The core of the core curriculum, freshman composition, no longer serves its traditional purpose of instilling the habits of literacy in beginning college students. Freshman composition is, in this sense, symptomatic of the core curriculum in general. A core curriculum, defined earlier, is the set of courses in the arts and sciences deemed essential which all students must take regardless of their special area of study. Old catalogs from the state universities of Michigan show that, in the first half of this century, the Michigan system of higher education had a well defined and nearly uniform core curriculum for undergraduates and that this was rigorous and substantial. In the second half of this century, in a process that has accelerated in the last twenty years, the core curriculum—the common experience of all graduates and the basis of their intellectual competency—has ceased to exist in any meaningful way. In its place has arisen a profusion of disconnected and narrowly specialized courses. If the downgraded freshman composition course is the primary cause behind the poor intellectual performances of today’s college graduates, then the decline of the core curriculum may similarly explain their lack of basic knowledge in the arts, history and science.

Western civilization shows a continuous tradition of higher education centered on a remarkably stable, even though growing, set of texts regarded as embodying inescapable insights or knowledge.

The intellectual deterioration of the freshman composition course by postmodern pedagogues is the least known but probably the most significant nullification of the academic curriculum in higher education today. In a conversation, the head of the English department at one of Michigan’s private colleges refers to the process approach to composition as a “disease,” but worries resignedly that “nothing can be done about it.”[87] The same errors and obsessions that have damaged freshman composition, in many ways the most important course students take while at college, have also begun to make themselves felt in foreign language programs. This too has received little publicity.

The deterioration of the curriculum in the humanities has been, on the other hand, the topic of much journalism and many books. Popular books like Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind and Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education have presented the subject to large audiences. “Humanities” has traditionally meant literary studies in English and other language traditions, history, political science, sociology, anthropology, music and the arts. These disciplines constitute the core of what used to be called liberal studies or the liberal arts. This has very practical significance because, according to Recruiting Trends, employers want the graduates whom they hire to be, not just specialists, but “generalists.”[88] Indeed, as Recruiting Trends puts it, employers increasingly express the opinion that college students need to take “the liberal arts approach”[89] to their education.

Before answering the question of how the liberal arts currently fare in the state universities of Michigan, it will be useful to explain why employers, not usually thought of as concerned with the “soft” side of the curriculum, have come to regard the liberal arts as important to the success of new employees.

Liberal studies train the mind in all sorts of subtle ways. They promote self-reflection and increase the level of the student’s conceptual sophistication. It is clear from the dialogues of the philosopher Plato, who lived twenty-five hundred years ago in Athens, that the study of literature, history, politics, and music had already been understood by the Greeks as formative for and essential to meaningful adult participation in the higher life of the community. Simply put, study of these subjects forms and informs the mind; it trains the student in the arts of inference and argumentation; it instructs the student in the subtleties of human behavior; it encourages self-criticism; it enriches public and private life.

Although those who denounce this ancient tradition may claim that the modern liberal curriculum came into being only in the late nineteenth century with the founding of modern universities like Cornell or Stanford, and that its methods are arbitrary, the fact is that Western civilization shows a continuous tradition of higher education centered on a remarkably stable, even though growing, set of texts regarded as embodying inescapable insights or knowledge. This tradition is at the same time methodologically consistent.

Plato’s successor, Aristotle, said that “poetry” (by which he meant literature), was more important to study than history, because “poetry” illustrated a range of possible actions whereas history remained restricted to the actions in fact undertaken by past persons.

In the nineteenth century, the poet and scholar Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) famously argued that the study of literature and the arts had a civilizing effect on young people that could be gleaned from no other source. “From a man without philosophy,” Arnold wrote, “no one can expect philosophical completeness.”[90] The study of literature in particular, Arnold claimed, had the capacity to clear one’s mind of the narrow prejudices of one’s times and place, and was therefore important quite beyond its own intrinsic boundaries:

The more men’s minds are cleared, the more the results of science are frankly accepted, the more that poetry and eloquence come to be received and studied as what in truth they really are—the criticism of life by gifted men, alive and active with extraordinary power at an unusual number of points—so much the more will the value of humane letters, and of art also, which is an utterance having a like kind of power with theirs, be felt and acknowledged, and their place in education be secured.[91]

Arnold appears to be making the same argument as the employers cited by Recruiting Trends. Of course, Arnold thought that it was important to be broadly educated in other subjects, too, but he put the humanities (as we would call them) at the center of meaningful education. In a 1994 symposium sponsored by the National Association of Scholars,[92] Robert Conquest, a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution defined the humanities as the study of “the expression of our whole past, of our whole context of life and time—and not only ours.”[93] René Girard, Hammond Professor of French at Stanford (now retired), argued that “far from being arbitrary,” as its denouncers declare it, “the [traditional] literary canon [i.e., the set of great books] comprises the best in our culture and in other cultures regardless of specialization.”[94] (See also chapter 6, “Sifting a Learnt Tradition.”)

