In January 2014, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) published the report, “Education or Reparation? A Look at America’s Top-Ranked Liberal Arts Colleges.” The full document can be viewed here >
The report examines the material taught at top liberal arts colleges, the salaries earned by college presidents, the nature of speech code policies at these institutions, student debt and the efficiency of college spending, and the overall quality of college teaching in comparison to tuition costs.
Bowdoin College promises to prepare graduates “to be engaged, adaptable, independent, and capable citizens,” and elite liberal arts colleges such as Amherst, Hamilton, Vassar, and Bates present similar missions.
Nevertheless, ACTA maintains that these schools fail to fulfill their intended missions. While most college graduates agree that a rigorous academic program requires a strong core curriculum of history, English, and economics, the top-ranked liberal arts colleges in the country rarely require courses in these subjects. Of U.S. News and World Report’s top 29 liberal arts colleges, only two require an economics course, only three require a survey course in U.S. history, and only five require a survey course in literature.
Instead, classes such as “Prostitutes in Modern Western Culture” (Bowdoin College), “Decoding Disney: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Animated Blockbuster” (Bates College), and “Bad Words” (Grinnell College) count for history and humanities credits.
One might rightfully ask, “So what? Why is it a problem that colleges are diversifying and updating their course material?” After all, it seems sensible that a college would amend its curriculum to suit changing times. And who would not want to take courses with titles such as “The Rhetoric of Alien Abduction” (Bates College) and “Battling Against Voldemort” (Swarthmore College)?
Colleges such as Smith and Amherst take pride in having no general education or liberal arts requirements. Smith asserts that “education can never be defined by a listing of subjects or skills,” and Amherst hopes that “students are supported in their choices, rather than having to check off another set of requirements.”
Though in theory this laissez-faire approach to education seems to support student interests, ACTA believes that a lack of a strong core curriculum has adversely affected student success rates after college. The report does not go into extensive detail in describing how students have failed in comparison to their predecessors, but it mentions how employers have been disappointed by the performance of college graduates, how colleges have significantly inflated student grades, how restrictive speech codes at colleges have inhibited learning processes, and how surveys reveal that there is little or no correlation between student knowledge and association with a prestigious university.
Rather than providing a wide liberal arts background for students, colleges are steering them toward specialized fields. These elite colleges assume that students have already mastered the basics and have a sufficient knowledge of history, but an Intercollegiate Studies Institute survey of senior students at leading universities showed that these students lacked rudimentary knowledge of American civics and history; for example, they did not know the term lengths of members of Congress, and they could not identify the General at the Battle of Yorktown or the Father of the U.S. Constitution.
The ACTA report makes the observation that the average college student will spend 15 hours per week in class and less than 17 hours per week preparing for class. The report holds that this finding is problematic, as students will spend an average of only 32 hours completing course work. The ACTA writes, “If an average work day is eight hours, the college student’s work week is an entire day shorter than an average full-time employee’s.”
The report goes on to observe that “Employers who complain that newly-hired college graduates lack both the skill and the self-discipline to be effective at their entry-level jobs will find much of the cause in the relatively low level of expectation for student work set at colleges and universities.”
This analysis of student work ethic, however, seems to overlook the fact that 80% of college students work while in college, averaging 19 hours per week. In addition, extracurricular and leadership commitments are likely to demand significant attention. In truth, it is not unrealistic to expect that a college student’s work week averages equal or more hours than that of an average full-time worker. It seems more likely that colleges’ efforts to elevate specialized studies over core classes account for student unpreparedness (an observation that the report also makes).
The problem, then, is not that students do not have a large enough quantity of material to learn; it is simply that much of the material lacks quality and depth. Rather than teaching difficult literature, economics, and history courses, all of which require instruction, colleges often teach courses on popular culture and material that students can easily learn on their own. As ACTA aptly notes, efforts to deemphasize key subjects like composition, literature, foreign language, U.S. government, economics, mathematics, and science have left students uninformed about topics that should be common knowledge.
Though liberal arts colleges should be praised for the diversity of their course offerings, they ought also to ensure that courses in pop culture do not replace more rigorous subjects. While a student can learn about “The Rhetoric of Alien Abduction” by reading The National Inquirer, the rhetoric of Socrates might require more in-depth study. Perhaps the most well-rounded student is one who familiarizes himself with both, but the role of the college is to equip students with those skills which are most important.