The instructor stands at the piano and fingers the chords to “In the Still of the Night.” Five young men in the second row rumble the bass line, “Yeh-up … yuh-yep … yeh-hup … yuh-yup… .” About 10 young women scattered around the classroom sway and purse their lips, doo-wopping, “Shoo-shoo, shoo be doo … shoo-shoo, shoo be dooo shoo-shoo, shoo be doo wop, wop, wop, wop… .”(1)
Welcome to the groves of academe, in this case the University of Georgia’s Music 418, “History and Analysis of Rock Music.” If you’ve been away for a while, you might not immediately recognize the new face of American scholarship, or the other innovations of the modern university. Although notable for its progressive approach to class discussion, Music 418 is not, unfortunately, atypical of the nuggets of wisdom offered throughout the catalogs of the nation’s institutions of higher learning.
Students making their way through the academic shopping mall of the modern university’s curriculum are tempted with options ranging from the “Sociology of Sociability” (the study of parties) at Vassar, to “Poets Who Sing” at Washington University, to “Ultimate Frisbee” at the University of Massachusetts, and “Dance Roller Skating” at Kent State. Yes, and all of the courses mentioned are for academic credit.
At the University of Illinois, students can work toward their B.A. by taking “Pocket Billiards” or the “Anthropology of Play,” which is described as “the study of play with emphasis on origin, diffusion, spontaneity, emergence, and diversity.” Auburn University offers a course in “Recreation Interpretive Services,” which is described as “principles and techniques used to communicate natural, historical, and cultural features of outdoor recreation to park visitors.” Occasionally, students stumble upon the mother lode, such as those lucky few who enrolled in “Applied Social Theory and Qualitative Research Methodology” at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Known affectionately as “Deadhead 101,” its course materials consist of Grateful Dead cassettes and reviews of past shows. Students are required to attend Grateful Dead concerts to “observe the subculture that surrounds the band.”(2)
Students fortunate enough to gain admission to California State University’s “Music Video 454” can sit at the feet of Professor Alan Bloom, who declares, “I want students thinking about television.” Or at least about MTV. The class’s only textbook is the Rolling Stone Book of Rock Video, and one class project has been a field trip to Hollywood where the students acted as extras in rock videos, for credit. On slower days, they have analyzed videotapes of Weird Al Yankovic singing “Dare to Be Stupid.”(3)
Even those offerings, however, pale in comparison with the by-now-legendary “Rock ‘n’ Roll Is Here to Stay” at Brown. An article in the New Republic by former Brown student Philip Weiss quoted one student enthusing, “You could go to class and listen to the White Album,” to which another student responded, “You don’t have to go to class. I’d turn on the stereo and raise my hand in bed.”(4)
Such random anecdotes of scholarly whimsicality could perhaps be dismissed as isolated aberrations that are unrepresentative of higher education as a whole. But there is more troubling evidence.
For most of the past decade, tuition has risen far faster than inflation, far outpacing the growth in family income. By 1990, the cost of four years at an elite private college had passed the median price of a house in the United States. But a survey sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1989 found that a majority of college seniors would flunk even a basic test on Western cultural and historical literacy: 25 percent could not distinguish between the thoughts of Karl Marx and the United States Constitution (or between the words of Winston Churchill and those of Joseph Stalin), 58 percent did not know Shakespeare wrote The Tempest, and 42 percent could not place the Civil War in the correct half-century. Most seniors were unable to identify the Magna Carta, Reconstruction, or the Missouri Compromise; they were “clearly unfamiliar” with Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Dostoevski’s Crime and Punishment, and Martin Luther King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.”(5)
There once was a time when employers could be reasonably certain that college graduates had a basic sense of the world and, as a minimum, could write a coherent business letter. That is simply no longer the case.
Fewer than 15 percent of the seniors who were tested on their knowledge of world affairs in 1981 could answer even two-thirds of the questions correctly. Not a single student scored higher than 84 correct answers out of a total of 101 questions. Most ominously, the group that scored lowest was education majors, who averaged a pathetic 39.8.(6)
Another survey found that 75 percent of college students had studied a foreign language at one time or another, but that only 7 percent felt they could understand a native speaker.(7) Occasional surveys of college students’ knowledge of geography have yielded horrific results. A 1984 survey of University of North Carolina students found that 69 percent could not identify a single African country between the Sahara and South Africa (there are 28), fewer than 50 percent could name the two largest states in the United States; 88 percent could not identify the five Great Lakes, and only 27 percent knew that Manila is located in the Philippines. In 1987, a survey at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh found that 25 percent of the students in a geography class could not locate the Soviet Union on a world map. On a map of the 48 contiguous states, only 22 percent could identify 40 states or more.(8)
Of course, a liberal education is not merely the knowledge of a set of facts. It is certainly more important to understand the intellectual roots of the American Revolution than the dates of various battles. But evidence suggests that American college students know neither.
All of this is shocking, but perhaps not surprising, given the priorities and the structure of the modern American university. Put bluntly, our universities feel they have more important things to do than actually ensure that their students learn anything.
A staff member of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, for example, found that few two- or four-year colleges required that a student demonstrate “true proficiency in anything as a condition for receiving a degree, fewer still that set clear learning objectives and unambiguous standards for academic performance… .” In fact, the American Council on Education found that only 15 percent of universities require tests for general knowledge, only 17 percent for critical thinking, and only 19 percent for minimum competency.(9) Some students at major universities report that they have gone three or even four years without ever writing a paper.(10)
Not surprisingly, Ernest Boyer of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Learning complained in 1987 that American colleges had become “more successful in credentialing than in providing a quality education for their students.”(11)
This brings us to the central paradox of American higher education in 1990, in which more and more is being spent for less and less. In large measure this is the inevitable consequence of federal policies toward higher education that have pursued wildly contradictory goals.
While the government has encouraged the largest possible number of students to attend institutions of higher education, it has simultaneously guaranteed that many of those students will receive—at best—a mediocre education. For higher education, the embrace of federal largess has proven to be a classic Faustian bargain. The legacy of federal intervention in higher education includes the following:
— The flight from teaching by the nation’s professoriate;
— The explosion of “research”—much of which is worthless, if not meretricious;
— The infusion of the federal bureaucracy into the universities, which have embraced the giantism of their federal mentors;
— The growth of a culture of academic entitlement in which university professors come to believe they have an inherent right to public support to pursue their own interests, regardless of the impact on students; and
— The distortion of undergraduate education and the curriculum into a crude numbers game that virtually dictates the breakdown of academic integrity and standards.
That is certainly not the case on every campus; there are many institutions where teaching—and learning—are still the top priorities. But they are seldom the ones who have been most penetrated by the generosity of the federal government.