Trendy vs. truth: Can the university survive?

If universities aren’t going to teach truth, beauty, knowledge or reasoning — and they can’t guarantee liberal arts graduates will earn enough to pay their debts — something’s got to give, writes Victor Davis Hanson on PJ Media.

A fourth of liberal arts courses are trendy time wasters, writes Hanson, a classics and military history fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and an emeritus classics professor at Fresno State. Students don’t learn a body of knowledge. They don’t master inductive reasoning and empirical objectivity. They don’t learn to write clearly.

(Trendy classes) tend to foster the two most regrettable traits in a young mind — ignorance of the uninformed combined with the arrogance of the zealot. All too often students in these courses become revved up over a particular writ — solar power, gay marriage, the war on women, multiculturalism — without the skills to present their views logically and persuasively in response to criticism. Heat, not light, is the objective of these classes.

. . .  college is intended as a sort of boot camp for the progressive army, where recruits are trained and do not question their commissars.

Vocational and technical colleges “are upfront about their nuts-and-bolts, get-a-job education,” he writes. They don’t pretend to teach humanities.

 Yes, I am worried that the University of Phoenix graduate has not read Dante, but more worried that the CSU Fresno graduate has not either, and the former is far more intellectually honest about that lapse than the latter.

Federal aid allows colleges to keep hiking tuition, leaving students deeper in debt. Professors complain that “grade-grubbing” students won’t take their esoteric courses. Why should they? Hanson asks.

. . .  does the computer programming major at DeVry take an elective like the Poetics of Masculinity to enrich his approach to programing? Does the two-year JC course on nursing include an enhanced class like “Constructing the Doctor: the hierarchies of male privilege”?

As a young professor, I used to believe in the value of a universal BA that would teach truth and beauty to the masses. I still do, but mostly as instruction apart from the university that now has very little to do with either beauty or truth.

Meanwhile, the economic value of a humanities degree is questionable. Most studies say a liberal arts bachelor’s degree is worth the investment, but how long will that be true? “I am reluctant to make the argument for the humanities on the basis of financial planning, but then the humanities are not quite the humanities of 50 years ago.”

Hansen suggests a national test in math and verbal skills and knowledge for a bachelor’s degree like the bar exams for law graduates. Someone who’d skipped college could take a longer version of the bachelor’s exam.

Most college students pick what they think are practical majors. Business administration is the most popular college major, according to the Princeton Review. Also in the top 10 are psychology, nursing, biology, education, English, economics, communications, political science and computer and information science.

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  1. Though a liberal in most respects, I share this conservative’s concerns. A BA should to some extent make its recipient a cultured individual. That’s not happening anymore. A la carte course selection is the problem. I used to think a college graduate was, in most important senses, educated. I no longer do. I wonder what Hanson would say if I said this is the logical consequence of libertarian principles applied to universities. Give ’em freedom to choose! And look what they choose: the Poetics of Masculinity, African-American Navel Gazing 101, etc.

  2. Truth? How can you be a humanist if you must ignore human biodiversity (HBD)? Some women are born beautiful, some ugly. Some men are born bright, some stupid. Some are kind, some unkind. Differences inherited and differences acquired. There are differences between races and within races. It’s unfair. Life is unfair. But you dare not speak or hear any of this. Politically incorrect. Why pay for such a product?

  3. Cardinal Fang says:

    I agree with the author that college liberal arts classes ought to “explore an intellectual topic by presenting the relevant facts and outlining the major controversies, while sharpening students’ inductive reasoning and empirical objectivity, as well as improving their English prose style and mastering grammar and syntax in their written work.”

    What I don’t understand is why he thinks a course on the History of California would be better a priori at doing that than Chicana Feminism. He is assuming his consequent. Both the History of California (if good) and Chicana Feminism (if good) are going to spend time on the same issues, namely the causes and results of immigration of Spanish-speaking people to the United States. Both ought to demand good writing and sharp analysis skills.

  4. >What I don’t understand is why he thinks a course
    >on the History of California would be better a priori
    >at doing that than Chicana Feminism.

    I think I can answer this: knowledge should progress from general to specific, not the other way around. If, for example, you wish to study the Ancient Greek philosophers, you would do best to start with a course in the general history of Ancient Greece. Once you understand the general context, you are ready to dive into the details. Chicana Feminism makes a lot more sense in the context of world, US and even California history than in no context at all.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      It’s difficult to think logically and critically when you lack the necessary background knowledge. Can we study WWII without first understanding early 20th century European history? Context is vital. Studying Chicano Feminism without a more general understanding of Feminism and Hispanic history in the USA creates a student who believes they’re well informed but isn’t. That’s what Hanson’s pointing out.

  5. Richard Aubrey says:

    Studying Chicana feminism means that somebody will have to explain why Chicana feminists are HERE, rather than THERE.
    The answer, of course, is that HERE is better than THERE and the budding Chicana feminists made the choice to leave THERE and come to HERE, and since HERE is the USA, I can imagine some cognitive confusion.
    Which, in the end, is what is probably necessary to ace the class.

  6. Cardinal Fang says:

    I’m not at all convinced that knowledge should always progress from the general to the more specific. I don’t think that a general course on the History of the World would be at all useful, whereas a History of Europe in the Middle Ages would be interesting. Moreover, surely college classes should get around to being specific at some point. Maybe survey courses are appropriate for freshman, but seniors should be getting specific.