Keeping the Ignorant Ignorant: The Destruction of Core Curricula in American Colleges and Universities

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English: The School of Athens (detail). Fresco...

English: The School of Athens (detail). Fresco, Stanza della Segnatura, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Americans are known world-wide for their ignorance of basic history, geography, and natural science. More than half of Americans totally deny biological evolution (other than perhaps microevolution). A significant number do not believe that the earth revolves around the sun. In one classroom experiment, only about 10% of students could identify the state in which they were living while in college or university on a map. Students are abysmally ignorant of the Bible, one of the major influences on Western civilization. Many cannot tell the difference between Plato and Play Dough. Despite such ignorance, there is a major push to either eliminate or to curtail core requirements in colleges and universities. Sometimes administrators lead the push, and the majority of faculty go along with radical decreases in core requirements, including requirements in the humanities, the natural sciences, and foreign languages. Why would faculty at American universities be so ignorant as to approve the destruction of a basic liberal arts education for college and university students? There are several reasons–none of them are good.

“Follow the money.” As majors in technical fields proliferate and as the hours required to fulfill such majors increase, students often spend more than four years in college. Since many students realize they cannot afford to stay more than four years, they avoid the so-called four-year degrees and go either to community college or technical school or try to get a job when they graduate from high school. In an increasingly competitive academic environment, colleges and universities seek students like mosquitoes seek blood. Students are much of the financial food for American colleges and universities, especially those without state support or without large endowments. Any policy that discourages students from attending college or staying there the full-time alloted for a degree is questioned, no matter how sensible that policy might be. Some students complain that they do not like liberal arts courses–they are difficult for students because they demand study and reading in areas in which the students are either not interested or do not believe will give them “job skills.” The fact that good communication skills and critical thinking as well as basic knowledge of the world around them is essential for jobs is lost on them. College administrators and sympathetic teachers, especially in such departments as Business and Education, support eliminating liberal arts courses to allow more hours for their major field courses without overburdening the “customers” that furnish a ready source of income for the college.

A second factor in gutting core curricula is accreditation agencies and their allies in the social sciences. accrediting agency staff, often holding weak Ed.D. degrees or degrees in the social sciences, prefer a strictly quantitative and utilitarian approach to core curricula. They push the idea of a “common core” across all degrees, which sounds good on the surface but in practice encourages a sparse core. The emphasis on outcomes-based education combined with a purely quantitative approach to evaluation is not friendly to the wisdom one can gain from a good liberal arts education, a wisdom that goes beyond the mere quantitative. Plato and Aristotle both recognized that qualitative knowledge is essential. Accrediting agencies do not deny this, of course, but they insist on quantitative measurability for qualitative criteria, a narrow approach fitting sciences such as psychology which remain stuck in a Newtonian mechanistic framework long surpassed by the natural sciences.

A third factor is the increasing role of corporate models in American institutions. Corporate models have already taken over hospitals, even non-profit hospitals, to the detriment of the fundamental ends of medicine to help sick persons in need. Business tends toward a utilitarian approach to reality in which the bottom line and “customer satisfaction” are what is most important. Considering college and university students to be “customers” is a major category mistake. If we are wanting “customer satisfaction,” why not eliminate the liberal arts all together and offer students only the courses they want to take. Those few students interested in a traditional liberal arts education can have their “consumer needs” satisfied at a college that focuses on the liberal arts. For the other customers there is a token core so college administrators and sympathetic professors can deceive themselves and pretend that their college offers a liberal arts education when it is doing no such thing.

Citizens who are woefully ignorant of history are not the kind of citizens needed in the limited democracy in the United States. Such citizens cannot place decisions of national import in historical context. They do not know enough basic economics to say anything coherent about the budget crisis. They are like the ancient barbarians who destroyed the Western Roman Empire–ignorant and uncouth, as monks struggled to keep the dregs of civilization from burning out. The saddest thing in American colleges and universities is that the barbarians–in the form of college administrators, accrediting agency staff, and many college professors–are within higher education. With the roots so rotten, the tree will inevitably die.

