This chapter offers a survey of events and ideas from Michigan and elsewhere which provide clear models for rectifying the problems reviewed in the previous chapters. The trivialization and downgrading of the undergraduate curriculum is not confined to Michigan but is a nationwide problem. In some other states, the problem of the downgraded university has already been recognized and a few people have begun to deal with it. Michigan can look to their example.
Can the state colleges and universities of Michigan improve what they teach and the way they teach it? The prospect of reforming and restoring humane learning in our public universities will prove a daunting task, but more than one observer has suggested how it could be done. Historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, for example, calls for a number of bold steps: “Restoring a core curriculum, reducing the number of peripheral courses and programs, cutting back on the number of administrators, reversing the process by which liberal arts colleges have been transformed into universities, eliminating the category of teaching assistant, and reinstituting the old prohibitions against indoctrination in the classroom.” Many of these steps deserve consideration. There are, however, a few reforms which seem particularly urgent. These reforms need to be made together and they have implications beyond the state universities. Many problems in Michigan’s public K-12 schools are directly related to the problems in the state universities. To correct problems in our K-12 schools we must reform the universities.
The centrality of a traditional reading list to liberal education has already been mentioned. An important part of restoring the core curriculum in the state universities of Michigan is establishing, on one or more campuses, a well defined great books program.
Next door to Michigan, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, recent events ought to encourage those who fear that satisfactory reform is impossible. On May 17, 1995, in what the National Association of Scholars describes as “a landmark in the history of higher education reform,” the Academic Program and Curriculum Committee of the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee “approved a certificate program in the study of the liberal arts through the Great Books.” The driving force behind this program, Associate Professor of Classics David Mulroy, faced strong opposition from established interests who opposed his proposal because of its “Eurocentrism.” Mulroy contended that dilution of the liberal arts curriculum had reached the point where something needed to be done to restore integrity to the educational experience. Mulroy says, “Among other things, a Great Books approach suggests that a student’s most important job is to grasp the author’s intended meaning. . . . I found that this aspect of the program was enthusiastically supported by a number of students who in effect had run screaming from the courses taught by feminists, multiculturalists, and Afrocentrists.”
The great books Program, as Mulroy conceives it, challenges students with specific knowledge at the same time it teaches them the universally applicable skill of understanding difficult arguments. Remember that according to the literacy survey called Learning by Degrees, the typical level of “literateness” of four-year college graduates is regrettably low. Remember also that, according to Recruiting Trends, employers consistently say that a rigorous liberal arts education is one of the best forms of preparation for the professional workforce.
One of the first things that needs to be done in the state universities of Michigan is to institute Mulroy’s great books Program or something like it on one or more of the larger campuses on a trial basis. The University of Michigan at Ann Arbor does have a great books program, although it is not central to nor prominent within the curriculum. Even so, it might be as good a model as Mulroy’s. Central Michigan University, because it is centrally located, because it draws its enrollment statewide, and because it turns out 60 percent of the state’s public school teachers, would be a good place to implement one or another of the existing great books models.
The program should initially involve students whose overall performance could be tracked to show how they do outside the program. Their performance would then be compared with that of other students in the prevailing curricula. Tracking these students is critical to the success of the experiment and would enable the making of a powerful case for whichever method of instruction produced the best results. A lack of accountability characterizes many of the new humanities curricula and programs instituted over the last twenty years. No reliable evidence has been found that indicates that these new curricula and programs were inaugurated for the purpose of discovering whether they produce educationally valid results. The whole array of postmodern and multicultural special interest programs seem to have been imposed on the universities by faculty demands, without safeguards to protect students from peculiar political agendas. They have become established in our academic institutions without reference to marketplace demand and with inadequate review of their consequences.
Freshman composition is in need of reform. Today’s teaching methods have not produced students with superior communication and reasoning skills. The process approach is used in over 90 percent of the freshman composition classes in the state universities of Michigan, but its success or failure has not been submitted to empirical verification. A public trial run of an alternative approach, with subsequent tracking of student performance, would be extraordinarily valuable.
Peter T. Koper, the associate professor of English at Central Michigan University whose view of freshman composition was cited in chapter 2, has outlined the details of such a trial run. Koper regularly teaches a version of freshman composition which stresses remediation in grammar, intensive practice in reading, and careful instruction in both informal logic and the use of evidence. This traditional version of freshman composition is very different from the process approach to the course. Koper generally teaches two classes of freshman composition in a semester. With 25 students in each class, this is 50 students per semester and 100 students per year—enough students for a valid test. If Koper’s 100 students were paired with 100 students from process approach classrooms, and if both groups were tracked and regularly tested throughout the remainder of their four or five years of undergraduate studies, this would offer an empirical test of the comparative value of the contrasting pedagogical approaches. With sufficient publicity, the results of the experiment would permit conclusive statements to be made about the validity of one approach or the other.
