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.

Florida may raise tuition for non-STEM majors

Florida wants more engineers and scientists. Would-be poets, actors and anthropologists? Not so much. A state task force has recommended lowering university tuition for STEM majors while charging more in humanities and social sciences, reports the Sun Sentinel.

It usually costs more to offer science and engineering classes, but it’s worth it, says Dale Brill, who chaired the task force for Gov. Rick Scott.

Florida used to pay 75 percent of the cost of educating students in public colleges and universities, but that’s dropped to less than 50 percent in recent years because of the weak economy, reports the Sun Sentinel.

Struggling to teach science

American Educator’s new issue includes: An Evolving Controversy, subtitled The Struggle to Teach Science in Science Classes on biology teachers under pressure to teach religious alternatives to evolution; World-Class Ambitions, Weak Standards on the 2012 state science standards, and Knowing Ourselves, How the Classics Strengthen Schools and Society.

College’s economic value depends on the degree

College is worth it, but majors linked to occupations offer better job prospects than majors focused on general skills, concludes a new Georgetown report, Hard Times: Not All College Degrees Are Created Equal (pdf).

Another general rule: “People who make technology are better off than people who use technology.”

A bachelor’s degree is one of the best weapons a job seeker can wield in the fight for employment and earnings. And staying on campus to earn a graduate degree provides safe
shelter from the immediate economic storm, and will pay off with greater employability and earnings once the graduate enters the labor market. Unemployment for students with new
bachelor’s degrees is an unacceptable 8.9 percent, but it’s a catastrophic 22.9 percent for job seekers with a recent high school diploma — and an almost unthinkable 31.5 percent for recent high school dropouts.

Except for architecture graduates, who’ve been hit hard by the construction crash, unemployment rates are higher in non-technical majors such as the arts (11.1 percent), humanities and liberal arts (9.4 percent), social sciences (8.9 percent) and law and public policy (8.1 percent).

Unemployment is low for computer science (7.8 percent) and math (6 percent) graduates who can write software and invent new applications, higher for information systems graduates (11.7 percent)  ”who use software to manipulate, mine, and disseminate information.”  However, the report predicts jobs for computer majors will “bounce back strongly” as the recovery proceeds.

Median earnings among recent college graduates vary from $55,000 among engineering majors to $30,000 in the arts, psychology and social work. While new graduates in computer engineering average $60,000, physiology graduates average only $24,000.

The canon lives — in adult courses

“The canon of great literature, philosophy, and art is thriving — in the marketplace, if not on college campuses, writes Heather Mac Donald in City Journal.

The Great Courses (previously The Teaching Company) is turning a profit “selling recorded lectures in the humanities and sciences to an adult audience eager to brush up its Shakespeare and its quantum mechanics.”

Back when I was commuting to work, I listened to the history of western thought series on tape. One of their economics lecturers, Tim Taylor, is an old friend and former San Jose Mercury News colleague. Yes, back when newspapers made money, we had an editorial writer who understood economics — and math.

Axing French, Italian, classics, theater …

Do Colleges Need French Departments? On the New York Times’ Room for Debate, professors discuss the State University of New York at Albany’s decision to eliminate degree programs in French, Italian, classics, Russian and theater. The university president blamed budget cuts and said the programs attracted few students.

Should these humanities programs be saved at public universities that are hard pressed to meet the needs of all sorts of students? Are they luxuries that are “nice to have” but not what taxpayers need to support? What’s lost, if anything, if they are eliminated?

Not everyone needs French, writes linguist John McWhorter, a former French major. As long as some colleges and universities offer humanities degrees, others can focus on career training. Some students should be able to choose vocational tracks, he writes.

The very notion in America of four years of a post-high school liberal arts education as a default experience for people between 18 and 21 is a post-World War II novelty. It is unclear that it has created a populace significantly better informed or intellectually curious.

Most of the respondents argue that the humanities produce culturally aware, clear-thinking, flexible learners and thoughtful citizens who can adapt to a changing world.

On Community College Spotlight:  The shampooer with a bachelor’s degree.

Why college grads can’t write

College graduates can’t write because Freshman Comp doesn’t teach them, writes R.V. Young, an English professor at North Carolina State, on the Pope Center’s Clarion Call.

