Utah's Senate Bill 226 Restores Western Civ Education

National Association of Scholars

The National Association of Scholars (NAS) and the Civics Alliance enthusiastically endorse Utah Senate Bill 226 (SB 226), the School of General Education Act. If Utah passes SB 226 into law, it will become a leader among the states in education reform.

SB 226, introduced by Senator John Johnson, would reform the structure and the content of general education requirements at Utah’s public universities. As Stanley Kurtz ably summarizes,

The new bill, S.B. 226, is called the “School of General Education Act” because it establishes an independent school of general education charged with designing and teaching a set of courses that all students must take in order to graduate. Instead of the usual smorgasbord of hundreds of hyper-specialized courses that students choose from in order to fulfill their general-education requirements, UU students will take classes that cover the basics of Western and American history—and that introduce them to non-Western cultures as well. Students won’t have more required courses than students at other schools. But courses that satisfy requirements will be fewer in number and taken in common....

S.B. 226 goes further by setting up an independent school of general education, run by a dean who can hire substantial numbers of new faculty members capable in, and committed to, traditional general education. The bill also empowers UU’s board of trustees to reduce current programs and faculty by a number equivalent to the new hires in the school of general education.

SB 226, in other words, replaces distribution requirements with a genuine core curriculum. It sets the core curriculum at a reasonable and cost-effective level of 42 semester hours. It specifies the content of the core curriculum to include knowledge of Western civilization, American history and government, and rigorous mathematics and science. Above all, SB 226 provides the necessary administrative framework to make sure that faculty teach the courses in the spirit intended by the state government.

SB 226 is necessary. Utah’s public colleges and universities, as all of American higher education, to an unfortunate extent have been colonized by committed radicals actively averse to teaching the ideals and institutions of American liberty, republican self-government, and civic virtue—and who are skilled at using the mechanisms of academic administration to ensure that only their narrow viewpoint may inform class content and hiring decisions. Utah’s policymakers must step forward to defend academic freedom and to preserve the core curriculum that teaches students what our liberty is and why we should cherish it.

SB 226 is appropriate action for the Utah state legislature. Stanley Kurtz has explored the precedents in great detail:

But does a legislature have the power to mandate this sort of required curriculum without violating academic freedom? You bet it does. In fact, general-education requirements are mandated by elected or appointed political officials all the time. We just don’t notice it. Typically, general-education requirements at public universities must be approved by boards of trustees (sometimes called “regents” or “governors”). Public-university trustees are either appointed by political officials, like governors and state legislators, or directly elected by voters. In other words, trustees represent the public, and the decision as to what sort of knowledge to require at university is ultimately a public responsibility.

Trustees must select or approve general-education requirements because the kind of knowledge that a university chooses to mandate reflects a set of values. Those values are a matter of public choice, not professorial expertise. Academic freedom guarantees that a professor’s individually designed course should be largely under his own control. But academic freedom does nothing to guarantee that such a course be declared a graduation requirement. That is a matter for the public to decide, through its representatives (trustees and legislators).

SB 226 is well-tailored to accomplish its aims. The bill focuses carefully upon general education requirements, it preserves the authority of the university president over the new School of General Studies, and it provides thoughtful exceptions to the core requirements, such as those accorded to science majors, who usually have intensive departmental requirements.

NAS and the Civics Alliance are especially delighted that SB 226 was informed by the model General Education Act, jointly drafted and published by Stanley Kurtz of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Jenna Robinson of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, and David Randall of NAS and the Civics Alliance.

Higher education should serve to knit together our past, present, and the future, and SB 226 will restore Utah public education to that essential purpose. It will also provide a model to the public colleges and universities of all our nation’s states. 150 years ago, the railroads that united our country met in Utah, and a golden spike commemorated that junction. SB 226 would create a golden university to reunite our country’s students with their birthright of liberty.


Photo by Danny Burke on Unsplash

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