A recent report by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) entitled “The Hollow Core: Failure of the General Education Curriculum,” reveals that most college students can graduate without taking basic subjects such as math, science, composition, literature, economics, government or American history.
Despite the lip service university presidents give to the foundation of knowledge, most students find the loopholes in academic programs so that credits can be accumulated without studying basic subjects. As a consequence, the study notes, “colleges are offering ‘little more than a hollow core.’”
This report surveyed fifty colleges and universities, including all Big Eight and Big Ten universities, the Ivy League, the Seven Sisters Colleges and an additional grouping of 13 colleges to provide institutional and geographical breadth.
Of the seven basic subjects examined economics fared the worst. Not one of the institutions surveyed requires a general course in economics. Only 12 percent mandate a course in literature, while a mere 14 percent of the colleges require students to study American government or history.
Is it any wonder Johnny cannot cite a Shakespearean play, explain a supply and demand curve or offer a defense for the separation of powers?
In fact, none of the colleges surveyed require all seven subjects and only one, Baylor University, requires six Barry Latzer, the principal architect of the study, said, “This study demonstrates that the colleges have abdicated their responsibility to direct their students—especially freshman and sophomores—to the most important subjects.”
Most students, as I see it and as this study attests, are wanderers searching through a catalogue for course titles that appeal to them, often a decision based on what is fashionable. The result is hardly a surprise; thousands of students graduating with only a thin veneer of knowledge and yawning gaps in their educational background.
Many colleges contend that students take courses in subjects other than a major—what is often referred to as “distribution requirements.” However, the distribution system allows students to select from dozens, sometimes hundreds, of courses. Whatever their merits, most of these courses are narrowly defined or unsuitable as foundational experiences.
Needless to say, the report calls for fundamental reform, a reform that moves from an arbitrary smorgasbord approach to systematic requirements reflecting educational foundations.
The problem at the moment is that college students know very little and don’t know what they don’t know. To ask an uneducated student to select a course of study is to suggest the blind should lead the blind.
Recently several college students expressed wonderment over why the streets of Venice were so often flooded. Another student asked me whether the American Revolution was based on events in the French Revolution. There is scarcely a professor in higher education who cannot provide similar examples of incompetence. Higher education is a scandal waiting to be exposed. It is rife with “educated incompetents.”
ACTA has performed yet another valuable service in exposing the hollowness at the core of higher education. It is my profound hope that someone of prominence will adopt this study and convert it into policy prescriptions.
I’m not sure anyone in the academy will be listening. But it will do university presidents good to know that their empty, but expensive, game is up. We as a society are paying a hefty price to see our students in an uneducated state. Surely it is time for change in the form of real requirements.