This year will go down as the year of the Great Academic Meltdown. At campuses from Yale and Middlebury to Evergreen State and Berkeley, violence has shut down the free exchange of ideas and at times the very possibility of rational discussion. How is this possible, and what can be done about it? How did we go, in just 50 years, from institutions of higher education, with rigorous study of the foundations of our civilization, to camps of lower indoctrination, where postmodern administrators and professors infect students with a Leftist culture that breeds coercion and violence?
The answer is simple: irresponsibility corrupts, and absolute irresponsibility corrupts absolutely. For nearly a century, college administrators and faculty have been responsible to no one for anything, and, as a direct consequence, college students have also been “liberated” from the burdens of substantive study through grade inflation and workload deflation. We are now simply reaping the inevitable consequences of this lack of accountability. A few simple reforms at the U.S. Department of Education could reverse this situation, putting scholarship rather than activism back at the center of our universities.
In the 1800s, American colleges shared a common curriculum, which consisted in the mastery of classical Greek and Latin and of books (of history, literature, science, and philosophy) written in those languages. If any college let its standards slip, the result would be immediately obvious to any educated person confronting the college’s ill-educated graduates. This system was replaced in the early 20th century by a system of alternative majors. So long as the number of majors was relatively small, and so long as the experts in each field maintained a consensus of essential knowledge, the loss of a common curriculum did not result in a significant lack of accountability.
This system was replaced in the early 20th century by a system of alternative majors. So long as the number of majors was relatively small, and so long as the experts in each field maintained a consensus of essential knowledge, the loss of a common curriculum did not result in a significant lack of accountability.
In the 1960s, however, students demanded and administrators conceded an evisceration of the standard requirements, both in general education and within each liberal arts major. Students would no longer be required to read Plato or Locke or to know American history or the history of Western civilization, and English majors would no longer be required to read Chaucer, Shakespeare, or Milton. What students are no longer required to learn, teachers can no longer be required to teach. The result has been the fragmentation of higher education, with content determined by the fads and fashions of each field and subfield, resulting in an ever-increasing domination of left-wing, quasi-Marxist “theory.” Since each student is evaluated only by his or her own teachers, there is no external check to ensure that anything is actually being learned. Instead, teachers are free to attract students to political propaganda courses with high grades and light workloads.
The result has been an epidemic of grade inflation, affecting even engineering and the hard sciences. In 30 years, the percentage of A’s and A-minuses has risen from 9 percent to 41 percent, and the rate of inflation is accelerating. As Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa documented in Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, the average time studying has plummeted in 25 years from 30 hours a week to a mere 15 hours today. Arum and Roksa report that 44 percent of college students show no measurable improvement in their cognitive skills in the course of their 4-6 years in college. The students fill their abundance of leisure with binge drinking, promiscuity, and political action (often for academic credit).
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and her new deputy assistant secretary for higher education programs, Adam Kissel, could reverse these trends and save higher education from its suicidal path. The existing system of accreditation, which now simply protects the status quo, must be re-purposed into a system of college exit exams, with publicly available standards and disinterested grading in a double-blind protocol, in which graders cannot identify the students or their schools, and students cannot identify their graders. These exit exams can duplicate the success of the Honours Schools Examinations used for 100 years at Oxford and Cambridge. The exams would consist of essays written in response to questions concerning classic texts and standard problems. Each college would be required to join a consortium of peer institutions, with the curriculum, the standards of evaluation, and the relative rank of a college’s graduates made public on the Web. The exams would have low stakes: no particular grade would be required for graduation, but the results (including percentile rank relative to national benchmarks) would appear on every student’s official transcript.
In addition, outsiders should be permitted to take the exam for a nominal fee: the industrious community college student from inner-city Houston should be allowed to take the Ivy League exam in classics, for example. Such a reform would compel colleges to provide a public defense of their curricular choices; force teachers to replace entertainment and indoctrination with rigorous standards; spur administrators to hire teachers on the basis of their skills and not their political orientation; and turn our colleges back into havens of intensive study in worthwhile subjects.