Intellectual decline

National | "The Dissolution of General Education": How bad is it?

Issue: "Bosnian relief," March 30, 1996

The nation's governors' second "education summit" March 26-27, in Palisades, N.Y. (the first was convened by President Bush in Charlottesville, Va. , in 1989) comes at a time when the Clinton Administration and Senate Democrats are trying to squeeze more money out of taxpayers for "education," despite evidence that record spending levels have done nothing to improve its quality or the performance of students.

Last week the National Association of Scholars (NAS) released a study of the nation's top 50 colleges and universities that illustrates how bad things are as today's students graduate from public schools that are in intellectual decline.

The study, titled "The Dissolution of General Education 1914-1993," says institutions of higher learning have generally abandoned most of the core academic requirements once considered essential to a liberal-arts education. The current controversy at Georgetown University over whether one should be allowed to graduate with a degree in English literature without studying Shakespeare is one of many examples cited.

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What is at stake, argues NAS President Stephen H. Balch, is that America is in danger of "losing the common frame of reference that for many generations has sustained our liberal, democratic society." Just as self-evident truth is no longer self-evident, or even truth, the common core of knowledge once taken for granted as an essential element in a well-rounded education at an American university is no longer common nor can it be taken for granted.

According to the NAS study, colleges and universities require fewer mandatory courses, allowing increasing numbers of students to plot their own academic course. Apparently the universities, having refused to impose a moral code on students, are now refusing to impose an intellectual one as well.

The study says America's top colleges and universities offered an average of only 23 courses not requiring a prerequisite in 1904. That number jumped to 127 by 1964 and to 582 by 1993. There are fewer thesis requirements, the school year has been shortened, English composition has been all but abandoned (reflected in the speaking and writing "skills" of many young people one meets). There is less math and science than ever before,

and foreign language requirements are virtually disappearing, as are the history of our own nation (replaced by multicultural history), literature and, perhaps most dangerous of all, philosophy.

Without an understanding of our past and without being taught how to think (as opposed to what to think), we lose what it means to be Americans.

After looking at the structure, content, and rigor of the top 50 schools, the study concluded, "The present unwillingness to set priorities within general education programs, together with the growing disinclination to insist on rigorous standards for completing them, suggest that undergraduate general education has become substantially devalued as an institutional objective. It also indicates that most institutions are no longer seriously committed to ensuring that their students are exposed to broad surveys of basic subject matter."

With only a quarter of fourth- and eighth-graders reading at grade level, with 13 percent of all college undergraduates (1.6 million students) in need of at least one remedial course in the 1992-93 school year, and with basic skill deficiencies requiring companies to instruct new employees in skills they should have learned in school, perhaps it's time to ask whether many of our universities (and public schools) are committing fraud by promising a real education and delivering something entirely different. They certainly are overpriced. c

Cal Thomas
Cal Thomas

Cal, whose syndicated column appears on WORLD's website and in more than 500 newspapers, is a frequent contributor to WORLD's radio news magazine The World and Everything in It. Follow Cal on Twitter @CalThomas.


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