“It cannot be assumed that students at any age will always select the subjects that constitute education. â€¦ In any field, the permanent studies on which the whole development of the subject rests must be mastered if the student is to be educated.”
— Robert Maynard Hutchins, former president and chancellor of the University of Chicago
I cite that statement, uttered more than half a century ago, to introduce a discussion about how little regard the world of higher education has for itself today.
The need for what has been called a “common core” of university education — those essential things that need to be known in order to be fully educated — is today almost completely disregarded in academic circles.
But not entirely. In place of the courses that were loosely gathered under the label “Western Civilization” — classics of the arts, literature, history and culture that made us who we are — American colleges and universities today have substituted a collection of ideological fads and fancies substantially based on left-wing views about race, class, gender and the environment.
At least, that’s the contention of a substantial number of academics and other thinkers who have not fallen under the sway of the politically correct tendencies of the modern academy.
At many institutions, these dissenters say, those trends and fads are gilded over with a unifying concept: Instead of producing graduates who can be confident American citizens with a broad knowledge of the world and its issues, they become “global citizens,” focused on the concerns of other nations, peoples and traditions while neglecting their own country’s substantial heritage of liberty and human accomplishment.
One such place, a recent comprehensive study contended, is Maine’s own Bowdoin College (though my alma mater is by no means the only such institution).
A collection of academics and public policy experts gathered in Brunswick last Friday to discuss the issue, which was among many topics raised in a lengthy report about instruction at Bowdoin issued last year by the National Association of Scholars, which supports “intellectual freedom and civil discourse” on campuses nationwide.
Their daylong conference, titled “Global illusions and the Future of American Higher Education,” also was sponsored by the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative think tank (to whose online publication I formerly contributed columns).
Several Bowdoin students attended, but apparently no faculty or administrators dropped by, despite the session being widely advertised on campus. It seems that intellectual openness and curiosity about competing views may not be as much of a virtue at Bowdoin as some of us may have assumed.
Dr. Peter Wood, head of the National Association of Scholars, cited Bowdoin President Barry Mills’ rejection of the report’s findings. Mill said, “We (at Bowdoin) are also committed to preparing our students to become global citizens.” A fine ambition, Wood noted, if it also included becoming well-prepared American citizens.
Several speakers, however, said that although Bowdoin, and many other schools, offer some history, government and literature courses that deal with our nation’s foundation and development, they often are taught exclusively from a progressive perspective that denigrates America’s accomplishments and magnifies its problems.
And even then, these courses are optional; students easily can evade taking any of them and still graduate with honors.
According to a January report by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, from which Mills’ quote is taken, colleges contend students have been taught American studies in high school.
That contention, however, is disproved by numerous surveys showing high school graduates are widely ignorant of basic facts about American principles, history and government.
Second, many schools think education should be directed by students themselves, as if accomplished scholars had nothing to offer in the way of intelligent guidance and required levels of competence.
“A student at Bates College,” the report states, “can avoid taking a survey course in American history, but can fulfill his or her â€˜General Education Concentration’ with courses such as â€˜History of Electronic Dance Music,’ â€˜The Rhetoric of Alien Abduction’ or â€˜Decoding Disney: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Animated Blockbuster’.”
And if that weren’t bad enough, the report adds, even history majors can avoid taking American history, though they must take two courses dealing with either East Asia or Latin America.
Bates and Bowdoin are certainly not unique in such matters, and, as the scholars noted, it remains possible for a diligent student to get a deep education there.
But it is not inevitable, nor even probable, that such an education will include the historic American experience.
Unless trustees and alumni force the issue (because it seems likely no reforms will arise on campus), academic neglect of the American experience in all its fullness seems doomed to continue.
M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a freelance writer and speaker. Email at: [email protected]