The Stealth Curriculum

KC Johnson wants colleges to resist a new push to reform "liberal education."
February 2, 2005

Last week, Inside Higher Ed reported on the latest call by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) to reorient "liberal education." The new initiative reflects the organization's customary aim: abandoning the traditional goal of providing students with knowledge derived from the disciplines of the liberal arts and adopting an agenda focused on teaching students what to think about contemporary political and social issues. In the open, such a scheme could never obtain approval. So the AAC&U operates by stealth.

First, the organization employs commonly accepted words and phrases that sound unobjectionable but are vague enough to justify any type of instruction. Press releases outlining the new initiative, for example, spoke of "empowering" students to make "ethical judgments" as citizens of a "diverse democracy" by supplying them with a "practical" education that encourages "global knowledge and engagement" in "an era of greater expectations."

Second, the AAC&U targets non-elite, mostly public institutions, which usually lack regular involvement from parents or alumni, the figures most likely to oppose the feel-good, fuzzy curriculum that the organization promotes. These schools are also less likely to enroll students whose educational backgrounds would enable them to question ideologically biased classroom presentations.

Third, the organization champions a curriculum based not on transmitting knowledge but instead on providing students with skills -- critical thinking, effective writing, or "diversity skills." According to Debra Humphreys, the AAC&U's vice president for public affairs, "There's just no way that you can identify an educated person by a body of content."

As Humphreys well understands, however, college courses must teach students something -- even if they ostensibly stress skills. A glance at the institutions that have instituted an AAC&U-style curriculum reveals that the best for which students can hope is a dumbed-down set of classes from which they will learn nothing. One wonders how many AAC&U administrators or board members, whose education and salaries safely ensconce them in the upper levels of the middle class, would send their children to colleges that have implemented the organization's agenda.

For example, Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis (IUPUI), with a student body of nearly 20,000, requires all freshmen to enroll in an interdisciplinary class teaching such "skills" as "a survey of campus resources" and "time management." The university's provost hopes that this structure eventually will allow students to receive academic credit for "self-acquired competency" through such means as "self-discovery."

Portland State, Oregon's largest university, requires a two-semester interdisciplinary course on how to "work in a diverse society and act in socially responsible ways." Students can avoid transparently one-sided courses such as "Us and Them: A History of Intolerance in America" only by enrolling in feel-good offerings such as "Empowerment of Youth on Probation -- Girl Power" or "The Spirituality of Being Awake." The latter course asks, "What is the cost of being wide awake?" At Portland State, apparently, the cost is tuition for six credit hours.

When courses at AAC&U-oriented schools offer content, the intent seems to be to indoctrinate rather than to educate. The catalog at Washington's Evergreen College, for instance, is filled with courses reflecting only one point of view on controversial political issues. A typical example, "Inherently Unequal" (Evergreen's class on U.S. history since the Brown decision), features a description stating -- as unquestioned fact -- that at the end of the 20th century, "racist opposition to African American progress and the resurgence of conservatism in all branches of government barricaded the road to desegregation."

The AAC&U envisions such openly political instruction as the norm. Shortly after the World Trade Center attacks, Senior Vice President Caryn McTighe Musil argued that the "heinous acts committed September 11" demonstrated the importance of "educating students in ways that promote active engagement" and that emphasized their status as citizens of a "diverse democracy." (The AAC&U always describes the United States as a "diverse democracy," not a "democracy," hinting that a fundamental difference exists between the two types of government.) Students, McTighe Musil continued, needed guidance "in advancing democracy and justice everywhere" and in creating "socially responsible, peaceful, and equitable societies."

The AAC&U seems unwilling to recognize that people, in good faith, define the path to "advancing democracy and justice" in very different ways, and so adopting such a goal requires colleges to take sides on political questions. Literally and theoretically, though never in practice, one could imagine a number of causes that would fit the organization's parameters -- fund raising for Israel, by demonstrating an "obligation to humanity" through defending innocent civilians against suicide murderers; or a Roman Catholic pro-life campaign, by promoting justice through preventing destruction of innocent life; or rallying for the war in Iraq, by "advancing democracy" in a country that never previously had a free election. But in the AAC&U's universe, matters such as the "heinous acts committed September 11" could yield only one set of policy recommendations -- the organization's own -- and college courses should teach this ideological approach as gospel.

By providing a fig leaf to administrators and professors who want to shape students' political opinions rather than to educate undergraduates, the AAC&U deserves condemnation. Yet the organization's insidious nature comes more from its shameless framing of a paternalist educational agenda in populist terms.

Despite their frequent calls for "empowering" students, AAC&U supporters actually have contempt for the intellectual abilities of the middle- and lower-class students that they claim to represent. One of the AAC&U's favorite presidents, Wagner College's Richard Guarasci, justified his curricular agenda by describing a campus that no objective observer would recognize. Students, he claimed, arrived at Wagner "fearing encounters with 'the stranger' " (this in New York City, the most diverse city in the world) and in "deep denial about the contours of inequality." Undergraduates who harbored such inappropriate beliefs could only learn "the arts of democracy" through a reoriented curriculum based on "intercultural and diversity education" that would promote "the objectives of pluralist or multicentric democracy." The AAC&U makes similar claims about student attitudes.

Perhaps, as Guarasci and the AAC&U imply but never state directly, a liberal arts education is appropriate only for students at elite institutions, and others should receive a "liberal" education that focuses more on skills and behavioral issues. But that theory requires accepting on faith two highly dubious assumptions: first, that racial, ethnic, and gender tensions are so extreme on today's campuses as to mandate "diversity skills" as the central goal of a college education; and second, that an AAC&U-style curriculum represents the only way to instill in students the values necessary to function as citizens of the United States.

Over the past three years at my own institution, Brooklyn College, various personnel and curricular controversies (including my tenure case) associated with the institution's adoption of AAC&U policies spawned a remarkable grassroots movement of students -- of differing genders, races, ethnicities, and socio-economic backgrounds -- that made clear that they did not need feel-good courses structured by condescending administrators. Dan Weininger, who led the movement while preparing for law school and interning for Federal District Judge Richard M. Berman, summed matters up for one reporter: "What students want is knowledge, not to be fed dogma." Martine Jean, who came to the United States from Haiti at the age of 11, graduated from Brooklyn as the winner of the Mellon and Ruth Kleinman fellowships; from Yale, where she is studying for her Ph.D. degree, Jean expressed her concern lest Brooklyn embrace an academic culture in which "mediocrity and partisanship are valued over quality of scholarship." Christine Sciascia transferred into Brooklyn and wound up a Phi Beta Kappa nominee; in published letters to The New York Sun and The Chronicle of Higher Education she excoriated the college for insufficiently valuing faculty research. Yehuda Katz, editor of the campus newspaper, published a devastating multi-part series explaining how the AAC&U's "liberal" education would devalue a Brooklyn degree; in response, the campus administration tried to shut down his newspaper. Apparently only those students who supported the AAC&U agenda should be "empowered."

A deep-seated class prejudice exists at the core of the AAC&U's philosophy. Stripping away the sloganeering, AAC&U activists never explain why students at public colleges -- students like Weininger, Jean, Sciascia, and Katz -- should be cheated of their access to a world of knowledge that would truly empower them to exercise their own free will in what is the world's most diverse democracy. Instead, the AAC&U operates by stealth, fully aware that in the light of day, most politicians, administrators, parents, faculty, and students would see their agenda for what it really is: an attempt to create a new generation of social activists through a watered-down, feel-good curriculum that no quality college or university ever would tolerate.


KC Johnson, a professor of history at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, is a visiting professor at Harvard University for the spring 2005 term.


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