When the GI Bill opened college doors to many more students after World War II, freshman comp “became the foundation for liberal education of a broad swath of American students who were often encountering for the first time the liberating effect of intellectual cultivation – the mental excitement of mastering intellectually difficult books, handling ideas with discernment, and realizing their thoughts in clear, coherent language,” Young writes.

. . . At least some acquaintance with the humanities was thought to prepare students for leadership or at least furnish the materials for better citizenship and a more fulfilling life.

In the last 30 years, freshman comp has been taken over by “the social sciences and the public education establishment.” Researchers write up their theories; adjuncts do the teaching.

Since theorists believe reading and writing are different skills, literature has been banished from composition classes.

Theorists believe grammar and usage conventions are unimportant, unteachable and “may even be damaging to minorities.” They tell adjuncts not to mark errors on student papers:  Students “best learn to write from one another by breaking up into little groups in class and ‘peer-reviewing’ their work, since it is their own generational cohort for whom they should be writing.”

In the 1970′s, when Young started at North Carolina State, English professors taught freshman comp.

The “theory” of composition that guided the course was that students learned to write by writing a great deal and having their papers marked thoroughly and severely by the professor, who would often reinforce the lesson in individual conferences.  The first semester of this two-semester course required 14 short papers, the second semester 11 plus a short research paper.  It was the academic equivalent of boot camp.

Asking students to write essays about works of literature gave them a common topic,  which they approached with few preconceptions, Young writes. Freshman find it easier to assess the role of faith in Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown, than to “give thoughtful, unself-conscious account of their views on abortion or global warming — the kind of topic that is typical nowadays.”

Young no longer teaches writing. As a literature professor with no “composition theory” training, he’s considered unqualified.

How well is this new approach working? An increasingly common complaint among employers is that college graduates can’t even write a short memo that’s clear. The melancholy results of the now prevalent approach to composition are plain to see in the pitiable level of reading and writing skills possessed by most college graduates.

Frisky blogger Jessica Wakeman wishes she’d learned more about literature, history and politics and taken fewer gender studies courses. “There’s a difference between what I thought was “cool” to learn about at the time and what has actually proved useful in life,” she writes.

A classical education

A graduate of the very demanding Classical High School in Providence, Rhode Island, Stanley Fish reviews three books that call for a return to teaching classics and the humanities.

Leigh Bortin, a homeschooling advocate, author of  The Core: Teaching Your Child the Foundations of Classical Education, calls for using “classical skills to study classical content.”

By classical skills she means imitation, memorization, drill, recitation and above all grammar, not grammar as the study of the formal structure of sentences (although that is part of it), but grammar as the study of the formal structure of anything: “Every occupation, field of study or concept has a vocabulary that the student must acquire like a foreign language . . . . A basketball player practicing the fundamentals could be considered a grammarian . . . as he repeatedly drills the basic skills, of passing dribbling, and shooting.” . . .

“Classical content” identifies just what the subjects to be classically studied are. They are the subjects informed and structured by “the ideas that make us human” — math, science, language, history, economics and literature, each of which, Bortins insists, can be mastered by the rigorous application of the skills of the classical Trivium, grammar, the study of basic forms, logic, the skill of abstracting from particulars and rhetoric, the ability to “speak and write persuasively and eloquently about any topic while integrating allusions and examples from one field of study to explain a point in another.”

Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities by Martha Nussbaum, a philosopher, classicist, ethicist and law professor, attacks the stress on applied skills and the denigration of the humanities as “useless frills.”

Finally, there’s Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education.

 Ravitch’s recommendations are simple, commonsensical and entirely consonant with the views of Bortins and Nussbaum. Begin with “a well conceived, coherent, sequential curriculum,” and then “adjust other parts of the education system to support the goals of learning.” This will produce a “foundation of knowledge and skills that grows stronger each year.” Forget about the latest fad and quick-fix, and buckle down to the time-honored, traditional “study and practice of the liberal arts and sciences: history, literature, geography, the sciences, civics mathematics, the arts and foreign languages.”

In short, get knowledgeable and well-trained teachers, equip them with a carefully calibrated curriculum and a syllabus filled with challenging texts and materials, and put them in a room with students who are told where they are going and how they are going to get there.

A classical education worked for Fish. Would it work for all students?

In a similar vein, David Brooks urges college students to study liberal arts so they can “befriend The Big Shaggy” (the id?).

Humanities professors are worried about their place in the university:  When only the accountanting majors and the engineers are getting job offers, whither queer theory?