The state universities of Michigan, like their counterparts across the nation, are suffering from a general erosion of academic standards and a radical politicization of the undergraduate curriculum. The traditional core curriculum which guaranteed that all graduating students shared in the same body of knowledge and enjoyed the same competence in cognitive skills — that they would possess what was called a liberal education of the type regarded as essential to a healthy civic arena — is in tatters.
An important dimension of this overall problem is its effect on K-12 education in Michigan. Poor student performance and poor teacher preparation are directly related. Too many university graduates lack basic verbal and cognitive abilities. The reasons are disturbing: the disintegration of an effective core curriculum; the pervasiveness of trendy, politically — correct courses that stress indoctrination over genuine learning; the declining standards of instruction in writing and reasoning skills; and a growing gap between what students are taught and what they must know to succeed as teachers or other professionals.
In Recruiting Trends 1994-95: A Study of Businesses, Industries, and Governmental Agencies Employing New College Graduates, Michigan State University professor L. Patrick Scheetz reported findings from a survey of hundreds of firms, including many based in Michigan. He found that the ability to think critically, speak effectively, and negotiate skillfully is highly valued in a potential employee, but businesses are rarely finding graduates so equipped. "Employers," writes Scheetz, "believe college graduates are receiving degrees in academic majors with low market value."
Most college graduates more than forty years old will recall taking freshman English composition. That’s the course in which they learned the fundamentals of written exposition, including a review of grammar and syntax and some lessons in informal logic and the rules of evidence. A tedious but valuable course, freshman composition once sharpened universally applicable skills that helped students deal with future courses and careers. But at our state universities today, much of what passes for freshman composition is trivial and irrelevant, or worse. Heather MacDonald writes in The Public Interest, "The only thing composition teachers are not talking and writing about these days is how to teach students to compose clear, logical prose."
Course syllabi and related materials from English departments and writing programs throughout Michigan’s universities reveal a general lowering—and in some cases, an abandonment—of standards of correct writing. Self-expression and moral liberation (the "anything goes" approach) are often emphasized over prose competency. Consider this professor’s advice from a freshman composition course syllabus at Eastern Michigan University: "Don’t worry about writing perfect papers. I do not have a set standard for what I consider ‘good writing.’"
A survey of the master syllabi for freshman composition at the state’s universities reveals the dominance of what one University of Michigan professor terms "the myth of basic skills." According to this notion, there is no connection between explicit instruction in grammar and syntax on one hand, and the communication competency of students on the other. Emphasizing basic skills is characterized as "elitist," or as an exercise in "discrimination" against ethnic minorities, or as a manifestation of an "oppressive" economic system.
Dr. Peter T. Koper, Associate Professor of English at Central Michigan University, dissents from this prevailing orthodoxy. He sees these trends as inherently divisive. In Koper’s view, "Grammar is not elitist. It is, rather, quintessentially democratizing, the ability to use Standard Written English being the condition for participating in public life in this country and in much of the rest of the world."
A preference for trivia is also part of the problem in today’s teacher education courses. The curricula offered by university education departments are heavy on fuzzy "self-awareness," "multicultural," and other faddish or politicized material, and light on the hard knowledge of the subjects that teachers must eventually teach. One assignment, offered as a model to teaching assistants at CMU, asked students to watch and discuss TV talk shows like Oprah and Montel for two weeks of a fifteen-week semester.
Foreign language instruction is another casualty of current intellectual fashions at the universities. Knowing another language is often the first step in appreciating the society represented by that language. But today’s foreign language requirements are minimal and foreign language studies are falling prey to the same distortions that have rendered freshman composition non-functional. Courses that devote inordinate time to the lives and lifestyles of contemporary counterculture figures are an example.
Rigorous content in the traditional liberal arts has disintegrated in favor of cultivating emotions and politically-correct opinions. The result is a huge disservice to young, prospective teachers who invest money and years to prepare for the classroom but are instead diverted into shallow, unproductive and even irrelevant course work. The poor performance of Michigan teachers on accreditation exams should come as no surprise; based on what the current system subjects them to, we could hardly expect a different outcome. This report illustrates that the distortions and diversions afflicting teacher preparation are mirrored throughout much of the undergraduate curriculum at the universities.
In a number of other states, the problem of the "dumbed-down university" has already been recognized and a few people have begun to deal with it. Michigan can learn from these experiences. Wisconsin, for example, is reviving the study of "Great Books" of Western civilization. Boston and Columbia Universities now integrate a challenging reading list with their composition instruction, recognizing the traditional link between knowledge and the ability to express oneself.
Incorporated into this report are several short but important essays by other individuals: Carl Cohn of the University of Michigan on affirmative action and racial preferences; Arthur T. White of Western Michigan University on developments in mathematics education; John A. Clark of the University of Michigan on the evolution of the academic calendar; John S. Reist of Hillsdale College on how the teaching of language and literature at Hillsdale College differs from that in state universities; and Andrew Titus, a recent graduate of Central Michigan University, on his experiences with CMU’s curriculum for aspiring teachers.
This report concludes with recommendations for improving undergraduate education at Michigan’s state institutions of higher learning. Among the recommendations are these:
1. English composition teaching needs to be rescued from counterproductive and heavily politicized theories imposed by "experts" whose claims flout empirical evidence. Only by acknowledging the deficiencies and tackling them head-on can we make real progress toward the goal of a well-educated citizenry. Let the discussion begin!
2. The catalogues of the universities of Michigan contain hundreds of trendy, trivial, and politicized courses, many of which should be replaced with courses more in line with the carefully-focused liberal arts curriculum that once prevailed and served Michigan citizens well.
3. Every campus of the state universities in Michigan needs a rigorous and accessible Great Books program.
4. Alternative accreditation of English departments, writing programs, and other humanities departments and programs should be instituted.
5. Employers and alumni groups should become critically involved in the oversight of the universities.
6. The rules and regulations against political indoctrination in the classroom should be vigilantly observed and rigorously enforced.
7. The universities should work toward the adoption of an all-campus undergraduate core curriculum so that every student undergoes essential liberal arts education.