A Crisis of Competence: Update, Comment, and Criticism

Steve Balch

The report of the California Association of Scholars, A Crisis of Competence, released in early April, has garnered much media attention and generated an unusual amount of discussion. I couldn’t be more delighted that longstanding issues of politicization, so habitual to the system that most observers just shrug them off, are again out in the open and the subject of vigorous debate. That’s a real step toward reform.

With more than a month of that debate behind us, here are my own reflections on some of the comments and criticisms the report has generated. Although eighty-one pages in length, it could only treat in abbreviated fashion the massive problems it highlighted. The brief space of this essay precludes heavily detailed comment on all responses to the report, but there are several lines of critical comment worth additional discussion, along with a few small errors and points for clarification that readers have brought forward.

The editorial that appeared in the Los Angeles Times on April 7th constitutes the most conspicuous thrust aimed at the report thus far. It acknowledges that the report turned up some troubling instances of “poor pedagogy” but finds most of it to be anecdotage that fails to make a case for genuine crisis or for Regent involvement in reestablishing standards. One point specifically addressed in the editorial which is not anecdotage by any measure is the marked political imbalance in the UC faculty, which the Times concedes is “eye-opening” but then dismisses because the figures “don’t prove” that professors are “pressing their politics on their students.” Actually the report cites figures showing that nearly a majority of students encounter professors who inject their political opinions into the classroom. These are, as it duly notes, country-wide data, but there’s no reason to think the UC system departs substantially from the national pattern.

Jonathan Haidt, a UVA social psychologist whose new book The Righteous Mind is attracting wide attention, makes an interesting point about how people, including the well educated, often set the bar overly high in evaluating evidence that disconfirms cherished views, and overly low for that which confirm them. We’re all tempted by this psychological snare, and I fear that in this case the Times editors have stumbled into it. Imagine if they had been confronted by comparable figures on gender or ethnic imbalance. Would they have been similarly dismissive? At a great university philosophic imbalance of the kind at UC has to be considered a serious problem, whether or not professors “press their views.” As the report eloquently argues, there is no substitute for hearing many sides of a contested issue discussed by experts of differing perspectives. That’s now lacking at UC, and it’s frustrating that the Times editors can’t understand the problem’s importance.

They also overlook the significance of what they see as isolated instances of politicization. The crucial matter, however, isn’t the report’s detection of these, but the failure of those in charge to correct them – another point on which the report expands powerfully. Lack of correction means that faculty oversight bodies and academic administrators either find little wrong with such abuses, are afraid of a backlash a response might provoke, or are asleep at the switch. Any of these represent the existence of deep and pervading institutional malfunctions. 

And this problem is even more serious when political commitments seep into the mission statements of entire programs. The report describes quite a few cases of this in social work, sociology, law, and women’s studies. It could have easily presented more.

Take, for example, the current welcoming statement to new students provided by the UCLA social welfare department’s chairman, Fernando Torres-Gil, not cited in the report. As posted it reads in part:

The mission of the program is to train the next generation of practitioners and leaders in the field, to lead in the development of knowledge for the social work profession and to strengthen social institutions and services in Los Angeles and beyond. Although graduates of the program serve all segments of society, the Department is especially committed to enhancing human wellbeing and promoting social and economic justice for disadvantaged populations.

Other UCLA entities make similar claims. For instance, the description of the Luskin School of Public Affairs, in which the social welfare department is contained, states that the school, as a whole, “is committed to incorporating social justice in its teaching, research and service.” “Social justice” is not a neutral bromide; it’s a term with strong progressive ideological connotations appropriate for political or even scholarly debate, but not as a goal built into the definition of an academic program.   

The report observes that the mission statement of Berkeley’s “social work department” includes a statement that students must be committed to “advancing social justice.”  This language first came to broad public attention through the NAS’s 2007 report The Scandal of Social Work Education. The section of the mission statement of the Berkeley social work MSW program dealing with professional values and concerns were therein quoted, in part, as involving, “advancing social justice; respecting cultural diversity; promoting equitable opportunity and social and economic welfare for all, especially the disadvantaged and underserved” (page 32, Appendix A). 

Sometime between the 2009-2010 and 2011-2012 academic years, this mission statement was replaced (due perhaps to the NAS report?) by another which deleted the original “social justice” reference. But did this revision actually eliminate the inappropriate ideological commitment? Not at all. It merely put it in less plain sight. The language remains present and prominent in the program’s student handbook, which declares, “Students enrolled in Berkeley’s MSW program are required to demonstrate their suitability for the profession and their commitment to the profession’s core values of service, social justice, honesty, and competence.”

A somewhat happier update is also in order. Based on the data assembled by ACTA for the 2010-2011 academic year (What Will They Learn?), the report cited four campuses, including Berkeley, as having no mandated coursework in science, mathematics, literature, a foreign language, economics and history/government. Since that academic year two of them, Irvine, and Santa Cruz, have added a mathematics requirement, and a third, Santa Barbara, has added a literature requirement as well as offering a choice between math and science courses. On the other hand, Davis and Riverside have dropped their foreign language requirements, the last joining Berkeley in the “no requirement category.” Three-and-a-half gains, as against two losses, are a net plus, albeit a very small one. It should be emphasized, however, that eight institutions still lack a requirement in literature, eight in foreign language, nine in government/history, nine in economics, four-and-a half in mathematics, and four-and-a-half in science (the two “halves” attributable to the nature of UCSB’s new “either/or requirement”).    

