These eleven policy recommendations would begin to improve the existing deficient undergraduate education system in a meaningful and healthy way:
1. The teaching of English composition needs to be rescued from counterproductive and politicized theories imposed by self-proclaimed experts whose claims are not supported by empirical evidence; and steps must be taken to ensure that all students master mathematics and science at the college level. The state universities of Michigan need to return to traditional methods because those methods generated the high levels of literacy and associated cognitive competencies which students no longer gain from their education. A rescue of this sort is badly needed in the case of English composition, and a number of models for successfully instilling higher literacy in first-year college students already exist. Public trials of these alternative methods on one or more of the state university campuses would enable administrators to decide whether or not contemporary fads and theories are superior to traditional pedagogy. The former theory prevails, and the consequence is a demonstrably low level of literacy among college graduates. Give each method a chance to prove its worth and the students a chance to benefit from whichever is better.
2. The curriculum needs to be pared down drastically. The course catalogs of the state universities of Michigan contain hundreds of trendy, trivial, and politicized courses whose presence, in effect, dilutes the curriculum and degrades the educational experience for all students. A carefully focused liberal arts curriculum is the traditional basis for specialization in the junior and senior years. The model for the neotraditional curriculum is found in the pre-World War I catalogs of Michigan State University. Administrators should examine the history of their institutions for ideas about how to make existing education better.
3. Every campus of the state universities of Michigan needs a rigorous and accessible great books program. One of the most proven ways to teach undergraduates the subtle skills and specific knowledge which they need to know in order to be genuinely educated is to put them through a great books program of some sort. Many models of the great books approach to liberal education exist and any one of them, implemented on any of the second-tier campuses on a trial basis, would demonstrate the powerful effect that careful guidance through classical texts can have on young people, both intellectually and ethically.
4. The state universities of Michigan need to reduce the number of graduate programs: With the exception of one or two designated research campuses, graduate education needs to be radically de-emphasized. Graduate programs inevitably draw disproportionate resources, reduce the amount of contact time between regular faculty and undergraduates, and put undertrained and undereducated teaching assistants into classrooms in place of the professors. The need for graduate humanities programs on the second tier campuses should be scrutinized especially carefully. New graduate programs at the second tier campuses, especially when these are doctoral programs, should be resisted by the governing boards of those institutions at least until competent undergraduate education is firmly reestablished.
5. The state universities of Michigan need to offer aspiring teachers an entirely different type of education than what they are currently getting. Teachers-in-training should take far fewer specialized courses in the education departments and schools of education and far more substantial courses in their majors. Putting in place a vital liberal core curriculum would raise the quality of teacher education enormously. Teachers should perhaps be certified by their major departments rather than by schools of education. Another idea is to permit and encourage consortia of properly credentialed individuals to offer certification programs outside the existing state-controlled system.
6. Remedial courses like the newly instituted English 100 course at Central Michigan University should be eliminated. As a recent Los Angeles Times editorial stated regarding a proliferation of similar courses in the California State University system, “a four-year college is not the appropriate place for remedial education.” Local K-12 boards of education, not the state universities, should be responsible for ensuring that students in K-12 schools learn basic skills.
7. Alternative accreditation of English departments, writing programs, and other humanities departments and programs should be instituted. As currently constituted, the accreditation of English departments and writing programs is monopolistic—controlled mainly by national organizations like NCATE, the accrediting arm of NCTE—and biased in favor of fads and theories that have impugned the efficacy of freshman composition and have led to the dissolution of the traditional core curriculum. The American Academy for Liberal Education, whose educational standards are very different from those of the regional accreditors, or other independent observers, should be invited to evaluate one or more existing program on at least one of the state university campuses.
8. A public discussion about the benefits and problems of tenure should be instigated. It is possible that the case for tenure can still be made, but it is worth noting that, in no other niche of the professional world, are employees practically guaranteed employment for life. The faculty organizations regularly claim that college teaching is a professional activity. This being the case, there should be no objection to the regularly renewable five- or even ten-year contracts that more nearly typify life in the rest of the professional world. The long-standing assumption that tenure is an unqualified success should be rigorously questioned.
9. Employers and alumni groups should become critically involved in the oversight of the state universities of Michigan. This is especially true of alumni groups who regularly contribute to their home campuses. Such groups need to ask hard questions about what their contributions support and if they decide that existing programs do not merit support then they should consider discontinuing their contributions. When making their inquiries, employers and alumni groups should look beyond public relations rhetoric and casual pronouncements by administrators, and insist on empirical evidence of solid educational achievement. It is extremely important that employers, individuals, and groups make their concerns known to the respective governing boards of the universities, because these boards typically have the authority necessary to bring about real change in their institutions.
