Campus Chaos, and How to Fix It

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.

align=”left” 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.


About Robert C. Koons

Robert C. Koons is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin where he has been since 1987. His areas of specialization include metaphysics and epistemology, philosophical logic and philosophy of mathematics, and philosophy of religion. He is currently working on the logic of causation and the metaphysics of life and the mind. He holds bachelor’s degrees in philosophy from Michigan State University and in philosophy and theology from Oxford University. He holds a doctorate in philosophy from UCLA.

Support Free & Independent Journalism Your support helps protect our independence so that American Greatness can keep delivering top-quality, independent journalism that's free to everyone. Every contribution, however big or small, helps secure our future. If you can, please consider a recurring monthly donation.

Want news updates?

Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.

5 responses to “Campus Chaos, and How to Fix It”

  1. Good luck to Secretary DeVos, I fully agee with the author, but the situation is hopeless by this point. The collapse of Western civilization is upon us. There are still nations on Earth which take education seriously. I hope for the sake of the human race that these nations are not destroyed by the anti-Christian and nihilist West. Of course all of us hope and pray President Trump can save America but he seems utterly besieged and the forces of evil are consuming America and the West. By this point it is impossible to prevent the final collapse of Western civilization. Only more miracles from God like Donald Trump’s election can save us. Articles like this one have appeared for decades and been ignored, just like all the other prophets of our generation were ignored and now we are doomed. Utterly doomed. Here and there pockets of educational excellence remain and blossom, but the sheer power of the resistance to the very modest Trump reforms reveals a passion for self-destruction in America that I fear will not stop.

    • It’s never hopeless, unless God is done with us. The Winged Hussars haven’t shown up yet.

  2. Good article! I agree that accreditation is key. Two points: (1) Some students go to politically correct “____ Studies” programs because they’re easy, but the leftists have also used requirements to force other students to take politically charged courses in those fields. There’s an unholy alliance of administrators and student/faculty activists to push everyone into their indoctrination centers. (2) The accreditation agencies are now enforcers of left-wing orthodoxy, and exams could make it even worse. It would be essential to make sure there’s also accountability at the top for those doing the accrediting and making up the exams.

    • Exactly. Which makes it that much more unlikely.
      We turn full circle to arrive again at that same place: Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

      Give the DoE the power to force curricular change (measuring and reporting student performance to the Brave New Curricular Standards)…. given an Education Establishment which already lives and breathes Politically Correct Progressivism … and you inevitably create Socially Just, Highly Inclusive, Necessarily Diverse, and Exceedingly Egalitarian Right Thinking Curricular Filters.

      ““The best books… are those that tell you what you know already.”
      And the ‘best’ standards will be those that make sure you know it.

  3. As PSRieth noted, good luck to Secretary DeVos.
    But I fear any hope that the corrupt & corroded Kafkaesque Castle which is the DoE / OCR (with its staffing of Hollow Men, headpiece stuffed with straw (and degrees from Schools of Education)) will rescue Prof. Koon’s antique collegiate ideal is little more than fantasy (albeit a delightful one).

    Like hoping Mr. Potter will bring prosperity to Bedford Falls…. like hoping Bartleby and his cubicle-mates will one day, simply “Prefer to”…. hoping the 4400 bureaucrats who hold the magic wand, ‘Accreditation’ will metamorphosize into Traditional Idealists dedicated to the proposition that a college education should yield graduates who know Shakespeare, Latin, Mathematics, and General Science, who are conversant in Western Culture, who can write and think & recognize the Canon??? Well, even a blind pig can find an acorn once in a while — I just wouldn’t pin my hopes on same.

    If we are to move forward, though (and that would seem to be an imperative) … in order for such a dream to live, we must first find a dedicated core who not only understand and recognize the critical need for such a sea change, but have the conviction, the ambition, the bravery (for there will be immense & hostile resistance) and the wherewithal to push such a change agenda. Not impossible — given the requisite courage and unwavering dedication — just extraordinarily difficult.