The story of higher education in Michigan is beginning to resemble Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, The Emperor’s New Clothes: The naked truth is that much of the public’s money is being spent unwisely. Taxpayers, fee-payers, parents, and students are not getting the best return on their investment. The return that they should expect—well educated graduates with lots of general knowledge in addition to their specialized training—is less and less in evidence. The erosion of the curriculum which lies at the root of this decline meanwhile goes unchecked because our public colleges and universities are shielded from the discipline of market forces. Increasingly, fanciful and ineffective theories of instruction have become dominant, producing a greater number of students with less knowledge and fewer skills than ever before. Regardless of performance, however, the state universities of Michigan have a nearly guaranteed revenue stream from Lansing, year after year. As two researchers recently discovered, spending on the state universities of Michigan in the last decade has increased four times as fast as enrollment. This disparity is a sign that Michigan’s public universities are becoming top-heavy with expensive bureaucrats and faculty who teach our students little of real value, especially in the humanities.
These and related problems raise important questions of fiscal and educational responsibility. What do students, taxpayers, fee-payers, and the public have a right to expect of administrators and educators at Michigan’s fifteen public universities? After all, the state is spending more than $1.3 billion in tax money per year to support some 200,000 students. Alumni, foundations, and corporations are contributing many additional millions of dollars: In the 1994-95 academic year, private gifts to the University of Michigan totaled almost $150 million; to Michigan State University, about $50 million.
The public has already raised questions of fiscal and educational responsibility about Michigan’s public elementary and secondary schools. That our K-12 education system needs to be more accountable to constituents is now taken for granted by many. But in the debate over public education, little or no attention has yet been paid to higher education.
This report concerns the intellectual integrity of the undergraduate core curriculum in the state universities of Michigan. A core curriculum is the set of courses deemed essential which all students must take regardless of their major. The core curriculum has traditionally been the foundation of what is called a liberal education shared by all graduates. The core curriculum was commonly taken even by those earning degrees in technical subjects. In its study of The Dissolution of General Education: 1914-1993, the National Association of Scholars has documented a nationwide phenomenon that America’s “academic institutions are no longer as constitutionally well equipped as were their predecessors to define a unified vision of the essentials of undergraduate education.” A state-focused study made by the Empire Foundation of the State University of New York (SUNY) system, issued in August 1996, came to the same conclusion about higher education there. The state universities of Michigan have unfortunately not escaped from this decline of standards.
Chapter I, “The Evidence in the Marketplace.” This chapter reviews documentary information about the present outcome of general undergraduate instruction in the state universities of Michigan. Are graduates of the state universities learning the basic verbal and cognitive skills required by today’s professional world? Do they possess sufficient knowledge to exercise good citizenship?
Chapter II, “The Decomposition of English Composition.” This chapter reviews developments in the field of college-level writing instruction and discusses the ways in which college students have traditionally learned to master the use of sophisticated language. Is there a relation between the verbal achievements of college students and the way in which they are taught to approach writing?
Chapter III, “Foreign Language Follies.” This chapter examines the current state of foreign language instruction in the state universities of Michigan. What is the traditional function of foreign language instruction in the undergraduate curriculum? What do employers say about the importance of knowing a foreign language? Do emergent approaches to foreign language instruction achieve what traditional approaches achieved?
Chapter IV, “The Coreless, Canonless Curriculum.” This chapter shows how the premises of contemporary writing instruction have become the premises of liberal arts instruction generally. It also discusses the meaning of the phrase, core curriculum. Does a core curriculum exist in the state universities of Michigan as they are currently constituted? Do all students receive a similar, rigorous, general education during their undergraduate careers? What conclusions have been reached by recent external observers of the Michigan undergraduate curriculum?
Chapter V, “Teacher Training Fails to Make the Grade.” This chapter turns to teacher training and examines the way in which the state universities of Michigan train teachers. What is the relation between the undergraduate core curriculum and teacher training? What is the content of specialized teacher-training courses? What have external observers said about teacher training in the state universities of Michigan?
Chapter VI, “Sifting a Learnt Tradition.” This chapter briefly explores the ways in which a liberal education should be defined. What is the relation between education and tradition? What distinguishes the Western tradition from other traditions? What do students need to know?
Chapter VII, “A Few Encouraging Signs.” This chapter surveys events and ideas from Michigan and elsewhere which provide clear models for insuring that all undergraduates receive the same excellent experience of a liberal education. What do these events and ideas tell us about the nature of college-level education? What does their reception tell us about the self-image of the modern state university?
Chapter VIII, “Recommendations and Conclusion.” This chapter lists eleven steps which, if taken, would begin to rectify significant faults of the existing system of state-sponsored undergraduate education in Michigan. It answers the question, what can we do to make undergraduate education in the state universities of Michigan better?
This report is outlined as follows:
Five supplementary essays appear at the end of the main document. These treat areas of the curriculum that the primary author has not addressed.
