What Critics Say About Higher Education
The brutal reality is that the American system of education is bankrupt. Allowed to continue as it is, it will absorb ever more vast resources, without any appreciable improvement in the quality of its output, which is already falling behind world standards. Its educational failures cannot be justified, or even mitigated, by its many non-academic social goals, such as the psychological well-being of students, harmony among racial, ethnic, or other social groups, the prevention of teenage pregnancy, or the like. It has not merely failed in these areas but has been counterproductive.
—Thomas Sowell. Inside American Education: The Decline, the Deception, the Dogmas. New York: Free Press, 1993. (285)
[In American higher education,] the era between 1964 and 1993 witnessed a wholesale dissolution of curricular structure with highly specified requirements giving way to broad and nearly formless “distribution categories,” catchalls for a vast array of only distantly related courses.
As the number and variety of fixed requirements have shrunk or disappeared, it has simultaneously become easier to avoid those that remain.
Even more revealing is the very steep decline in the number of general education courses that all students must complete. Such courses reflect an institutional decision that every graduate will be exposed to specific subject matter it considers to be fundamental, and represent the strongest level of commitment to ensuring that there is indeed a common core of learning.
—The Dissolution of General Education: 1914-1993. Report Prepared by the National Association of Scholars, 1996. (5, 6, 7)
[Regarding American higher education,] there has been a progressively more politicized, esoteric, and self-indulgent set of tendencies in academia, diluting and polluting academic endeavors with trendy ideological movements like “deconstructionism” in literature and “critical legal studies” in the law schools—to name just two. These symbolize the new scholasticism, with its inbred, self-congratulatory nihilism and its abdication of traditional responsibilities of training the young in fundamental intellectual disciplines, rather than the ideological fashions of the day. In addition to these signs of decadence in traditional fields, there have been developing new, so-called “inter-disciplinary” fields like feminist studies, ethnic studies, peace studies, and other semi-academic endeavors, more or less frankly propagandistic and politically activist, and less restrained by disciplinary canons still persisting and resisting complete politicization of the social sciences and humanities.
—Thomas Sowell. Inside American Education: The Decline, the Deception, the Dogmas. (295)
The prevalent unwillingness to set priorities within general education programs, together with the growing disinclination to insist on rigorous standards for completing them, suggests that undergraduate education has become substantially devalued as an institutional objective. It also indicates that most institutions are no longer seriously committed to ensuring that their students are exposed to broad surveys of basic subject matter.
—The Dissolution of General Education: 1914-1993. Report Prepared by the National Association of Scholars, 1996. (61)
Within the academic village . . . the cult of meaninglessness is a many-splendored thing, eliminating as it does the need for historical study of works as well as the need for teachers to be familiar with all or even any of the traditionally accepted readings [of literary texts]. And if literature really doesn’t mean anything in particular, critics are presented with what amounts to a blank slate to begin their speculations anew, because under the reign of theory, no reading is too outlandish, absurd, or bizarre—as long as it is obscure. The new term for this is “emancipated subjectivity.”
—Charles Sykes. Profscam: Professors and the Demise of Higher Education. Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 1988. (184)
Accountability is the most important strategic objective to be achieved in colleges and universities, as it is in public schools. . . .
Accountability to the outside world must be maintained institutionally, for the sake of the internal sense of reality in academia itself. Otherwise, it is all too easy for academics to degenerate into self-indulgence at others’ expense, including indulgence in self-flattering illusions.
—Thomas Sowell. Inside American Education: The Decline, the Deception, the Dogmas. (300, 302)
Every governor [ought] to . . . focus public attention and outrage on the way his state’s public universities are being held hostage by the professors. Every legislature has a chance to restore accountability and ensure genuine access to learning. The politics of the situation alone should make such leadership attractive because it is increasingly obvious that the burdens of the failure of academia tend to fall not on the elites, but on the large middle class and on students at the lower end of the academic spectrum for whom a college education is the only hope of upward advancement. To a large extent the middle class is stuck in the academic gulags created by the professors’ culture. It constitutes a potentially irresistible political force for reform.
