THE LOW STATE of higher education is by now so amply documented that you'd have to be as dumb as -- well, as dumb as the average college student to deny it. Freshmen enter college today in a condition of such ignorance that they cannot be presumed to know anything. "At Bristol Community College in Fall River," the Boston Globe reported in March, "students can enroll in five levels of basic math, starting with" -- this is not a misprint -- "addition." At Northeastern University, more than 30 percent of entering students take remedial English. They study spelling, punctuation and, as the English Department chairman puts it, how "to get from the subject to the predicate without harming themselves."
The situation is hardly better at the top of the higher-ed ladder.
Of the 50 leading American universities, only one offered a remedial writing course -- "Sub-Freshman English" -- in 1939. By 1993, 70 percent of them were teaching the equivalent of "Sub-Freshman English." Meanwhile, the history courses that were mandatory at 60 percent of the institutions in 1964 were required by only 2 percent in 1993. Literature requirements, which existed at 50 percent of the schools in 1964, had vanished entirely by 1993. More than half of the schools required students seeking a bachelor of arts degree to write a thesis or pass a comprehensive exam in 1964. Only 12 percent still bothered in 1993.
Rigor has all but disappeared from the American campus. A handful of schools are selective in their admissions, but the majority will take almost anybody. Which means that most high school students have no incentive to study hard -- and by the time they get to college, most don't feel they should have to. The collapse of standards, writes Hillsdale College President George Roche in The Fall of the Ivory Tower (1994), made undergraduate education "something to be gotten over or gotten through, and a bachelor's degree . . . a mere useful credential rather than a mark of special academic achievement."
A few professors and deans fought the academic dumbing-down. Far more acquiesced in the politicizing of the curriculum, replacing serious study with ideological indoctrination and "deconstructive" propaganda. Some insisted that even the basic tools of learning were nothing but oppressive anachronisms in the first place:
"A person . . . can learn a huge amount without being able to read or write at all," declared James Sledd, English professor emeritus at the University of Texas, in 1986. "It is a gross injustice to demand a mastery of standard English from students who through no fault of their own have had no chance to master it."
Of course, one can still get a good liberal arts education on an American campus. But it isn't easy. And it certainly isn't expected.
English majors at Georgetown are no longer required to study Shakespeare or Milton. Stanford's faculty voted to abolish the traditional "Western Civilization" course. In fact, writes Roche, by the late 1980s it was possible to graduate from 78 percent of the nation's colleges and universities without taking a course in the history of Western civilization; from 77 percent without taking a foreign language; from 41 percent without taking a mathematics course; and from 33 percent without studying the natural or physical sciences."
So what do college students take? The Virginia-based Young America's Foundation examined the 1996 course offerings at dozens of prestigious universities to find out. What it discovered was a bizarre array of political correctness, victim chic, and down-with-America "multiculturalism."
At Georgetown, where Shakespeare is out, "Prison Literature" is in. Students read books by criminals and "create an outreach that will join the incarcerated community with the community at large in order to help halt the 'prison mill.' " Haverford scholars can take "Sex and Gender on Film: Screwballs, Devil Dames, and Closet Cases" and explore "the sadistic film noirs of the '40s, the hysterical comedies of the breast-obsessed '50s, and the splatter/horror films of the '60s and '70s."
Brown University offers "Christianity, Violence, and Victimization," which teaches that "Christianity has helped to create and perpetuate a culture of violence, especially against women." Religion-bashing is also big at the University of Pennsylania, which gives credit for "The Historical Origins of Racism: Views of Blacks in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam." For more exotic theologies, try "Witches, Saints, and Seers" at Carleton College; "New Age Religions" at the University of California/Riverside; or -- to probe the vital issue of why "women synchronize their menstrual cycles" -- "Women and Religions of Africa" at Dartmouth.
"Black English" is taught at Amherst College, presumably for students whose language skills aren't quite bad enough. Those who still haven't heard the news about the Iron Curtain (it's gone) can spend a semester "Taking Marx Seriously." At Boston College, "Peace or War" focuses on "America's many bloody, often covert military interventions."
Higher education is sinking ever lower; eventually it will hit rock-bottom. Then the rot will be cut away, and the process of rebuilding begun. But the wait will be a long one. And in the interim, innumerable minds will be wasted.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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