James Q. Wilson, James Collins Professor of Government and Management at the University of California at Los Angeles, remembered a powerful experience during his freshman year at the University of Redlands (California): “I was told that everyone must take a required course on the growth of civilization. Taught by various professors from the humanities, it introduced an eighteen-year-old California boy to Charlemagne and Shakespeare, the Goth[s] and the Visigoths, imperial Rome and imperial Persia, Confucius and Aquinas, Héloïse and Abélard, Rousseau and the Renaissance.”[95] Wilson doubts that the typical college freshman today has the opportunity to confront such life-changing revelations, so much has the traditional curriculum been dismantled. “Learning requires both awe and engagement,” Wilson writes, and only what is “great” provides these ingredients.[96]

A liberal element in higher education is important because the liberal arts train students to think critically and abstractly at the conceptual level and provide them with the knowledge that is indispensable to coherent argument about and genuine understanding of human relations. The liberal arts constitute the training ground of generalized thinking skills of the type that the employers surveyed by Recruiting Trends want graduates to have but find missing in them. The attitudinal deficiencies of new employees (“a sense of superiority was noted too”), for example, can very plausibly be derived from a lack of real introspective capacity, and this in turn can be derived from the absence of ethical instruction formerly implicit in a widespread humanities requirement in the general undergraduate curriculum.

Long-time history teacher Robert Money of Lake Superior State University has argued, in a conference presentation, that the exclusion of ethics from the college curriculum has had dire results. “There was a time,” states Money, “in the mid-nineteenth century, when secular morality held sway” and was an explicit theme at all levels of education. Money asks rhetorically, “Was that all so bad?”[97]

Today the traditional humanities curriculum is either harshly criticized or nowhere to be seen. A recent report issued by the National Association of Scholars, The Dissolution of General Education: 1914-1993,[98] concludes that the traditional core curriculum in American colleges and universities, with a few notable exceptions, has ceased to exist. Western Michigan University provides an example.

The only courses required of all students, regardless of their major, are those listed under Western’s “Intellectual Skills Requirements.” These are the entry level writing courses and mathematics courses, like freshman composition and beginning algebra (subjects which students used to learn in high school). As I have already shown, however, freshman composition lacks realistic orientation to the traditional standards of literacy. Western does insist on a “General Education Distribution Core,” as they now call it, to be completed before graduation by every student, but this only illustrates the ambiguity of contemporary undergraduate curricula, because the core itself is not what it claims to be. (The “core” used to be called a “program.”)

Under Western’s dispensation, there are three so-called categories—Arts: Creativity and Expression; Science: Context and Institution; and Society: Heritage and Prospect—embracing twelve so-called areas from which students must select a minimum of 37 hours of course work. The terms “category” and “area” need to be qualified because they normally imply a high degree of coherence; but in Western’s curriculum, the terms apply to large and conceptually nebulous groupings of courses. Under Arts: Creativity and Expression, the catalog lists 53 courses; under Science: Context and Institutions, it lists 43 courses; under Society: Heritage and Prospect, it lists 110 courses. The total number of courses from which students may select is 206 courses (up from 187 courses under the previous system).

Although the stated purpose of the “Core” is “to ensure academic breadth,” what the array of courses seems to offer is an eclectic experience likely to be extraordinarily different for each student. This is because the chances of any two students choosing an identical curriculum are very small. The types of education that stem from such a wide and unrelated range of choices are therefore likely to diverge remarkably in terms of their content and quality. Thus from Arts: Creativity and Expression, a student might select Art 120 and History 100. The former bears the description of a general and historical introduction to painting and sculpture; the latter of an introduction to the ancient phase of Western history. In their descriptions, both sound like good courses. But a student might also satisfy the same requirement by selecting Women’s Studies 100 and English 210, both of which deal primarily with film and other mass-media rather than with written material. (The postmodern curriculum is full of what its designers call “nonprint media” or even, as in the NCTE Standards, “nonprint texts.” Such “nonprint texts” can include comic books, posters, and other similar items.)

