Once upon a time, the primary role of colleges and universities in the United States was to prepare a narrow slice of the elite for leadership. This was the purpose that motivated the creation of many of the older private schools in the United States, many of which have become major research universities. In a second wave, states began to establish flagship campuses not just to train leaders, but to prepare citizens to function in an ever more complex society, especially commercial society. This gave us the major campuses in public university systems in almost every state in the country. Again, some of them – the entire system in California, and flagship campuses in places like Michigan, Virginia, and North Carolina – became global leaders in scholarship, even as their educational mission arguably began to lag with the introduction of gigantic classes and the sloughing off of many teaching responsibilities in core undergraduate classes to graduate students. And in the third wave, more explicitly vocational campuses arose, where the research mission was real but not central, where such research as was done tended toward the applied, and where vocational training was easily the most important component of the mission – where, in other words, the accounting and nursing departments were far more prestigious and substantial than the philosophy and history departments.
Many critics of modern American higher education assert that along the way something critical was lost – in particular, the ability of the American university system to provide its students with such foundations for citizenship as an awareness of our common heritage, a cultivation for critical reflection, and so on. A recent report suggests
that at least on the first score, there is something to be concerned about. A group called the Intercollegiate Studies Institute measured the historical and cultural knowledge of college freshmen and seniors at 50 American colleges and universities of all sorts, and what they found is none too encouraging. In particular, at 16 of the surveyed school seniors know less
then freshmen about economics, history, and major works of American and Western culture. In the language of economics, the marginal product of four years of often incredibly expensive education with respect to these educational outputs in these schools is actually negative — students leave knowing less than when they got there. Most of the top performers are actually relatively pedestrian schools; the first university that can be truly categorized as elite is Princeton, which comes in at number 18 and adds 2.8% to what their students know on these matters while they are there.
The methodology of the study is not perfect – it would be better to compare incoming freshmen with themselves on the day they graduate, and freshman at elite schools come in knowing much more than freshman at more ordinary universities. (The study investigates only improvement at each school rather than comparing the knowledge of seniors across schools.) Perhaps the relatively dismal performance of such schools as MIT, Yale and Cornell, all of which have negative marginal products, is primarily a function of diminishing returns – the fact that their incoming freshmen already know so much anyway.
But I will be surprised if that is the whole story. It seems incredible that someone could spend four years and tens of thousands of dollars at such schools and not show any improvement. And another of the supplementary tables
indicates that while Yale freshmen know 69.8% of what, in the Institute’s judgment, constitutes an adequate education, Yale seniors know only 69.3%. At Central Connecticut State University, freshman and seniors know 39.1 and 44.1% respectively. So while Yale students and CCSU students are vastly different from each other when they get there and are still very different when they leave, the sense you get is out of a tremendously missed opportunity in both places, especially Yale.
I speculate, based primarily on personal experience rather than hard numbers, both that this pattern is worse than it used to be and that is a direct result of trends on campus for the past 40 years. Harvard University, historically the pacesetter in undergraduate curriculum despite its emphasis on research and graduate education, issued a report in the late 1940s that set the table for the modern general education curriculum – classes that all students must take, typically before they become immersed into their major. In a recent preliminary report
on the ongoing reform of general education there, the Harvard committee in charge of this reassessment spoke in a condescending tone toward the old pattern of general education, built as it was around the idea of a common core of knowledge that all college graduates should know:
Conant's vision went beyond Harvard. General Education in a Free Society is a Cold War document, and its conclusions are in many respects parallel to those reached by President Truman’s commission on higher education, headed by George Zook, which released its report in 1947. Conant saw two dangers in postwar America. One was increasing socio-economic diversity, which carried the risk of class stratification and resentment—fertile ground for subversives. The other was intellectual relativism, a lack of commitment to a common set of beliefs, which was exacerbated by increased mobility, and the declining authority of traditional institutions, such as church and family, which made Americans susceptible to indoctrination and fanaticism. Conant, and his committee, which consulted widely inside and outside the academy, believed that the educational system needed to provide a common culture that would serve as a unifying agent in a diversified society (a hope inherited from Matthew Arnold) and as a kind of benign national ideology in a nation wary of ideology. They wanted Harvard students to be aware of and to identify with the Western liberal and democratic traditions: hence an emphasis on canonical texts.
That even in 1947 there was concern about "lack of commitment to common beliefs" is striking in that in 2006 America the sources of competing identities are not simply mobility and “declining authority of traditional institutions,” but the new (largely manufactured in my estimation
on more than one occasion
) identity anchors of race, religion,
sex and the other usual suspects. If anything, the pressures of disintegration are greater now than then. The new general-education program at Harvard will emphasize several things that now deserve emphasizing more than in 1947 – better knowledge of science and technology, a more internationalized curriculum and undergraduate experience, and an understanding that cultural beliefs come out of the social hardwiring contained in common historical and cultural experience. But, alas, the expected stance of the Harvard faculty toward these competing cultural frameworks will not be to cultivate loyalty to the liberal idea, but that you simply understand how it is that everyone is coming from his own cultural predispositions, according to this separate report
First, it makes less sense today than ever to speak of a single list of works as constituting "what every educated person should know." Cultural traditions—strings of interlocking styles and themes and forms—are multiple and multiplying. It is not that there is no canon; there are many canons, products of diverse combinations of backgrounds, tastes, and experiences.
Second, the practice of categorizing literature and the arts by nationality, region, and ethnicity is increasingly recognized as problematic. The more we become aware of the degree to which cultural traditions feed off one another across national, regional, and ethnic boundaries, the more we realize that it has always been this way. Culture is fluid; traditions are mobile. At the same time, it is often in the name of their culture that national and ethnic groups engage in conflict with other groups. The role of culture in shaping identities and communities is not simple. Giving students a "sense of the past" is crucial to achieving the goals in this area. Students need to know that the culture they have grown up with is a product of long histories of influence, exchange, and conflict.
Courses in this category expose students to important works from one or more cultural traditions; teach them why these works once mattered and why they continue to matter; and to introduce them to the complexities of culture's role in identities and communities.
To some extent this is almost self-parodying gibberish; the nature of a "canon" is that there can only be one. To say that there are "many canons" is just a fancy way of dodging the fundamental questions – whether we in the West are distinct in, for example, a devotion to free inquiry that is resented by many (how many scholars at Middle Eastern universities feel comfortable criticizing the most retrograde interpretations of the Koran as the primary basis for society's laws?) and, if so, whether that sense of commonality should be cultivated in our students so that they may be prepared to defend it if need be.
In that sense, Harvard is arguably behind the times. Many universities, including mine, have long since altered general education to include the Western cultural experience as one of several cultural cups that students must partake of, a forced equality between the liberal culture that generated multiculturalism and the illiberal cultures that use it to keep the virus of liberalism from penetrating their own closed societies.
And so is not surprising that when the distinct history and culture of the US and the West are not seen as particularly
ennobling or important, they receive relatively scant attention by university faculties devoted to both training in highly specific disciplines they admire and a not-first-among-equals approach to Western culture in particular. So scant, in fact, that students apparently emerge from their undergraduate years knowing not much more or even less about this heritage than when they got there. Something must be filling those four years, and one supposes that it is some combination of vocational training and learning about other important cultures, about the weaknesses of our own, or about the baleful influence of the idea of cultural superiority to begin with. Does it matter? That depends, I suppose, on whether the Western heritage of liberal inquiry is an objectively valuable end in and of itself or a cultural singularity, no better or worse than any other “combination of background, tastes, and experiences.”