High Time to Reverse Low Standards in Higher Education

Blame for the general decline of literacy in America is often laid at the doorstep of K-12 public education. Children are clearly being shortchanged, but not by the K-12 system alone. It is time we focus attention on the system that teaches the teachers who teach the children-higher education.

On September 13 the state of Michigan reported results of proficiency tests in math, reading, writing and science. Barely one-third of high school seniors were rated proficient in science and writing; fewer than half achieved that basic level in math and reading. The same day, the news media reported on findings from the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future: Large numbers of Michigan teachers are not qualified to teach the subjects to which they are assigned.

Poor student performance and poor teacher preparation are directly related. In a recent Mackinac Center for Public Policy study, I argued that general undergraduate instruction in the state universities of Michigan is deficient and deteriorating. Far too many graduates do not know how to write well or to reason logically. The reasons are disturbing: the disintegration of an effective core curriculum; the pervasiveness of trendy, "politically correct" courses that stress indoctrination over genuine learning; the declining performance standards in proper writing and reasoning skills; and a growing gap between what students are taught and what they must know to succeed as teachers or other professionals.

Most college graduates over forty years old will recall taking freshman English composition. That's the course in which they learned the fundamentals of writing, including a review of grammar and syntax and some lessons in informal logic and the rules of evidence. A tedious but valuable course, freshman composition once sharpened writing and thinking skills that helped prepare students for future courses and careers. But at state colleges and universities today, much of what passes for freshman composition is trivial, irrelevant, or worse. Heather MacDonald writes in The Public Interest, "The only thing composition teachers are not talking and writing about these days is how to teach students to compose clear, logical prose."

Course syllabi and related materials from English departments and writing programs throughout Michigan's universities reveal a general lowering-and in some cases, an abandonment-of standards of correct writing. Self-expression and moral liberation (the "anything goes" approach) are often emphasized over prose competency. Consider the professor's advice from a freshman composition course syllabus at Eastern Michigan University: "Don't worry about writing perfect papers. I do not have a set standard for what I consider 'good writing.'"

A survey of master syllabi for freshman composition at the state's universities reveals the dominance of what one University of Michigan professor terms "the myth of basic skills." According to this notion, there is no connection between explicit instruction in grammar and syntax on the one hand, and the communication competency of students on the other. Emphasizing basic skills is characterized as "elitist," or as an exercise in "discrimination" against ethnic minorities, or as a manifestation of an "oppressive" economic system.

The abandonment of rules and standards shows up in a popular but dubious focus on "peer teaching." In this activity, students who are not yet competent in prose are supposed to substitute for the teacher and teach each other what none of them knows, namely, the elements of good writing.

Dr. Peter T. Koper, associate professor of English at Central Michigan University (CMU), dissents from this prevailing orthodoxy. He sees these trends as inherently divisive. In Koper's view, "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."

A preference for trivia is also part of the problem in today's teacher education courses. Education department curricula are heavy on fuzzy "self-awareness," "multicultural," and other faddish or politicized material, and light on hard knowledge of subjects that teachers must eventually teach. One assignment, offered as a model to teaching-assistants at CMU, asked students to watch and discuss TV talk shows like Oprah and Montel for two weeks of a fifteen-week semester.

Rigorous content in the traditional liberal arts has disintegrated in favor of cultivating emotions and "politically correct" opinions. The result is a huge disservice to young, prospective teachers who invest money and years to become prepared for the classroom but are instead diverted into shallow, unproductive and even irrelevant course work. The poor performance of Michigan teachers on accreditation exams should come as no surprise; based on what the current system subjects them to, we could hardly expect a different outcome.

It is time for a serious reappraisal of standards in Michigan higher education. Only by acknowledging deficiencies and tackling them head-on can we make real progress toward the goal of a well-educated citizenry.