Students are graduating from universities without an understanding of their own country

Why a robust university core curriculum matters

Originally appeared at the Washington Times on March 6, 2024.

In the past five months, it has become apparent to the general public that something is radically wrong with our colleges and universities. All kinds of reforms are being proposed to fix the higher education mess, from appointing new presidents to dismantling DEI bureaucracies.

But many of these changes are merely cosmetic. The problem in higher education involves not just what students are being taught but what they are not being taught.

So, how do we fix our colleges and universities? One desperately needed reform—reconstituting a required robust core curriculum.

Students need a basic literacy in subjects like U.S. government and history, English composition and literature, economics, math, natural sciences and language. Students graduate from our best schools not understanding their own country or the history of their civilization. They lack basic literacy in core subjects. They lack a basic understanding of our nation’s founding principles and graduate ill-equipped for citizenship. We’ve failed to teach them things that they should never forget—the damaging ideologies of the 20th century, the Holocaust, our nation’s and the West’s Judeo-Christian heritage. Many graduate with massive gaps in essential cultural and historical knowledge.

A robust core curriculum brings much-needed coherence to their course of studies. As higher education stands now, there is little to no unifying principle for students’ learning. We’ve truly created di-versities, and not uni-versities. There is no fixed system of knowledge. Fragmentation rules.

A strong core curriculum will better prepare students for a multi-job career. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American worker will hold 10 jobs before age 40. This number is expected to grow to 15 jobs in a lifetime career. If students overly specialize and do not get a strong general education base, they will be unprepared for a fast-changing, dynamic global marketplace.

A strong general education program also guards against reductionism. There is a tendency in academics to reduce our knowledge to one discipline (i.e. that everything is economics, psychology, power politics, or race). Students need a comprehensive multidisciplinary perspective.

Similarly, a robust core curriculum exposes students to the big questions and traditional wisdom. They will learn about what it means to be human. They will be exposed to great thinkers, great books and the great conversations that shaped our civilization.

Finally, a robust core curriculum promotes critical thinking and effective communication. In so doing it will guard against the common forms of propaganda we have seen on campuses—the pushing of utopian schemes, the anti-racist catechism, the progressive chronological snobbery, and the endless use of ideological catchphrases and smears to shut down discussion. A strong robust core curriculum can train young minds to think, reason, and discuss civilly.

In the post-World War II period, a more prescriptive curriculum was abandoned in the name of student freedom. “Let students choose their own courses,” we were told. It was also abandoned due to the rise of specialization, with faculty wanting to focus more on subjects they preferred to teach. But we are now seeing what this fragmented approach to education produces—students with no shared knowledge and no shared values.

A former dean of Harvard College, Harry Lewis, wrote that Harvard, typical of many colleges, has bought into the “cafeteria theory of education,” which “avoids the problem of valuing some things more than others.” He says, “Harvard teaches students but does not make them wise.” And Lewis wrote that in 2006!

Speaking into the disarray of today’s higher education is the wise voice of ACTA, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. They rate American colleges and universities on the inclusion of seven core subjects: English composition, English literature, foreign language, US government or history, economics, math and natural science. Their system is designed to help families identify which colleges have maintained a rigorous and coherent gen ed program, and contend that their rating system gives families a more meaningful insight into a college’s strength than does, say, reputational prestige and the typical college rating systems (which are often based on criteria that do not consider what goes on in the classroom).

I am glad to say that the university where I serve, Colorado Christian University, is one of two schools in Colorado to get an A rating by ACTA (the other school is the Air Force Academy), placing us in the top 2% of colleges and universities nationwide. At CCU we even go beyond ACTA in requiring courses in Western Civilization and Bible. We believe that students need core subjects to become well-rounded learners and problem solvers to prepare for any job regardless of their current career focus.

How does a university put something like this in place? It can happen when legislators call for stronger requirements for state schools. In private schools, university boards and presidents must demand that solid general education on core subjects be put in place. It can happen when faculty are held accountable to execute it, and schools treat it, not as something for students to “get out of the way,” but rather prize it and have their best teachers teach it.

At present, we face a serious problem in the academy. Students are graduating without understanding their own country. They have no shared knowledge or values. Worse yet, they are being captured by ideologies that are undermining the very quality of higher education. Meanwhile, public confidence in higher education continues to drop.

The sorry state of our universities calls for drastic measures, not surface measures. Adding a robust core curriculum is not the only solution to our educational mess, but it is a solid step in the right direction.

Categories: America, Culture, Education, Global History and Events, Politics | Comments

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