Charles Sykes. Profscam: Professors and the Demise of Higher Education. (261)
Wherever I went in my year of crisscrossing the country from one college or university to another, whether in public institutions or on private campuses, in urban centers or in rural areas, I found a striking degree of conformity about what is considered to be the business of schools and the job of teachers.
Everywhere, I found idealistic people eager to do good. . . .
Hardly anywhere did I find a sense that any kind of knowledge is valuable in itself or more valuable than any other, a fact which ceased to surprise me once it became clear that among teacher-educators today, the goal of schooling is not considered to be instructional, let alone intellectual, but political.
—Rita Kramer. Ed School Follies: The Miseducation of America’s Teachers. New York: Free Press, 1991. (209)
Where the goal of the teacher is to promote self-esteem in everyone in equal measure, performance will no longer count for much. Nor will it seem to matter what is taught. . . .
Where the purpose of the educational system is to promote “self-esteem” regardless of actual accomplishment, substitutes for accomplishment must be found. . . .
Meanwhile, any criticism of this state of affairs is met with charges of elitism or, worse still, racism. No one in the ed school universe dares publicly to advocate a curriculum that resists the “cooperative learning,” the “multicultural” and “global” approach that is often a thinly disguised rejection of individualistic democratic values and institutions and of the very idea that underneath all our variety of backgrounds we Americans have been and should continue to become one nation, one culture. That aim and, in fact, any knowledge or appreciation of that common culture and the institutions from which it derives, I found to be conspicuously absent in the places that prepare men and women to teach in our country’s schools today.
—Rita Kramer. Ed School Follies: The Miseducation of America’s Teachers. (210-211)
Multiculturalism, in short, cannot be taken at face value, and that is what makes it so tricky. Nobody wants to appear to be against multiculturalism. Hence, the irresistible temptation of the postmodern 1960s, radical-left inhabitants of a political dreamland to use the term “multiculturalism” as a defense against exposure or criticism and to bring into service a vocabulary to which multiculturalism has an almost salacious attraction, words like “racist,” “sexist,” “homophobic.” To put matters bluntly: the multiculturalist rhetoric has the rest of us on the run, unable to respond for fear of being branded unicultural or racist, or (to get into the trendy academic lingo) complicit in the structures of hegemony imposed by the Eurocentric patriarchy and its strategies of domination.
In such a way does multiculturalism limit discussion. . . .
—Richard Bernstein. Dictatorship of Virtue: Multiculturalism and the Battle for America’s Future. New York: Knopf, 1994. (7-8)
It is . . . imperative that we educate our students in the Western Tradition, that we teach them about the virtues of our society and its democratic institutions. Such education is the staunchest bulwark against the forces of disintegration we are facing.
The multiculturalists rant on about the repressive, inequitable nature of U.S. society. It is instructive to note, however, that people all over the world continue to flock here. They do so not because they believe the United States is perfect, but because they believe that the Western democratic traditions that govern this society will allow them greater freedom, economic opportunity, and personal dignity than they are likely to find anywhere else in the world. The multiculturalists notwithstanding, the choice facing us today is not between a “repressive” Western culture and a multicultural paradise, but between culture and barbarism.
—Roger Kimball. Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education. New York: Harper and Row, 1991. (206)
One of the techniques of opening young people up is to require a college course in a non-Western culture. Although many of the persons teaching such courses are real scholars and lovers of the areas they study, in every case I have seen the requirement—when there are so many other things that should be learned but are not required, when philosophy and religion are no longer required—has a demagogic intention. The point is to force students to recognize that there are other ways of thinking and that Western ways are not better. It is again not the content that counts but the lesson to be drawn. Such requirements are part of the effort to establish a world community and train its member—the person devoid of prejudice. But if the students were really to learn something of the minds of any of these non-Western cultures—which they do not—they would find that each and every one of these cultures is ethnocentric. All of them think their way is the best way. . . .
Only in the Western nations, i.e., those influenced by Greek philosophy, is there some willingness to doubt the identification of the good with one’s own way.
—Allan Bloom. The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987. (35-36)
Today, a good many professors accept the Marxist indictment of bourgeois society and culture while rejecting any notion of a “real, positive science” or any other kind of truth. In the now familiar race/class/gender trinity that has replaced Marx’s monolithic class doctrine, there is no room for transcendent truth or knowledge.