Some have claimed that more University of California campuses offer Western civilization courses than the two the report identified. (The subject actually came up on the Rachel Maddow show, in reference to claims by Rick Santorum that no American history or Western civilization courses were being taught in the University of California.) Discussing the prevalence of Western history surveys the report said “not one of the UC campuses requires any coursework in the history of Western civilization.” which is  sadly true, and that “there is not a single history department on any of the campuses that requires a survey course in Western civilization of its history majors,” which is also sadly true, and then “on almost all campuses (the exceptions being UCLA and UC Davis) Western civilization courses are simply not offered at all” which, unfortunately, lacked requisite clarity. What those two institutions offer, which distinguishes them from all the other campuses in the system, are designated survey sequences which cover Western history from classical antiquity to the present – “courses of study,” rather than “courses,” would have accurately captured the intended meaning. To be sure, even individual Western civilization courses are very few and far between, but what makes UCLA and Davis exceptional in the system is that they offer the full sequence. 

The report’s main concern was with this traditional survey sequence that took students from classical antiquity to the twentieth century and was for decades widely celebrated as a curricular staple. Its decline was documented in considerable detail by a national study the NAS produced last year. The headline over this section of the report was “Where is the study of Western civilization?”, meaning Western civilization as a historical phenomenon, not as a collection of irregularly offered bits and pieces. To avoid confusions, however, that distinction should have been made clear.

The UC Santa Barbara undergraduate history program has been cited as a third instance of an offered sequence, which might seem the case judging from the UCSB course catalogue alone. But the beginning of its sequence covering “pre-history to 1050” has itself become ancient history. It hasn’t been offered since spring 2010, nor is it scheduled to be offered in summer 2012, fall 2012, winter 2012 or spring 2013.  A full half of the Western story is no longer the subject of an offered course, and this just doesn’t do the subject justice.

The Berkeley history department has a course called “Origins of Western Civilization: The Ancient Mediterranean World” (with a parallel course in classics called “the Roots of Western Civilization”).  The history department also has courses entitled “Medieval Europe,” and “European Civilization from the Renaissance to the Present,” covering 1500 forward. The medieval course’s catalogue description, however, disclaims its being a survey, and the last course is on Europe, not the entire Western world. There’s nothing wrong with medieval case studies, or a European focus, but it doesn’t make for a Western survey in the standard academic sense. On the other five campuses even isolated Western civilization history courses are absent.

When I was at Berkeley back in the mid-sixties, vocal student opinion was decidedly adversarial when it came to the curriculum or just about anything else – the mantra about the curriculum being that it lacked “relevance.” Things seem to have changed. This time round, The Daily Californian, the Berkeley student newspaper, has chosen editorially to defend the curricular status-quo and the university establishment that stands behind it. In our topsy-turvy era it’s the California Association of Scholars that has mounted Sproul Hall’s steps to take on both.      

One of the Daily Cal’s criticisms was leveled at the report’s discussion of the so-called “American history and Institutions” requirement. The state of California mandates that public universities require courses in “American history and institutions,” and all the system’s campuses have a list of courses that presumably do so. But this is one of the many cases, described throughout the report where state law or university regulations are at odds with actual university facts.

At no institution but one does a requirement exist that that students take a college level American history course. Instead they consider the requirement satisfied if a student has passed a high school American history course (it needn’t be honors or advanced placement), sometimes stipulating a ‘C” grade, or in the case of UCLA, a “B.” (Passing an AP or SAT test can also do the trick).

UC Santa Barbara, the one exception, requires a college level course, but it does so with loose irregularity. This year its American History and Institutions Course List includes no fewer than 155 offerings, in fifteen heterogeneous disciplines, subsuming American history, but also including courses from anthropology to theater bearing titles such as “Studies in Literature of Cultural and Ethnic Communities in the United States” (English 134), “History of the Chicano” (Chicano Studies 168) and “American Drama to 1940” (Theater 180). The same is true at most of the system’s other institutions. The American History and Institutions requirement can be satisfied by courses that either aren’t about history or politics at all, or that deal only with a narrow, and sometimes eccentric, slice of it. A few examples: at Davis, “Native American Contributions to World Civilization,” at Berkeley, “History of Science in the US,” at UCLA, “African American Nationalism in the First Half of the Twentieth Century,” at San Diego, “History of Sexuality in America,” and at Santa Cruz, “Chicana/Chicano history.”

The Daily Cal apparently thinks that this kind of requirement, which it calls “rudimentary civics,” is all that is needed – though it does so while simultaneously conceding that the nation’s primary and secondary education systems are “failing to produce informed citizens.” But a mediocre grade in a high school history course, taught by a high school teacher, to a class of high school level students is no substitute for a university American history course, taught by a professor, to a class of college students. As the report points out, the level of sophistication can, and almost certainly will be much higher in the latter. It is by leading students through successively more challenging treatments of this indispensable subject matter that civic competence is attained. American universities a half century ago, when high school preparation was generally better than today, had a much better record in insisting on this process. None would have regarded it as “rudimentary civics.” 

The report contained three inadvertently inaccurate representations of the results of other studies of political correctness. A 2004 ACTA survey, Politics in the Classroom, was cited to the effect that 46 percent of students complained that “professors use their classrooms to promote their own political views,” and 48 percent that “campus presentations on political issues seem totally one-sided.” The word “some” should have preceded both those references.  The report also referred to a 2007 Zogby poll that showed that 58 percent of the public believed that the problem of faculty bias was “very serious.”  This should have been “very serious or somewhat serious.” We regret these errors slipped through our editing. The responses, as restated, are still substantial cause for concern.   

I thank the critics for their interest and look forward to the report’s continued vigorous debate. A Crisis of Competence documents a tragic falling away from ideals that long gave luster to academic life, and the tarnishing, in many aspects, of a great university’s operation and reputation. The small number of devoted individuals who worked for two years to compile its data and develop its analysis, deserve the gratitude of UC’s regents. The best way for them to show it would be to act swiftly on the report’s recommendations.    

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