A set of appendices concludes the report. This gathers statements made by recent critics of American higher education and juxtaposes them with statements made by advocates of a postmodern curriculum. (For the definition of postmodern, see below.)
The report’s thesis is that the state universities of Michigan, like their counterparts across the nation, have suffered from the intellectual downgrading and politicization of the curriculum. The traditional core curriculum which helped guarantee that all graduating students would share in the same body of knowledge and enjoy the same competence in cognitive skills—that they would possess what used to be called a liberal education of the type regarded as essential to a healthy civic arena—has been destroyed. The National Association of Scholars’ recent report makes the same assessment nationwide, using the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, as one of its prominent cases.
The major premise throughout the report is that, where it concerns tax-supported institutions like the state universities, the citizens of Michigan implicitly require that such institutions be run in a responsible manner and that, at present, they are not so run. Special interests and the proponents of questionable educational theories, many of them politically motivated, dominate the existing curriculum. This constitutes a crisis. Action is needed to restore the traditional undergraduate curriculum from its current desuetude and to revive it where it has disappeared.
An important corollary is that the disappointing level of learning in Michigan’s public schools will not be rectified until the low level of learning in the state universities is rectified. Universities that graduate students deficient in knowledge and ability will not be able to supply teachers who can teach at the high level which the modern culture and marketplace will certainly demand.
The report was prepared in part by acquiring course syllabi of key courses (basic skills courses such as freshman composition and advanced composition, teacher education courses, and introductory courses for literature and history) and other official descriptions of the curriculum. Among the latter were catalogs and recent course listings from all fifteen branches of the state university system: Central Michigan University, Eastern Michigan University, Ferris State University, Grand Valley State University, Lake Superior State University, Michigan State University, Michigan Technological University, Northern Michigan University, Oakland University, Saginaw Valley State University, University of Michigan (Ann Arbor), University of Michigan (Dearborn), University of Michigan (Flint), Wayne State University, and Western Michigan University. The catalogs are valuable, in the words of the authors of the NAS report cited above, “because they contain the most extensive information about degree requirements, course offerings, entrance requirements, and academic departments . . . they are the most authoritative and general formulations of institutional goals, and provide a clear statement of minimal expectations.”
The mass of documents included 144 individual section syllabi for freshman composition courses and another 63 for individual section syllabi of advanced composition courses. There were 57 individual course syllabi relating to teacher education courses; there were 63 individual course syllabi relating to required courses for students in teacher education programs (these included introductory courses in subjects like literature and history and specialized courses in how to teach K-12 students to read and write).
Supplementing the many course syllabi were textbooks used in the courses under consideration (these included anthologies and writing guides used in freshman composition and advanced composition courses, and textbooks used in introductory and specialized teacher-training courses).
In addition, the author examined newspaper reports—many from campus newspapers—concerning developments and changes in the respective curricula of the fifteen campuses.
The author communicated with faculty and students, studied course descriptions and graduation requirements, and correlated this information with a number of empirical studies of the academic competency achievement by graduates of the four-year programs in the state universities of Michigan. Readers will note that many attributions are made anonymously. This is because internal critics of the system may fear retribution for speaking out frankly and publicly. This alone is a sign of the academy gone awry.
A note about endnote references: Several source documents are actual classroom materials and course syllabi compiled by the instructor(s). In cases where the documents are not dated, the endnote reference includes the date the document was acquired by the author.
The report begins with the analysis of the empirical studies mentioned above. These studies are of great value because they were undertaken for purposes quite different from those motivating this report, yet they support its thesis.
Some Key Definitions
A number of terms may require definition. Some are polemically neutral but might not be familiar to lay readers; others carry a sectarian connotation which needs to be clarified. Others come from the vocabulary of the contemporary humanities or teacher education and may not be familiar to all readers.
The terms pedagogue, pedagogy and pedagogical ought to come first because of their importance in defining the problems and solutions addressed in the report. A pedagogue is a teacher (the term is Greek); pedagogy refers to a method of teaching, while pedagogical is the adjective derived from the noun. The report consistently distinguishes between traditional and contemporary pedagogies. In the controversy over how to teach college level writing, for example, the traditional pedagogy involves an explicit review of grammar and other language fundamentals, and written work, carefully graded by the teacher, in connection with in-depth reading of historically important texts. The contemporary pedagogy de-emphasizes or eliminates explicit instruction in grammar and tends to unlink writing from reading. Contemporary pedagogy in the humanities and teacher education often characterizes itself as “innovative” or “on the cutting edge.” These terms also appear occasionally in the report.
The term core curriculum has already been defined. It means the relatively fixed and limited number of courses that a student needs to take in order to become generally educated; it is, as it has been called, “an infusion of the whole.” A related term, liberal education, requires a definition on its own. Liberal education refers to the acquisition by the student of general knowledge concerning history, literature, language, geography, anthropology, and the sciences. The purpose of a core curriculum is to foster liberal education. Liberal education gives context to the specialized education that a student receives in the courses devoted to a declared major. Under the concept of liberal education, educators are supposed to make sure that scientists understand the humanities and humanists the sciences.
