A Curricular Debate: Classic or Retro?

January 22, 2007

"Today's graduates are grossly underprepared either for democratic citizenship or for the increasingly competitive global marketplace." Those words were hardly surprising in the program description of a session Friday at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. After all, the association worries a lot about such underpreparedness, and offers suggestions on how colleges can respond.

But the session description went on to say: "The academy's pervasive call for 'critical thinking skills' offers a prescription without content." At the AAC&U, those are fighting words. It's not that the association doesn't care about content. But for a variety of reasons -- in particular the proliferation of knowledge that makes it increasing difficult to define a core of knowledge -- the association focuses heavily on promoting curriculum designs that teach critical thinking skills. The session didn't represent a change of heart by the association, but an opportunity for a dissenting view to have the platform.

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni -- a group that promotes a traditional core curriculum -- asked for and was given the chance to put on a presentation on what it calls the "hollow core" in higher education. Carol Geary Schneider, president of the AAC&U, said in an interview that the association believed in being "a big tent" for discussion of the curriculum, and so accepted the presentation, even knowing it would be full of criticism of the association's ideas.

The session attracted a packed room, with people standing along the sides. The reception was polite and the questions pointed, but always civil, although there was plenty of eye-rolling in the audience, as when Candace DeRussy, a trustee of the State University of New York, referred to "campus CEO's" instead of presidents. Several attendees said that they wanted to see in person some leading culture warriors about whom they had read plenty, generally with extreme skepticism.

Anne K. Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni , did her best to find common ground with the audience. She noted that her association and the one she was addressing both agreed that curricular issues need to be front and center; she criticized the Education Secretary's Commission on the Future of Higher Education for largely dropping curricular recommendations from its report; and she quoted Michael Moore (not normally a hero in groups like Neal's that were founded by Lynne V. Cheney) about how sad it is that so few American college students study American history or foreign languages.

But Neal also did not hold back in pushing for a core curriculum. She said that liberal education "should not be left to chance," called offerings at most colleges today "a hodge-podge," endorsed "a more prescribed course of study," and offered up Columbia University's core as a model she would endorse.

Neal was accompanied by Erin O'Connor, an associate professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania who is author of the blog Critical Mass, and DeRussy, the SUNY board member. O'Connor told the group that colleges pay only "lip service" to general education, providing "too many choices." O'Connor offered "50 Hours" as a model for a core curriculum, referring to the 1989 report by the National Endowment for the Humanities (and, as several attendees noted later, without identifying the report's author, the then-chair of the endowment, Cheney).

DeRussy was by far the most in-your-face of the speakers. She talked about how much of what goes on in American higher education is "indoctrination, not education" and said that "vested interests" prevent meaningful reforms.

During the question and answer period, it was clear that Neal may believe the adage about getting more flies with honey than vinegar, while DeRussy probably believes in calling an exterminator. Asked whether the ACTA was using the core to push Western civilization over others, Neal answered by praising the study of Western civilization, but also by noting that some of the core programs her group favors include non-Western authors. DeRussy responded by contrasting the "enduring values" of Western civilization with the ideas produced by multiculturalism, whose proponents, she said, "have provided no profound knowledge."

Several questioners expressed doubt about ACTA's commitment to academic freedom and about whether its curricular recommendations are realistic.

Bruce L. Mallory, provost of the University of New Hampshire, asked Neal how she could profess her group's commitment to academic freedom when it had written to his institution urging it to take action against William Woodward, a professor of psychology who is among a small group of scholars who argue that the United States orchestrated the events of 9/11. While Mallory said he didn't agree with Woodward, he said that the professor's views were protected by academic freedom -- and indeed UNH resisted many calls from politicians to fire Woodward.

Neal responded by saying that she does support academic freedom, and believes that faculty members should govern themselves. One reason her group pushes them to do more in that regard, Neal said, is to avoid legislative dictates. As for the New Hampshire case, she said that "academic freedom is not 'anything goes,' " and that she wasn't convinced that Woodward's "wacky conspiracy theories" should be protected.

Other questions were both philosophical and practical. One professor objected to the ACTA agenda for seeming to equate a focus on American and other Western institutions as a necessary step toward both revering and understanding societal institutions. A knowledge of other cultures can also promote good citizenship, this professor said. "What makes a good citizen is the ability to apply critical perspectives," she said, including "alternative perspectives." She added that ACTA was aiming for "a homogeneity of content."

Arthur T. Johnson, provost of the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, noted that public universities like his have a variety of roles, one of which is helping community college graduates earn four-year degrees and advance to employment or professional programs in a timely manner. Toward that end, states have mandated articulation agreements that de facto make a traditional core impossible for many public institutions, Johnson said.

If four-year institutions adopted traditional core curriculums, many students would be unable to graduate in four years, their parents and legislators would be unhappy, and colleges would receive more scrutiny, Johnson said.

Neal stressed that she thought the core could benefit all students, and that different colleges might adopt it in different ways.

After the session, she said she was pleased to have had the opportunity to talk at the meeting and with the reception she received. Post-talk reviews from other attendees were generally critical. While several gave Neal and her colleagues points for coming to talk to a skeptical audience, and others shared outrage at this point or that, the more common criticism was that the debate Neal was trying to engage was all a bit 1980s. No one is against reading classic works of history or literature, even by dead white men, they said. It's just that the tough questions today aren't core or non-core, at least to most of those here.

"I was sort of shocked at the lack of familiarity of where higher education is," said Jeremy Ball, a philosophy professor and Academic Senate president at the College of San Mateo. With the Web and other sources, students have "limitless access to content," Ball said, and it's "archaic" to think that the key question is which required book will be put in front of students. "We need to teach them the skills to evaluate, not go to a model of 40 years ago," he said.

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