For decades educators, journalists, and
politicians have told us repeatedly that Americans need to be better educated,
especially in engineering, the sciences, and business, in order to enable this
nation to compete effectively in the world’s economy. Similar stories have long
trumpeted the disparity in income between those with and without a degree. This
message has made a profound impact on people at all socio-economic levels, and this
fall more than 70 percent of the nation’s high school graduates will enroll in
some form of higher education. Despite the often incredible and inexplicable tuition
and costs demanded by colleges and universities in all parts of the country,
students are flocking to campuses in search of future prosperity. Polls have
often revealed that money is the most powerful motive in the pursuit of higher
At the same time, many observers have noted
that the quality of popular culture and general morality has declined sharply
as the number of college graduates has increased. Compare the general level of,
say, television in 1959 and 2009, and compare the best-seller book lists of
both periods. General literacy and taste in this country has slumped to the
level of MTV and Twitter. Movies, as any fan knows, are deliberately designed
to appeal to 14-year-old males. More babies than not are born of unwed mothers.
Abortion has legally claimed some 50 million lives in this country since Roe v.
I would like to touch upon two questions
that arise in these easily documented observations. First, should most high
school graduates go to college? Second, what should professors be requiring of
students to teach them that there is more to life than greed? If 70 percent of
all young people were broadly and carefully educated, shouldn’t we all be
enjoying a renaissance of great literature, music, philosophy, and theology as
well as a healthy stock market? In fact, despite our impressive technological
and scientific advances, we seem to be declining at many levels, including the
deepest and most profound issues of life: beauty, morality, and purpose.
Aberlour’s Law Number 13 states:
“Education is for the able and willing.” Let us begin with the
assertion that our 70 percent can be expected to handle college level work. This
is not much of an issue, of course, on elite campuses, institutions that accept
only the very top students. But most of our 70 percent will enter the vast
majority of colleges and universities that have virtually or literally an
open-admissions policy. I write from 36 years on such campuses and can assure
you that it is often cruel and senseless to coax people to learn who are simply
unable to learn.
The great preponderance of contemporary
educational and political theory assumes, most naively, that all people have
the same intellectual ability. Sensible people know that this is silly, but
political correctness demands that we confine the discussion of educational
policy to the impact of environment on the individual. We read that the
“disadvantaged” deserve scholarships because they have been
“short-changed” in life. This is not without some truth, of course,
but as the sole consideration for opening college classrooms to everyone it is
A subtle undertone of the desire to welcome
more students involves the economic interests of campuses: admitting more
students means more jobs, higher budgets, and (in some quarters) more prestige.
But even when we water down courses and majors (eg, mass communications and
recreational studies) and give higher grades (few professors are unaware of the
relationship between high grades and student popularity), most students
admitted to four-year open-admissions institutions fail to graduate. In my
experience, many of them leave campus after a semester or two. They simply
can’t learn. They may want to, but they can’t. And they often leave bitterly; no
one ever told them about the need to be able to read, write, compute, and think
on the necessary level. Many of my former students were working a 40-hour week off
campus and expected to be able to handle four, five, and even six college
classes at the same time. They were often stunned to learn that for a single class
they would have to read two books. Or even one.
Then there is the issue of being willing to
learn. Anti-intellectualism is rampant in the media and in the press (remember
when big city and local newspapers contained reviews of serious books?), so it
should be no surprise that it thrives on no doubt most college and university
campuses. In open admissions institutions the refusal to think about anything
deeper than the immediate and the self can be the toughest single problem
facing professors. I taught history and spent hours of class time trying to
relate the past to the present. One student demanded to know “What does
Teddy Roosevelt have to do with me?” So I tried even harder to make the
case. More often than not, the exams told me, I failed.
But what about those who make it through
the hurdles of higher education? What are they prepared for? It seems sensible to
me for people to be preparing for professional jobs. If business classes now
dominate the catalogues of many former liberal arts colleges and universities,
so what? We are no longer preparing “ladies” and
“gentlemen” with the linguistic and literary requirements common to
their class. If the contemporary business courses are intellectually
respectable and occupationally designed, there is no need to dismiss them with
a snobbish wave of the hand.
The failure comes with the unwillingness of
the faculty and administration of campuses to require, for all students, a
broad and meaningful range of courses, assuring a cultural and scientific
knowledge that makes one yearn to learn more and equips them with the tools for
understanding the past and present. (One just doesn’t “look things
up” in Wikipedia.) There’s nothing wrong with studying to become a
physical therapist. But the recipient of the degree should also know and
appreciate the greatest achievements of both Western and Eastern civilizations.
Solid examinations, required of all seniors to graduate, would also be of
immense value to those who care about the integrity of higher education.
Do we need more college graduates? Of
course we do. But let us not pretend that everyone can be college educated. And
let us be sure that those who do graduate know enough to crave the highest
culture and learning available. All Americans would benefit from the leadership
of men and women who are not only vocationally competent but conversant with
the ideas and ideals of the centuries. We need thoughtful people and they are
now in very short supply.
Reeves writes from Wisconsin. Among his dozen books are Twentieth Century
America: A Brief History, and biographies of John F. Kennedy, Joseph R.
McCarthy, Fulton Sheen, Walter J. Kohler, Jr and Chester A. Arthur.