The previous chapters have illustrated the specific ways in which the curricular offerings of the state universities of Michigan have been affected by trendy, ideological teaching methods and curricula that run counter to the requirements of a real education. This chapter reminds readers what a real education is and why it can only be traditional, dealing in the material validated by centuries of historical experience as essential to an understanding of human nature, life and the world.
The previous sections have documented the regrettable condition into which education in the state universities of Michigan has lapsed. Freshman composition—formerly the indispensable foundation of an undergraduate’s educational experience—is now commonly devoted to nonliteracy and to spurious forms of moral liberation. The foreign language requirement is nearly nonexistent and foreign language instruction, even if a particular major requires it or a student desires it, is increasingly subject to the same problems that have adversely affected freshman composition. The old liberal arts core curriculum has vanished. But what would higher education be if this had not occurred? In other words, what is the normative character of higher education? If the normative character could be established, the direction of reform would already have been indicated. A simple, commonly understood definition of higher education is required in the debate over the desired content of a curriculum suitable for a democratic society rooted in an historical tradition and wedded to the ideas of truth and accuracy embodied in the arts and sciences.
The late Allan Bloom, author of the best-selling The Closing of the American Mind, once wrote that a college education was civilization’s last and best chance to shape the typical American eighteen-year-old. Examination of the current system of undergraduate education found in the state universities of Michigan shows that eighteen-year-olds are not presented with a common core curriculum that will initiate them into higher culture and give them a shared vocabulary and body of intellectual experience. Rather, students encounter a bewildering array of “choices” without having learned the criteria by which to make good choices. This is the paradox of the existing curriculum. It is not plausible that persons in need of acquiring information and skills are in a good position to choose the information or skills they need to acquire.
Knowledge is the prerequisite to choice, not vice versa. Coupled with declining standards and the widespread deformation of course content, the existing system does not prepare students for an American society they are likely to encounter in their future. It will not prepare them to function well in a society based on law and rooted in tradition or in a technological order decreasingly mechanical and increasingly cybernetic in which traditional knowledge (such as that embodied by grammar) is more essential to the economic and social success of individuals than ever before.
The results of “window shopping” for a curriculum are demonstrably poor. The lack of intellectual rigor is evident not only when these graduates try to get a job, but once they have been on the job. Many of the documented comments by employers who hire new graduates from Michigan’s public universities are not flattering and suggest severe problems with the system. (See Recruiting Trends.) The poor performance of teachers trained and certified at schools of education—Michigan State University, Central Michigan University, and Eastern Michigan University—is also disturbing.
Relieving requirements and dismantling the traditional liberal arts curriculum has not led to an increase in the knowledge possessed by graduating seniors. It has not liberated, but has tragically shackled, students in the chains of ignorance. Flattering students by constructing a system in which they “select” from a large array of courses is thus tantamount to degrading their college experience and depriving them of knowledge.
The postmodern curriculum breaks with tradition and in many cases attacks tradition. The accusations against the traditions of American society heard today in English departments, and in the various special studies programs such as women’s studies and ethnic studies, is loud and of little intellectual substance. The implicit message of the existing system seems to be that students should value no knowledge over any other knowledge and that they should seek no determinable relation between the departments of knowledge. (Modern humanities faculties talk about “interdisciplinarity,” but demonstrate little understanding of how one discipline is related to another.) In attacking tradition and undermining the coordination of the disciplines, the “postmodern” curriculum violates a principle articulated by Camille Paglia that “universities should not be brokers of the contemporary.” She adds
The purpose of education is to open the remote past to students, so that they can learn from the voluminous human record of mistakes and triumphs. Professors have no business telling students about the present. The students are the present, and month-by-month, they are creating the future. Stop oppressing them with exhausted paradigms of the recent past. Each time a professor sets foot in a classroom, he or she is already history.
Paglia thus agrees with economist and sociologist F. A. Hayek who, in explaining how knowledge arises, asserted that “most knowledge…is obtained…in the continuous process of sifting a learnt tradition.” Paglia’s statement is also consistent with William Bennett’s words in his recent book The Devaluing of America. Bennett notes that:
We are a part and a product of Western civilization. That our society was founded on such principles as justice, liberty, government with the consent of the governed, and equality under the law is the result of ideas descended directly from the Western civilization—Enlightenment England and France, Renaissance Florence, and Periclean Athens. These ideas are the glue that binds together our pluralistic nation.
Bennett goes on to say that “it is simply impossible for students to understand their society without studying its intellectual legacy.” In chapter 4 we cited the words of sociologist James Q. Wilson, who writes fondly and respectfully about the freshman seminar that he was required to take that introduced him to the West’s intellectual legacy. These statements by Paglia, Hayek, Bennett, and Wilson indicate what a genuine higher education really is. Students today deserve a chance to acquire the same education, but, in the state universities of Michigan as they are currently constituted, that chance is slim.