—Gertrude Himmelfarb. “Academic Advocates.” Commentary. Vol. 100, No. 3. September 1995. (47)
In recent years, some activists have been remarkably frank about the political goals they have for education. Betty Jean Craige of the University of Georgia argues that “multiculturalism” has the happy “potential for ideologically disuniting the nation.” As American students learn more about the virtues of other nations, she writes, they will be less and less likely to think this country deserves their special support. They will not respond to calls to use American force, and thus we will be delivered from the dark days of the early 1990s, when President George Bush was able to unify the nation in support of war against Iraq, and be able to return to the golden days of the late 1960s and early 1970s when no president was able to build support for Vietnam.
—Lynne Cheney. Telling the Truth: Why Our Culture and Our Country Have Stopped Making Sense—and What We Can Do About It. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995. (29)
Composition courses have become particularly susceptible to ideological teaching. Writing in such periodicals as the Journal of Advanced Composition and College English, composition teachers offer advice on how to inform such courses with “political consciousness and social action” so that students will become “social activists.” They discuss how to tailor “liberatory pedagogy” so as to bring students from different social and economic backgrounds to “a critical awareness of the constrictions in their own class position.” One would not want, for example, to use the same methods on students from upper-class backgrounds who “have the financial and emotional security to be open to progressive pedagogy and even radical politics” that one would use on middle-class students who “reflect the reflex conservatism of uncritical subordination to established social order and authority.”
—Lynne Cheney. Telling the Truth: Why Our Culture and Our Country Have Stopped Making Sense—and What We Can Do About It. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995. (80)
If the level of prose style in English studies today is abysmally low, it is because the values that support good writing are themselves under attack. It is a premise among many compositionists, for example, that clarity and correctness are subjective categories determined “by who holds the political power to decide what constitutes good language use.” In College English, the idea is ritually intoned and virtually writes itself: the “discursive rules” of freshman composition “assign students to their proper place in the institutional hierarchies of corporate capitalism,” “rhetoric . . . is ideological,” “the ‘standards’ of literary criticism reflect ideals promulgated by those in power,” and language and literacy play a role “in perpetuating and justifying hegemonic practices.” Those who speak on behalf of standards in writing are often scorned as “gatekeepers” or “gatekeeper intellectuals.”
The condition of the discipline is such that, by now, traditional models of teaching are routinely disparaged.
—Steve Kogan. “‘Discourse Production’: Composition in the Grip of Literary Theory.” In Academic Questions. Vol. 7, No. 2. Spring 1994. (56)
ENGLISH GRAMMAR is the art of speaking, reading, and writing the English language correctly. It is divided into four parts; namely, Orthography, Etymology, Syntax, and Prosody. Orthography treats of letters, syllables, separate words, and spelling. Etymology treats of the different parts of speech, with their classes and modifications. Syntax treats of the relation, agreement, government, and arrangement of words, in sentences. Prosody treats of punctuation, utterance, figures, and versification.
—The Institutes of English Grammar (1886). (Once widely used in Michigan high schools.)
Every writing theory of the past 30 years has come up with reasons why it’s not necessary to teach grammar and style. For the multiculturalists, the main reason is that grammatical errors signify that the author is politically engaged. According to Min-Zhan Lu of Drake University, the “individual consciousness is necessarily heterogeneous, contradictory, and in process. The writer writes at the site of conflict.”
It is the goal of current writing theory to accentuate that conflict.
—Heather Mac Donald. “Why Johnny Can’t Write.” The Public Interest. No. 120. Summer 1995. (11)
The teaching of grammar as part of writing instruction is essential because the dialect of Standard Written English is not the native dialect of any speaker. To learn to write, students must master many new patterns of usage. To repeat in writing the conventions of one’s native dialect is to be cut off from the enormous international culture of which Standard Written English is the ground. Grammar is not elitist. It is rather quintessentially democratizing, the ability to use Standard Written English being the condition for participating in public life in this country and in much of the rest of the world.
—Peter T. Koper, Associate Professor, Department of English Language and Literature, Central Michigan University.