Koper, like Steve Kogan and Heather Mac Donald, believes that students drilled rigorously in the thinking habits that go along with intensive reading and writing will exhibit a higher level of performance in all other areas of their scholarly activity than students who have been taught by the process approach or instructed by their peers. The NCTE Standards, which might be called the Bible of the contemporary language arts, stakes the claim that, “through their writing, editing, and revising experiences, students [will] come to understand that a composition may never be truly finished.” The failure to set goals implicit in the NCTE claim may lead directly to students who never achieve high-level linguistic mastery. Heather Mac Donald and Steve Kogan have shown in their articles that the process approach to writing instruction produces poor results.
Koper claims that he, on the other hand, teaches his students to write linguistically competent, argumentatively sound, intellectually significant essays. And Koper is willing to submit his own theory to a public contest. The only cost of Koper’s experiment would be the tracking and testing of the two hundred students, and verifying the methods by which they were instructed. This would be money wisely spent whether it came from state funds or from another source.
The reform of freshman composition and the reestablishment of a specific and challenging core curriculum go together. They both need to occur at the same time if undergraduate education is to become more meaningful and effective. Teacher education, too, would potentially benefit enormously from such a reform.
There are a number of examples of this simultaneous restoration in addition to Mulroy’s in Wisconsin. At Boston University, the curriculum integrates instruction in writing with intensive and substantial reading in the required four-semester “humanities core course.” The National Review College Guide reports that, among the required readings in this ambitious two-year course, are “the two seminal strands of the Western tradition,” including the Hebrew scriptures, Homer, Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, the Gospels, and St. Paul, with non-Western texts like the Baghavad Gita and Lao-Tzu’s Analects, added both to honor other traditions and to show the differences between “the West and the rest.” Columbia University’s Great Books curriculum likewise ties the cultivation of mastery in expression with acquisition of a core of substantial knowledge, and here too we find Plato, Aristotle, Isaiah, Matthew, Augustine, Dante, Machiavelli, and other great writers.
Michigan’s Hillsdale College, like Boston University and Columbia, integrates a challenging reading list with its composition instruction, using texts drawn from the same canon of great books that supplies similar courses elsewhere. All of these courses recognize that language acquisition, from its rudimentary beginnings in infancy through its higher cultivation is at least in part imitative, and that it is mainly through confronting the great models of argumentation and the clearest demonstrations of inference that students will learn how to argue and how to infer. For the purposes of these courses, literacy is not “constructed” by each individual, but learned by example. These courses also recognize the link between knowledge and the ability to express oneself. This contrasts sharply with the overwhelming majority of freshman composition courses in the universities of Michigan, which maintain a minimal connection between reading and writing.
A specific model for how to integrate writing and the great books has been offered by Tracy Lee Simmons, who teaches the classics in translation at a college where modern pedagogies prevail. Simmons tells the story of one of his students who had had run into a friend in the bookstore while purchasing the required texts—Aeschylus, Sophocles, Plato, Virgil, and others. “You’re lucky to read the old stuff,” the student’s friend told her, complaining of what she had to read. She then pointed to slick editions of Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, and even The Silence of the Lambs. She had viewed the film The Silence of the Lambs three times and didn’t understand why she now had to read the novel. Simmons also failed to understand why the student had to read it.
Simmons’ anecdote rebuts the “relevancy” argument used by professors seeking to abolish or diminish traditional education on the grounds that it does not speak to the supposed needs of contemporary students. Indeed, many students do not seem to accept the argument. Simmons goes on to describe how he began his course with the Meditations by the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. “This brief collection of thoughts, impressions, and anecdotes occupied a niche amongst educated readers until two or three generations ago,” Simmons writes, and it hardly seems “to fit the current cultural environment.”
Nevertheless, Simmons’ students responded positively to the assignment, and Simmons soon found that the Meditations enjoyed a currency among those in the student body who had taken the course. Written work in response to the Meditations was remarkably engaged suggesting that this very traditional reading assignment had helped students find the inspiration for genuine intellectual work and reasoned personal assessment.
Such reactions are consistent with recent work on the history of literacy showing that the degree of literacy of a society is heavily dependent on what people read rather than the mere fact that they read or are able to read. Literacy is a qualitative phenomenon related to the ability to make inferences from densely packed ideas and arguments, a feat which involves the possession of a shared body of knowledge, a point made by the authors of Learning by Degrees. Literary texts have traditionally supplied the arena in which young people acquire and hone such skills. “In our time,” wrote Allan Bloom, “the study of texts is particularly needful”; and this is because today more than ever, we require that “purging of acquired prejudices and of all the categories of thought and speech derived from contemporary or recent philosophy” which only the traditional can give us.
The author’s previous research has argued that unless students are urged to submit to an intensive program of difficult reading—what used to be called college-level reading—they will never develop the type of critical acumen of which Bloom speaks. (See the author’s article, “Epistemological Correctness in English 101,” scheduled to be published in Academic Questions, Winter 1997.)
