Blog author: ken.larson
by on Tuesday, March 16, 2010

“…we are setting an ambitious goal: all students should graduate from high school prepared for college and a career – no matter who you are or where you come from.” – Barack Obama, Saturday Radio Address.

A few years ago I asked a friend and business owner why he put value on a college diploma when talking with entry level talent who had majored in subjects incredibly tangential to his job descriptions. He answered, “Well, it shows they can finish something.” That’s a pretty weak reason for a student and/or his family to lay out $50,000 to $250,000 of tuition and lost opportunity costs but I let him have his fantasy.

Former Heritage Foundation analyst Dan Lips lays out another kind of fantasy in National Review Online with a proposal to meet Obama’s goal in last weekend’s broadcast in light of the increasing cost of college in the U.S.. It’s a version of “virtual learning” accomplished online. That’s certainly not “college as we knew it” and not as it might or should be – a place where one seeks Truth and learns how to think – but maybe that education is unretrievable. Maybe all we can hope for are certificates of accomplishment in niche fields and employers like my friend.

Yet even with Lips’ online world, any bureaucracy including the academy deserves some closer inspection before we all jump on the web to search out our next degree. But this only makes sense if you agree with my premise that college has more of a role to play in one’s life than assuring a potential employer that you can “finish” something. Mr. Lips is rightly concerned about affordability – I’m thinking relevance.

And relevance is the subject of a disquieting piece in The Wall Street Journal concerning the recent frauds orbiting climate science both in the U.S. and abroad. Peter Berkowitz lays out the case pretty convincingly that today’s academy is spellbound in protecting an array of niche ideas that include and depend on the elimination of what has been known as “the core” – the set of courses some also call the Canon that has woven our society together in years past with threads of tradition and reason. Its absence and the incestuous relations tenured professors have with new hires has resulted in a system where “our universities don’t recognize they have a problem” and “are inclined to indignantly dismiss concerns about the curriculum, peer review, and hiring, promotion and tenure decisions as cynically calling into question their good character.”

When I was in college the wave of courses now dejure was just forming offshore so we still studied what people had studied for ever and if you were interested in something oblique to the syllabus you read a book and wrote a paper for extra credit. Outsourced guest lecturers filled the gaps by invitation.

Today at all but a few colleges and universities a look down the lists of additional majors and departments includes what are referred to above as “niche” ideas and at my alma mater that list within the liberal arts includes American Indian Studies, Chicano/Chicana Studies, Deaf Studies, Gender and Women Studies, Human Sexuality Studies, Modern Jewish Studies, Urban Studies & Planning, Pan African Studies, Asian American Studies, Central American Studies, African-American Studies. Why no “Rural American Studies” you ask? Some of these emphasize “interdisciplinary, cross-cultural and transnational focus.” Each section has a dean, each a support staff, each require classrooms. Multiply that across the spectrum of academia and you start to see the inflation that has been responsible for driving the cost of a college degree skyward.

But can online learning – arguably an oxymoron for many courses and disciplines – save that much money? And will the “core” continue to be abandoned?

“There are no good pedagogical reasons for abandoning the core,” writes Mr. Berkowitz. “Professors and administrators argue that students need and deserve the freedom to shape their own course of study. But how can students who do not know the basics make intelligent decisions about the books they should read and the perspectives they should master? The real reasons for releasing students from rigorous departmental requirements and fixed core courses are quite different. One is that professors prefer to teach boutique classes focusing on their narrow areas of specialization. In addition, they believe that dropping requirements will lure more students to their departments, which translates into more faculty slots for like-minded colleagues. By far, though, the most important reason is that faculty generally reject the common sense idea that there is a basic body of knowledge that all students should learn. This is consistent with the popular campus dogma that all morals and cultures are relative and that objective knowledge is impossible.”

To our discussion comes Truth’s dear friend Fr. James Schall – who teaches at prestigious Georgetown University – with recent essays that appear at First Principles Journal.

In an article about classroom configuration and technology advancements, Schall, who has banned computers in his classroom, writes: “The essential point, I think, is that teaching and learning are human enterprises”…and, “is something human and personal, even when it is about teaching bugs.”

In another article provided at mid term, Schall offers students in his political philosophy course a heads up for the semester’s second half: “You are asked questions in class not to embarrass you but to carry on a conversation.” That’s got me thinking Fortitude, Confidence, Faith. And you reader?

While an online class might relieve a student from noticing the wondering glances of their mates or the looming presence of a roaming Schall, what might be its consequence when my business owner friend got the online graduate on board and the lad or lass was presented with a confrontational dilemma? Would they break down or face it unafraid and prepared to parry with logic and good eye contact.

There are no lectures in Schall’s classes. “You have to come into each class with something already in your head which you have just put there in your personal reading,” he writes. “If you do not understand something, ask,” he advises students. “It is no crime. It is a ‘crime,’ however, if I ask you whether you read the assignment and you lie to me. Actually, I do not think that happens much,” he adds, “which pleases me.”

That cannot be assumed of Mr. Berkowitz’s climate crowd. Nor is it assured with college on line. Not without formation and “the core.”

  • http://www.thewesterntradition.com/blog/ John Edwards

    Great post. I appreciate the link to the Berkowitz column (it’s also available here for non-WSJ subscribers.

    The intellectual significance of Climategate is still being woefully (and deliberately?) underreported in the media. This scandal is about so much more than just global warming hysteria; it is, as Berkowitz argues, symptomatic of deep-seated problems in the way teaching, research, and governance are done in our universities.