10. The rules and regulations against political indoctrination in the classroom should be vigilantly observed and rigorously enforced. Where they have lapsed, they should be revived. Of all the offenses perpetrated by state-salaried employees, the co-opting of classrooms by ideologues for the purpose of propagandizing students is perhaps the most damaging to all involved. In effect, tuition and tax dollars and student fees are diverted to support particular, sectarian causes. The same objection applies to the dormitories, where students are also likely to be subjected to propaganda and indoctrination.
11. An all-campus undergraduate core curriculum, reflecting the principles stated in this report, should be established so that every student of the state universities of Michigan undergoes the same essential training and gains exposure to common, high-level material in the arts and sciences. The governing boards of each of the fourteen Michigan public universities should direct the presidents of their institutions to confer on this matter and set in motion the administrative procedures that would bring about the relevant curricular result. It is extremely important that the design of such a core curriculum not be given exclusively to any particular contingent of existing faculty or professional organization—the MLA or the NCTE, for example—that are the sources of the existing deficient curriculum. Independent reviewers who are willing and able to offer strong critique of the existing deficient curriculum need to be brought into the effort. A near-term deadline—two years or less—needs to be set for completing the project. Hopefully, the state universities will prove cooperative, making it totally unnecessary for the legislature or the governor to intervene, which would bring with it the risk of further politicization.
The state universities of Michigan, like their counterparts across the country, have incorporated trendy courses and programs and have become terribly deficient in the measurable intellectual formation of students. The comparison of the University of Michigan’s 1914 Catalogue of Courses with its current General Catalogue makes the loss clear: Today’s students are not challenged to learn during their undergraduate career even what they were already expected to know if they sought admission to the College of Letters and Sciences before World War I. Instead, under the rubric of choice, students pick up courses in scattershot fashion, with little guidance and little hope for consistency of result. Documents like Recruiting Trends and Learning by Degrees show that, broadly assessed, graduates of four-year colleges including those at the state universities of Michigan impress their employers as undereducated and achieve a disappointing level of literacy when this is measured by objective instruments.
Where it concerns Michigan’s teachers, the higher education deficit has a redoubled effect. Poorly educated teachers make for poorly educated high school graduates, who in turn make for poorly prepared college freshmen. Faculty may then cite the unpreparedness of freshman as evidence that the undergraduate curriculum is too demanding and needs to be made less “hegemonic” or “oppressive” than it traditionally has been. Self-described postmodern and multiculturalist professors are able to manipulate the situation to impose their own (not the students’) requirements on the curriculum. The spiral continues downward.
The models for genuine curricular reform to rescue American higher education are already present. The opportunity exists for Michigan to lead the way in a serious, concerted restructuring of higher education.
It is appropriate to conclude with a word about those for whom the state universities exist. They exist for the students. But what do students need from the university? The greatest need of students is to learn what it is that they need to know, and to learn what is possible for them to do and to become. They need to be immersed, with careful guidance, in the tradition that has given rise to Hayek’s self-regulating “extended order,” which is consistent with and inclusive of the free market. Immersion in the tradition provides students with the knowledge that they require firstly in order to understand themselves and secondly in order to understand the culture and the civilization in which they will live and work. Such immersion helps students make realistic existential decisions about the remainder of their lives. The transition to a gutted traditional liberal arts curriculum has led, in Sykes’s words, “to clownish curriculums that have turned out college graduates unable to think critically or write a simple letter.” It has, in other words, risked sacrificing the students to the hobbies—frequently the political hobbies—of the professors, and all of this at the public expense. The state universities of Michigan, like their counterparts in other states, have for too long been unresponsive to the people they serve. The faculty has, in many cases, acted like an unsupervised agency, secure in its funding, with no obligation to serve those in whose name it exists. These imbalances must be redressed.
Reminding the faculty that they are public employees and restoring a traditional, liberal core curriculum to undergraduate education would help redress declining student performance. Restoring a traditional, liberal core curriculum would also be immensely beneficial to the K-12 public schools. Knowledge is the most valuable asset that teachers take with them into their classrooms. Today’s teachers-in-training, overburdened by questionable “theoretical” courses in pedagogy, would especially benefit from the opportunity to become generally knowledgeable in a higher sense.
A good core curriculum mandatory for all students would help ensure that this was the case.