Our “Shadow Side”

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English: Ashes imposed on the forehead of a Ch...

English: Ashes imposed on the forehead of a Christian on Ash Wednesday. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I was in high school, I did something that deeply shames me even today, thirty-three years later. A classmate and someone I knew from church asked me to take his tray since I was going to put mine up. The proper thing to do would be to say, “Sure, I’ll be happy to,” and put the tray up–it is a small thing, but as Jesus said, a cup of cold water given in His name is of eternal importance. Out of nowhere I said, “Why should I help you?” and walked away. I had no excuses. To this day I cannot explain my actions. I suppose that I was on the low end of the social totem pole and this individual perhaps was a bit lower–so I did a cruel, mean, and hateful thing to make myself feel better. I do not know if the person remembers it–in any case I have no idea where that person lives and that person may not remember what happened so long ago. I wish I had apologized at the time–too late now.  Psychologists have referred to a person’s “shadow side” that seems to come out of nowhere. Superficially that sounds profound–that at a subconscious level we have a cruel side that can break through into consciousness unexpectedly. I suspect, however, from the standpoint of Christian theology there is a simpler explanation–we are fallen, sinful beings. A natural love of self, which is good, turns into selfish pride, which is evil. The tendency to pump up one’s own pride by demeaning another person is part of that tendency. We have free will to resist, but we do not. We all sin, we all fall short of God’s glory. Thus, we all need God’s grace. If we have a shadow side, it is on the very edge of our consciousness rather than being far from it–we are responsible for our evil thoughts and evil deeds. Even a shadow side is a side, not separate from the self but part of the self.

I know that I cannot–and neither can any of you reading this post–overcome the temptation to pride on our own. It requires God’s help to do so. Even then, we will often fail. I suppose that is why the Catholic Church in all its branches affirms some kind of intermediate state between death and resurrection even if it is not called “Purgatory.” That prideful tendency to cut down others that reveals itself in cruelty when one’s guard is down must be, with God’s help, drawn out of our system. In my own tradition (Anglican Catholic) the Eucharist is the way to improve while in this life so that the next time an opportunity to help someone arises, I will help gladly and without complaint.

This is Ash Wednesday–“Remember, O man, that dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return.” Keeping that mortality in mind focuses us to be motivated to seek something beyond ourselves, our Creator God, to help us live a life in love and service to others and live with God and our loved ones (and, I believe, plants and animals too) in eternity. Hopefully all of us can put on that armor of light during this Lenten season.

On the Pope’s Resignation

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Pope Benedictus XVI

Pope Benedictus XVI (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, the Roman Catholic Church must look to the future for a long-term pope. It was good that after the papacy of John Paul II that the church chose to maintain stability with Joseph Ratzinger. Like his predecessor, Ratzinger is an excellent scholar, and I hope that he has some time during his last years to write more.

There is always talk in the West about the Roman Catholic Church appointing a more liberal Pope. This almost certainly will not take place. Roman Catholics in Western Europe and in the United States forget that they are not the only Roman Catholics on earth. Their ignoring other Roman Catholics in the world betrays the ethnocentrism of Western elitists. The church is growing fastest in South America and in Africa, where the bishops are more theologically and morally conservative than many American and European bishops. With more cardinals coming from those regions, the possibility of an African or South American pope is real. While I am not a Roman Catholic, I believe another conservative pope would help the church continue to root out heretical bishops in the U.S. and in Europe, and perhaps make sure that Roman Catholic institutions such as the University of Notre Dame are not openly opposing the teachings of the church. The damage done by the 1960s and 1970s to the Roman Catholic Church in the West was partially reversed by John Paul and by Benedict. Much more needs to be done. Africans and South American bishops in both the Anglican and Roman communions often think of themselves as missionaries to a secular, rebellious Western society. The Roman Catholic Church in Europe and in the United States needs missionaries, and a pope from South America or Africa who does not compromise on matters of faith and morals would be a good start.