Friday, December 21, 2007

The Sky is Falling (as Usual)

Whenever right-wing critics of higher education run out of ideas, they begin spelunking through college catalogs looking for ridiculous-sounding course titles like "The Sociology of Star Trek" (I think I made that one up, but you never know). The aim here, of course, is to score cheap points with the rubes while simultaneously chipping away at the legitimacy of the academy. This sort of thing comes as naturally as mouth breathing to the folks at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, an organization whose goal is to exile every liberal college professor to Guant√°namo (I exaggerate, but only by degree).

From the ACTA blog comes word of the latest set of supposedly outrageous university offerings, courtesy of one Mark Bauerlein, a culture warrior who draws his paychecks from Emory University. From this perch atop Atlanta's most elite and private ivory tower (conservative academics face such frightful discrimination, do they not?), Professor Bauerlein favors us with the latest survey of "fluff" courses, each designed to soften the brains of America's youth to the point where our new Chinese masters can take over without a fight. You probably already know, but all this is the fault of the aging ex-hippies who dominate the halls of academe and enforce sensitivity training on anyone who still refers to flight attendants as stewardesses.

Because he is a culture warrior instead of a garden-variety anti-academic nag, Bauerlein conflates the old style gut courses ("Reading Superheroes") with catalog entries that strike him as unacceptably leftist or otherwise politically correct ("Che Guevara: The Man and the Myths"). Thus, not only does Bauerlein decry the usual cultural fluff, he also takes on courses that are little more than "tendentious counters to mainstream Americanisms". He fails to deconstruct his notion of "mainstream Americanisms", but one assumes these probably have something to do with the virtues embedded in movies by John Wayne and songs by Pat Boone. Why else would we be expected to find objectionable a course subtitled, "Exploring Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Issues"?

Bauerlein, however, assumes that his audience (he is blogging for the Chronicle of Higher Education) may consist largely of ovo-lacto vegetarians and Joan Baez fans, so he requests that we regard these courses not "in the customary (and accurate) light of political bias", but rather "in relation to something else: the intellectual condition of the students". Think about the children! It is a delightful rhetorical gambit, the sort that conservatives frequently employ when they want to get "down" with their liberal "homies".

But all right, let's go ahead and think about the children, or in this case young adults. Bauerlein points to last year's survey by the National Assessment of Education Progress that asserted that many U.S. college graduates know less about American history than the average Manchurian house pet. According to the author, less than half of all American collegians could meet even basic history standards, and they may actually have known less than they did immediately upon graduating high school.

As an example—and one obviously hand-picked to appeal to his liberal target audience—most "could not explain an old photo of a theater sign that announced, “COLORED ENTRANCE.” If true, this is, indeed, tragic and in need of correction. Perhaps Professor Bauerlein might agree with me that a mandatory course on African American studies is indicated. Whaddya say, Mark?

Lesser outrages include the fact that "only 54 percent of [survey respondents] were able to read a sample ballot correctly, and only 16 percent provided 'complete' or 'acceptable' explanations of how the legislature and judiciary check a president’s power." On the first point, it is odd to see a right-wing culture warrior decry the single lack of skill most responsible for the election of George W. Bush in 2000. As to the second, and speaking of Bush, is it any wonder that young people who came of age during the past seven years have no idea how Congress and the courts limit presidential power?

I don't know, or care, enough about the National Assessment of Education Progress to explore the issue much further. I do know that the NAEP is an instrument of the U.S. Department of Education, yet another highly politicized subsidiary of the Bush administration. Regardless, the conclusion that higher education is causing a decline in knowledge vis-√†-vis high school—which is how right-wingers chose to interpret the report—is laughable. The proper test of such a hypothesis would, of course, be to compare college seniors with randomly selected peers of the same age (21 or so) whose educational experience ended upon completing twelfth grade. I would be willing to bet some serious coin that, in such a test, the college kids would do much better than their real world counterparts.

Clearly, too, we should recognize that any yardstick defining "basic" levels of knowledge is necessarily arbitrary. Reasonable people could certainly disagree over just how much information is enough to meet this standard. We shouldn't assume, therefore, that over half of our college graduates sound like Paris Hilton on the set of Jeopardy.

In the end, Bauerlein's brief polemic is unpersuasive. Occasional gut classes, if that's in fact what they are, never hurt anyone. Learning probably should be fun sometimes, and a seemingly silly course here and there does nothing to prevent universities from requiring multiple history courses, or Western Civ, or Shakespeare, or anything else that warms the right-wing heart. If there is a problem—and it's a big if—it has little to do with the stray topical course students might choose to take over their four years in college.

As for the question of political bias (which is Bauerlein's real hobby horse), anecdotal evidence demonstrates nothing. As I've mentioned before on this blog, the overwhelming majority of college classes are without political content, and even in the social sciences and humanities, professors typically strive to represent all viewpoints. Indoctrination is a myth perpetrated by people who misperceive their own biases as unvarnished truth.

With respect to education, both higher and lower, the sky has been falling all my life. Claims about the decline in standards predate my memory and go all the way back to Socrates. When my parents were in school, it was John Dewey who had ruined America's youth; when I was young it was Dr. Spock. Today, right-wingers blame the Woodstock generation. Tomorrow it will probably involve professors brought up listening to rap music. Yet life goes on and the sky remains above our heads, as blue and promising as ever.

We'll be all right, so long as everyone reads their ballots properly next time.

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