooks, is the voice of educational reality; in this case, it belongs to sophomore Ruffin Hall, the student government's director of academic affairs at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill:

"Let's say I want a certain course and my friend John wants to drop it," he says. "I go with him to the registration table and get in line. Then when he drops his card--each card represents one space in the class--I'm right behind there to pick it up and I'm in. There's a lot of this kind of swapping and trading and wheeling and dealing that goes on. You do what you've got to do."

Gene Davis, another Carolina student, explains that drop-add week is more stressful than exams, since students who don't get into enough classes can lose their full-time status, and, with it, their financial aid. "In a case like that," he says, "you're forced to just sign up for any course that's open, whether you're interested in it or not."

Now if Ruffin Hall's parents should happen to learn of this system, they are likely t respond in one of two ways. They might (rightfully) be proud of their son's fine promise as a man able to negotiate the world; Ruffin Hall sounds as though he'll never get stuck in a fine French restaurant at a table by the kitchen door. They might also (rightfully) wonder why the hell the faculty advisors who are supposed to serve as curricular counselors don't do something about this madness.

Should Ruffin abandon his Machiavellian gifts and decide, say, to take a Gandhian approach--camp outside the president's office until he shames the department chairmen into creating more spaces--the faculty adviser will clear his throat and sagely advise against such imprudent action. For the next thing you know, someone might be camping outside his office, demanding that he teach more courses too.

Nor will the faculty advisor tend to offer much counsel on bureaucratic manipulation. Facts of life like those mastered by Ruffin get picked up on the street if they get picked up at all. Instead, the average faculty adviser will simply explain that, "If Western Civ is closed this semester, you can still meet your distribution requirement with 19th century Puerto Rican history." That's if you can get to the faculty advisor at all. Most likely, the adviser will post hours as convenient as, say 2:00 to 2:15 on alternate Tuesdays, and will be busily rubber-stamping the cards of the 18 people in line as you try to explain your educational aspirations.

There are always a few students both wise and wily beyond their years, who can master the bureaucratic tricks. But the rest, the great mass of perfectly bright but insufficiently wary students will simply surrender to the system, absurdly imaging that the school has their best interests in mind. And many otherwise bright and promising people leave school with life long handicaps as a result.

Carolyn Kelley, a 1987 graduate of the University of Iowa, explains that, in her roommate's case, the difficulties of negotiating the system not only dictated the course selection but the entire major. Repeatedly shut out from her chosen department, "she kept taking classes in the broadcasting program. After four years, she graduated with a degree in communications and a concentration in broadcasting--She was stuck with a degree in an area she had no interest in." In some cases, having failed to negotiate the distribution maze in four years, the less conniving students will have to stay a fifth--which means, not incidentally, extra tuition for the school.

How concerned about the fate of the student are the nation's great grey eminences, the men and women of letters who command huge campus respect? We asked one prominent professor what he thought of a system that allowed a student to bounce around and graduate with one history course in, say, Great American Trials, and another in 19th-century Puerto Rico. His answer was stripped of all pretense and reflects the contempt the current system embodies: "Any student who's ass enough to make those his only two history courses deserves his fate."

Jason DeParle is an editor of The Washington Monthly. Liza Mundy is a reporter for States News Service. Additional research and reporting for the article provided by John Heilemann.
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Title Annotation:includes related article
Author:Heilemann, John
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Oct 1, 1989
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