What teachers teach ought to be consistent with what centuries of historical experience has shown to be effective in developing the higher cognitive capacities of young adults. Young people should sift the learnt tradition (in Hayek’s concise phrase). However, this is too seldom the case. On campuses where time-proven content and methods are discouraged, reform is needed to reverse the trend of declining literacy and cognitive skills.
Charles Sykes notes in Profscam that the thirty-year trend in higher education has been to have professors teach less and less: “At the University of Illinois, only slightly more than 50 faculty members in the Economics Department taught even two courses in the fall of 1987. . . . At the highly ranked University of Michigan, some top-salaried professors teach so few classes that—figuring in university breaks and frequent holidays—they are paid nearly $1,000 an hour for their contact with students.”
A recent story in Barron’s makes a similar point: “Productivity at colleges,” writes author Jonathan R. Laing, “could be boosted materially by a greater emphasis on teaching and imposition of heavier teaching loads.”158 Further, as Hillsdale College President George Roche observes, “On average, academic salaries rose faster than the rate of inflation every year during the 1980s; an assistant professor was making well over $40,000.”
At publicly financed universities, what are taxpayers, parents, and students getting from their investment of time and money? Certainly not as much teaching as in former times. Teaching seems to be de-emphasized in hiring and promotion, and in its place, research is apparently what the public is paying for. But much of what is called research in the humanities is of questionable quality. Laing notes that “many papers in academic journals are stupefying in their pedantry and irrelevance.” Roche lists the following titles as representative of papers delivered at a recent convention of the Modern Language Association (MLA), the umbrella organization for English and other literature professors:
“The Sodomitical Tourist”;
“Victorian Underwear and Representations of the Female Body”;
“Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl”;
“Is Alice Still in Phallus Land?”;
“Strategies for Teaching a Feminist Political Latin American Culture Course”;
“The Lesbian Phallus: Or Does Heterosexuality Exist?”;
“Self-Consuming Fictions: The Dialectics of Cannibalism in Recent Caribbean Narratives”;
“Assume the Position: Pluralist Ideology and Gynocriticism”;
“Personal Experience Stories of Amazonized Enchanted Beings”; and
“Gender and Sexual Relationships in the Great Beyond.”
Sykes, too, calls attention to the nature of contemporary discourse in the humanities, dubbing the type of language typical of professorial (or MLA) prose “Profspeak.” Using Profspeak, people who have nothing to say can cause what they say to “sound impressive, [permitting] the most commonplace observation [to appear] immeasurably profound, even if the subject is utterly insignificant.” In addition, Profspeak makes it “much easier to avoid having to say anything directly,” and “it is easier than real thought or originality.”
Papers with titles like those listed by Roche, which Sykes would probably consider to be written in Profspeak, fill the rosters at the academic conferences and crowd the academic journals. Most colleges and universities routinely reimburse faculty for the expenses of attending the conferences and many, as some critics charge, in effect provide a subsidy for the writing and publication of such papers by staffing the classrooms with adjunct faculty and teaching assistants so that the professors can pursue this type of research.
This arrangement is what led novelist Saul Bellow, in his novel The Dean’s December, to have his main character, Dean Corde, refer to academic salaries as a kind of welfare for idle intellectuals. Bellow might verge on rhetorical overkill (his protagonist runs into trouble for having opened his mouth), but probably does not cross that line when one considers how closely his fictional scenario parallels reality. The typical contemporary American university, especially in respect of its humanities departments, could be described as a kind of club where various erudite and narrowly special hobbies take place at taxpayer expense. These hobbies often have little or nothing to do with higher education as traditionally defined. They often have no relevance to the real needs of students. Too often they are antisocial and perverse, insulting the values that many students bring with them from their family and community environments.
Camille Paglia refers to “the conference crowd,” in particular, as “an international party circuit of literary luminaries” who are in many respects “amoral,” and whose relationships with one another are mediated “by cronyism, favoritism, patronage and collusion.” As currently constituted, the public universities appear to serve the professors far more conveniently than they serve the students, at least on the humanities side of the curriculum.
Tenure, a highly valued concept in the academy, offers faculty an advantage not enjoyed by the members of any other profession: a practical lifetime guarantee against job loss. The long standing argument for tenure, that it protects academic freedom, carries some weight, but the domination of the existing liberal arts faculties by ideologues suggests that a real result of tenure is to prevent entry into the profession by those who do not espouse the reigning orthodoxy. Tenure in the existing system aids academic mischief and dereliction. Faculty members who abhor “elitism” often describe themselves as representing the exclusive “cutting edge” of professionalism, and a “cutting edge” by definition can have room only for a few. So by definition, that cutting edge could be said to represent the elite. One solution to the problems of tenure may be to replace it with five-year renewable contracts that more nearly characterize the professional world outside of the academy. Having to face renewal on a regular basis would force any mischief makers and propagandists to devote more productive time and energy to the profession that taxpayers, students, and parents pay them to exercise: teaching young people to become intellectually competent.