March 25, 1996 | Commentary on Education
It could be because in the headlong pursuit of top-rated sports teams, expensive, over-specialized research facilities, and -- let's be frank -- money, America's most prestigious colleges and universities have forgotten their basic task: to teach students something about history, literature, mathematics, the natural sciences, foreign language, philosophy and English.
The reason most "Generation Xers" don't come away from college with such a "bottom-line" education is simple: It's no longer required of them.
I don't make this accusation lightly. According to a study just released by the National Association of Scholars (NAS), America's leading schools of "higher" education have eliminated most of the core academic requirements once considered essential to a liberal-arts education. At the 50 colleges and universities identified by U.S. News & World Report as "America's best," the commitment to a structured general education "has largely vanished" over the past 30 years.
In short, there has been "a purging from the curriculum of many of the required basic survey courses that used to familiarize students with the historical, cultural, political and scientific foundations of their society," the NAS study shows.
Of course, the study merely quantifies what many of us have been observing about American education for decades: U.S. educators have forgotten what education is all about. According to NAS President Stephen Balch, America is "in danger of losing the common frame of cultural reference that for many generations has sustained our liberal, democratic society."
According to the NAS study, the number of top schools that require what we used to call "freshman English" has dropped to just over one-third. Only 12 percent still require math; only 34 percent require students to study science; only 2 percent require the study of history; only 4 percent have required courses in philosophy; and not a single one of the top schools requires students to study great literature.
Even the school year has been shortened, from an average of 191 days in 1964 to only 156 classroom days in 1993.
"To a considerable extent, the structured curriculum was dashed to pieces during the late 1960s and early 1970s when the rage in higher education was a radical libertarianism based on notions of `relevance' and the assumption that a special insight belonged to youth," the NAS study states. As a result, colleges and universities today "can no longer guarantee that students acquire a basic knowledge of their civilization and its heritage."
The product of all this, in the words of my late friend, philosopher Russell Kirk, is "lax institutions at which every lad and lass can succeed, because all standards for entrance or graduation have been swept away." We end up with students "able to ascertain the price of everything -- but the value of nothing."
That's what you get, dear parent, for $10,000 to $25,000 per year and rising, when you send your son or daughter to America's most prestigious colleges and universities.
If I were you, before I spent that kind of money, I'd get my hands on the NAS study, send it to the president of the college or university your child has chosen, and demand a response.