Especially in the chapter on freshman composition (chapter 2), the term grammar is used a great deal. This term embraces not merely the technical definitions of the parts of speech or the rules for constructing sentences, but an orderly and shared model of how to exercise reason.
Those who dismiss grammar often do so by attempting to reduce it to a pedantic obsession. Remember that the report is, in part, an attempt to show how we should treat undergraduates in the state universities of Michigan. Teachers should never burden their students with pedantic obsessions, but they should always give them the opportunity to acquire that model of how to exercise reason. If this entails rote learning in its initial stages, teachers should not avoid imposing such tasks on students.
The report addresses what it calls the postmodern university and postmodern pedagogy. The report adopts this term because it has been adopted by many in the academy to describe their attempt to break free from traditional categories. Those who refer to themselves as postmodern often claim to have discovered that the historical values of Western civilization are arbitrary, inhibiting, even oppressive. For example, the claim of traditional pedagogy that students will do better to read Shakespeare rather than to watch soap operas would be treated by those of the postmodern persuasion as entirely unobvious; their counterclaim would be that soap operas might tell students just as much about life as Shakespeare. Postmodern positions such as this lie behind many of the changes made in undergraduate curricula in the last twenty years.
The report notes that certain themes, claims or positions advanced by postmodern theorists in the humanities and teacher education are Marxist. Precisely because it is such an inflammatory term for so many people, Marxism needs to be carefully defined. Marxism is not merely the idea of a centrally planned economy practiced in nations like the former Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites, it is something much more than that.
In essence, Marxism is an all-embracing statement about human existence which begins with three founding propositions: (1) that self-awareness is derived from entirely environmental conditions and does not exist prior to their influence; (2) that individuality is a secondary function of collective or group affiliation, so that one is a woodsman or a clergyman, a member of the elite or of the masses, before one adds a few unimportant individual traits to one’s class identity; and (3) that the irreducible nature of social existence is class conflict, which pits one group against another implacably. Much of postmodern pedagogy embraces this idea of human life as class conflict.
Marxism has always presented itself as a doctrine for liberating the oppressed, but it ought to be remarked that Marxism’s procedure for liberation involves the stripping away of individual traits so that one can identify with one’s class. In this sense, Marxism has always been fundamentally at odds with the American—not to say the Western—idea that the individual is prior to the group. The American notion of rights, for example, as in our Bill of Rights, derives from the notion that rights belong inalienably to individual persons. The dissolution of the Soviet Union and the assertion of national autonomy by its satellite nations in the late 1980s and early 1990s represented a vast popular repudiation of Marxism as a controlling vision of life.
Two additional recurring terms are linked to Marxism: multiculturalism and diversity. The former, multiculturalism, initially sounds positive. It recommends that, in addition to studying their own culture, society, and civilization, students need to become familiar with “other cultures.” In practice, however, multiculturalism often drops the “in addition” and replaces the study of the Western tradition with the study of “other cultures.” The rallying cry of multiculturalism was first heard at Stanford University in the 1980s in the form of the protesters’ slogan “Hey-ho, hey-ho, Western Culture’s got to go!”
Diversity is a corollary of multiculturalism. Champions of diversity often claim that the Western tradition suppresses other traditions, which must therefore be inserted into the curriculum in order to serve justice. Both multiculturalism and diversity tend to castigate the Western tradition for its emphasis on ideas like the individual and reason, which are declared to be arbitrary and oppressive. Both multiculturalism and diversity stress groups over individuals and collectivity over individuality. In this they resemble, because they derive from, Marxism.
Another important and recurring term is theory. Postmodern academics use this word repeatedly and everywhere and they mean by it a way of thinking superior to what most people call common sense. Theory allegedly explains that what we ordinarily believe to be true is not true at all, or even pernicious. In the study of literature, for example, the exponents of theory claim that the great plays and novels and poems of the Western tradition are the mere product of ruling-class ideology and delusion, and that it is their duty to expose the fallacies contained, say, in Shakespeare’s Othello. Multiculturalism and diversity are thus both theories of human existence. So is deconstruction, a peculiar doctrine prevalent in today’s literature departments which denies that language has any fixed meaning or that individual speakers have conscious control over their own utterances.
As we near the end of a century of worldwide ideological conflict—conflict over opposed theories of existence—it is wise to exercise a skeptical attitude toward sweeping explanations of the world that begin with the proposition that what we know is wrong.
A word on the scale and intractability of the situation: The problems afflicting basic undergraduate education in the state universities of Michigan occur together and at once. They are simultaneous, complex, overlapping and sometimes subtle. But they are nevertheless susceptible to a logical, hierarchical analysis: Some are far more fundamental than others and in this sense “come first.” Although every problem cannot be discussed instantaneously, one can study the problems sequentially and thereby demonstrate their interrelatedness.