From Society: Heritage and Prospect, a student might select Economics 100, Contemporary Economic Problems, and Geography 244, Economic Geography. Again, judging by the course descriptions given in the catalog, these would represent substantive choices on the part of the student. But the student could also select Women’s Studies 200, described as an Introduction to Women’s Studies, and History 210, described as American history to 1890. The point has been made by Camille Paglia, Christina Hoff Sommers, and other feminist critics of feminism that Women’s Studies courses are today the most intellectually dubious courses offered on college campuses and constitute part of the de facto apartheid (the separation of race and gender groups) practiced under the regime of multiculturalism. American history might be an excellent course, although here, too, such courses are not always what they seem or claim to be.[99] The controversial National History Standards, condemned overwhelmingly in a special resolution by the United States Senate, originated in university history departments.[100] These standards, which many history professors would impose on public schools, promote what many scholars have identified as a narrowly sectarian rather than a broad and inclusive interpretation of history.[101]

In sum, Western’s “Core” appears to offer a smorgasbord of courses which might or might not give a student a solid grounding in general knowledge. The vast array of possible courses introduces a destructive element of chance into the curriculum. Most students probably do not choose a selection of courses that adds up to a coherent general education.

Central Michigan University’s “University Program,” which is the equivalent of Western’s Education Distribution Program, is similarly eclectic. So are the general requirements listed by Eastern Michigan University and Michigan State University. In all cases, the range of courses from which students are supposed to choose remains so wide that a common educational experience is all but ruled out in advance. Similar situations exist at Eastern Michigan, Michigan State, Wayne State, Grand Valley State, Ferris State, and other campuses of the state universities. This is no surprise: The smorgasbord approach to general education prevails everywhere in the state universities of Michigan.

Simply put, there is no core curriculum today. There is certainly no mandatory general and substantial course of the type described by James Q. Wilson that would introduce all students to the “Western Rational Tradition” (as John Searle calls it) and at least give them that as a common experience.

Gertrude Himmelfarb, Professor Emeritus of History at the City University of New York, has argued that one of the best things that could be done to improve higher education in the United States would be to “restore a core curriculum, a structured course of studies such as was common a few decades ago, not only at Harvard, Columbia, and Chicago but at most colleges and universities throughout the country.”[102]

Himmelfarb cites a recent National Endowment for the Humanities Survey which found that students could graduate from

  • 78% of the nation’s colleges and universities without ever taking a course in the history of Western civilization;

  • 38% without any history at all;

  • 45% without a course in American or English literature;

  • 77% without a course in a foreign language;

  • 41% without a course in mathematics; and

  • 33% without a course in the sciences.[103]

How do the state universities of Michigan compare to these figures? Rita Zürcher of the National Association of Scholars has been examining the documentable decline of the core curriculum at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and 49 other top ranked colleges and universities throughout the country. The results of her research form a major part of the NAS’s Dissolution of General Education, previously cited. When asked in an interview how closely the NEH figures cited by Himmelfarb tallied with what she knew about the core curriculum at the Ann Arbor campus today, Zürcher said that the correspondence was “very close.”[104] Large numbers of students are graduating from the Ann Arbor campus without any significant exposure to Western civilization, history, foreign language, mathematics, or the sciences. It is interesting to put these findings in historical perspective.

In 1914, the total number of course hours required to graduate from the University of Michigan was 120. (A “course hour” designates the number of hours per week that a given course meets; a four course hour seminar in history, for example, meets four hours a week for the fifteen weeks of the semester.) Of those 120 hours, 42 were mandatory course hours to be taken in a limited pool of carefully stipulated courses spread across four areas. Within these areas there were a total of five categories. The 1914 Catalogue makes it abundantly clear that these were substantial courses: The literature requirement actually stipulates a list of great books which students at that time needed to know before they can be admitted to the College of Letters and Sciences. The program imposed requirements in philosophy, history, economics, political science, fine arts, composition, and foreign language.

By 1993, as Zürcher’s tabulations show, this focused and explicit curriculum had been replaced by one in which students “choose” from among hundreds of courses in broadly outlined areas, many of which appear dubious.[105] Zürcher goes on to say that even putative requirements in what seem like traditional subjects (Western civilization or English literature) often turn out on examination to be diluted or imbued with sectarian politics.

