We’re sometimes surprised at what adult Americans don’t know and wonder what the colleges of the future will teach the next generations.
A survey of recent college graduates commissioned by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and conducted by GfK Roper last year found that barely half knew that the U.S. Constitution establishes the separation of powers. Forty- three percent failed to identify John Roberts as Chief Justice; 62% didn’t know the correct length of congressional terms of office.
Higher education has never been more expensive—or seemingly less demanding. According to the 2011 book Academically Adrift, by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, full-time students in 1961 devoted 40 hours per week to schoolwork and studying; by 2003 that had declined to 27 hours. And even those hours may not be all that effective: the book also notes that 36% of college graduates had not shown any significant cognitive gains over four years. According to data gathered by the Chronicle of Higher Educationand American Public Media’s Marketplace, half of employers say they have trouble finding qualified recent college graduates to hire. Everybody has an opinion about what matters most. While Bill Gates worries about the dearth of engineering and science graduates, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences frets about the fate of the humanities.
Rising tuition costs, an underprepared workforce, an inhospitable climate for the humanities: each of these issues, among others, shapes arguments over higher education. True, polls suggest that most students are happy with their college experiences (if not their debt loads), elite institutions are thriving, U.S. research universities are the envy of the world, and a college degree remains the nation’s central cultural and economic credential. Yet it’s also undeniable that hand- wringing about higher education is so common that it almost forms an academic discipline unto itself or should at least count as a varsity sport.
And so wring the hands of many parents, employers, academics and alumni in the fall of 2013 as the undergraduate class of 2017 begins its freshman year—and as parents of the class of 2025 contemplate the costs and benefits of college down the road. “Higher education is facing a real crisis of effectiveness,” says Michael Poliakoff, vice president of policy at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a group that supports traditional core curriculums and postgraduate assessment tests. At the TIME Summit on Higher Education on Sept. 20, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called for more accountability in higher education through the development of a university ratings system—one that could include the earning power of an institution’s graduates as a factor.
At a time when virtually every state is implementing new Common Core standards to increase the amount of general knowledge in math and English that a typical public-school student must master in K-12, there is renewed interest in the perennial collegiate argument over what’s called either general education or, more colloquially, core curriculum. At issue is whether there are certain books one should read and certain facts one should know to be considered a truly educated person—or at least a truly educated college graduate.
At the heart of the debate between traditionalists (who love a core) and many academics (who prefer to teach more specialized courses and allow students more freedom to set their own curriculums) is a tension between two different questions about the purposes of college. There are those who insist that the key outcome lies in the answer to “What should every college graduate know?”—perhaps minimizing the chances that future surveys will show that poor John Roberts is less recognizable than Lady Gaga. Others ask, What should every college graduate know how to do?
Those three additional words contain multitudes. The prevailing contemporary vision, even in the liberal arts, emphasizes action: active thought, active expression, active preparation for lifelong learning. Engaging with a text or question, marshaling data and arguments and expressing oneself takes precedence over the acquisition of general knowledge.
A caveat: the debate we are discussing here is focused mainly on selective schools, public and private, where there seems to be a persistent unease among key constituencies—parents, trustees, alumni and most of all employers—about undergraduate curriculums. The last time these questions were in circulation was in the 1980s, the years in which Education Secretary Bill Bennett pushed for renewed emphasis on the humanities and Allan Bloom of the University of Chicago published The Closing of the American Mind, a best seller that argued, among other things, that the great books were being wrongly marginalized if not totally neglected by the modern university.
That debate reflected larger arguments about the country’s trend toward the right under Ronald Reagan. What’s driving the core-standards conversation now is the ambition to succeed in a global economy and the anxiety that American students are failing to do so. How does the country relieve those fears and produce a generation of graduates who will create wealth and jobs? It’s a question that’s fueling the Obama Administration’s push for a ratings system, and it’s a question that isn’t going away.
The Roots of the Core
From the founding of Harvard College in 1636 until the Civil War, American university education was mostly about sending pious and hopefully well-read gentlemen forth into the world. As Louis Menand, a Harvard English professor and literary critic, has written, what Americans think of as the university is of relatively recent vintage. In 1862 the Morrill Act created land-grant universities, broadening opportunities for those for whom college had been a virtual impossibility. Menand and other historians of collegiate curriculums note that at Harvard in 1869, Charles William Eliot became president and created a culture in which the bachelor’s degree became the key credential for ongoing professional education—a culture that came to shape the rest of the American academy. The 19th century also saw the rise of the great European research university; the German model of scholar-teachers who educated under graduates while pursuing their own research interests moved across the Atlantic.