The Eroding Foundations of Education

Recently the Wall Street Journal published an article detailing the failure of many colleges to require courses in economics, history, government, or foreign languages. As a result, the study shows, “A majority of U.S. college graduates don’t know the length of a congressional term, what the Emancipation Proclamation was, or which Revolutionary War general led the American troops at Yorktown.” More significant than the absence of basic facts are the growing complains from employers “that graduates are entering the workforce without basic skills such as critical thinking.” Representatives of some of the institutions negatively implicated by the report question the validity of the survey, pointing to an interdisciplinary approach where aspects of history and economics may be wrapped in an art or science class.

Scholars often lament the compartmentalization of the university, where academic disciplines become isolated. This often results in and perhaps is caused by academics focusing on narrower and narrower fields. As I have heard it explained previously: a good scholar will work to know more and more about less and less until eventually she knows everything about nothing. This is tongue in cheek, but does represent the trend of specialization and the lack of an integrated community of learning that exists in most academic institutions.

A Liberal Arts education was, and should be, designed to broaden the horizons of a collegian by exposing them to a variety of disciplines and viewpoints. In the past, a significant emphasis has also been to develop critical thinking skills and equip students to be good citizens. Now, there is a growing emphasis on acquiring skills to get a job.

As Jessica Kleiman noted in a defense of Liberal Arts degrees, the culture of competition of the United States leads us to be “so hyper-focused on career success that we lose sight of all the other things that make a person interesting, well-rounded and, ultimately, a good hire.” This drives students toward skill-oriented degrees, which is probably a wise economic move, but does tend to devalue non-technical subjects.

This has implications for elementary and secondary education, as well. The desire to get children the background to succeed in a technical post-secondary degree program may lead to a laser-like focus on math and the sciences at the expense of humanities for young students. An over-emphasis on STEM courses may be detrimental in the long term, not just for the individuals but for society.

In a 2013 article, Danielle Allen noted, You also can’t excel at citizenship if you can’t read, write or speak well, or understand the complexity of the world and think historically. History helps us understand the features of our worlds that are changeable and that require either reform, because they are damaging, or protection, because they are valuable but vulnerable.” When we weaken Liberal Arts, we will tend to diminish our intake of history.

It seems that the loss of emphasis on Liberal Arts puts us at a greater risk for the tyranny of the novel. Traditionally, there has been a roughly agreed upon though loosely bounded canon of literature that students studied and about which common knowledge could be assumed. This is similar to the common phenomena these days when someone quotes a movie or TV show and expects everyone to get it. For those of us who tend to be disconnected from those media streams, this makes for awkward conversations. We are losing our ability to hold inter-generational conversations with a shared vocabulary.

A concern over the shift away from more traditional forms of education is not new. In 1947, Dorothy L. Sayers delivered a now famous speech on “The Lost Tools of Learning.” She was lamenting the movement away from classical forms of education. She makes an interesting statement, “The modern boy and girl are certainly taught more subjects--but does that always mean that they actually know more?” She also noted that, though literacy was on the rise, people had “become susceptible to the influence of advertisement and mass propaganda to an extent hitherto unheard of and unimagined.” The departure from some of the traditional educational patterns in pursuit of a contemporary fixation on technology, methods, and novel social theories has a social cost that is not immediately apparent, but becomes more significant as the generations pass. As the chronological distance from liberal forms of education grows, the remnant of those skilled to handle arguments and avoid strawmen will dwindle.

We need engineers, scientist, and statisticians. However, it is not clear to me that an increase in technical emphasis must come at the expense of critical thinking, language arts, history, etc. In fact, it seems that an emphasis on these topics would only make the technicians of the world more capable of reasoning carefully, expressing the results of their research more cogently, and writing lucid procedures for using their products.

Studies pointing out weaknesses in common knowledge among college graduates are not cause for despair. There may be a number of reasons for a study to produce such results. However, such studies resonate with my own experience and correlate to observations shared by many of my friends. This gives me reason to suspect that this data point is worth consideration.

Could it be in our race to the top and search for a common core of knowledge we are failing to accomplish the main purpose of an education? This may be an opportunity to consider whether out educational philosophies are designed to create well-socialized animals or people capable of learning.