The situation at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, the flagship campus of the state system, thus in effect resembles the situation at Western, where the likelihood of students receiving anything resembling a traditional core education is small, as is the likelihood of any two students receiving anything like the same core education. Turning from the University of Michigan specifically to the question of required subjects generally, Zürcher also points out that even where courses are described as mandatory, students may plead numerous special exemptions. Thus the core curriculum has not only deteriorated over the years; it has virtually disappeared in Michigan and the nation. The NAS document concludes with a statement relevant to the state universities of Michigan:

A large majority [of American universities] have . . . chosen to disguise virtually unrestricted options behind a facade of structure afforded by what are now generally called “distribution requirements.” While distribution requirements demand that a student spread his or her course selections among groupings carrying labels like “the humanities,” “the social sciences,” and “the natural sciences,” the courses contained within them . . . are in fact so numerous as to make it nearly impossible to predict what subjects the recipient of a baccalaureate degree will end up taking or to conclude that adequate guidance is actually being given to students.[106]

A memo from the General Education Council of Central Michigan University dated November 6, 1991, appears to show that this same problem not only exists, but is acknowledged, on the Mt. Pleasant campus. Discussing the University Program at CMU, the stated purpose of which is to constitute a core curriculum to be studied by all students, the memo declares that the Program has lost whatever coherence it might once have had. “Expectations [for the Program] have only partially been fulfilled in practice,” the memo states.[107] Conversations with CMU faculty indicate that little has changed in the nearly five years since the memo was directed to them and that, in some respects, the situation has worsened.

English departments stand at the core of the liberal arts curriculum. At both CMU and Saginaw Valley State University, the English departments have been debating (and enacting) what they call curricular reform. In both cases, however, the evidence strongly suggests a reform downward into ever less challenging concessions to popular culture and ideological extremism. A critic of the proposed changes at CMU writes that they would create even greater fragmentation of the English major than is the case in the existing (and by implication deficient) major: “The [new] plan,” the critic writes, “separates composition, critical theory, and the development of professional concerns from the reading of primary texts. It places the reading requirement fourth rather than first in the list of necessary elements of an English major.”[108] Descriptions of the “reformed” curriculum written by its advocates confirm the critic’s diagnosis: It incorporates the “diversity” movement, and it replaces well defined courses with courses in which the person doing the teaching would “focus on any area of English studies so long as students studied current issues in that area” (emphasis added).[109]

The phrase “current issues” denotes in this case the postmodern and multicultural topics of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, denunciations of Western civilization and attacks against free market capitalism. The history of such changes elsewhere suggests that these topics would quickly become more important than the primary texts even in those few courses where the primary texts are still used.[110]

The commentator on the CMU English curriculum went on to say that the proposed new English major seemed intent on disposing with literature in favor of so-called literary criticism. “Without a knowledge of primary texts [however], the student is hardly in a position to engage in criticism.”[111]

At Saginaw Valley State University, a faculty critic of pending “reform” of English requirements proposed for a general education program complained in a memo that, “some students will end up reading only popular texts, only writing by women or about gender issues, or courses taught to reflect the teacher’s interests or politics.” (Notice that this writer could just as well have been responding to the CMU curriculum, a sign that the problems under discussion in these pages are not isolated.)

The SVSU critic wrote that in many cases, “the proposed courses are not courses in literature” but in various dimensions of popular and mass media culture. “One reason to require the study of literature,” the critic said, “is to move students to study relatively complex and insightful literary texts that they would otherwise ignore.” The writer sums up the import of the “new” curriculum in these words:

Pleasing students is, unfortunately, the name of the game, now and in the future. But the proposed [new] curriculum will redefine “pleasing.” Now students still have a choice—of teachers, times, and course topics. But all the current courses include predominantly major works which present high level challenges to cognition and interpretation. [In the new curriculum,] courses emphasizing movies and novels, nonprint media, popular literature, nonliterary writing, contemporary writing, and cultural ephemera will be offered more and more frequently.[112]

Both cases show the influence of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), the dominant accreditation agency for English departments, and the source of virtually all the questionable pedagogies and theories which have so impacted the public schools in the last thirty years. NCATE’s influence is baleful and new agencies should be recruited to provide competition for its unsuccessful accreditation criteria.