Education is a very popular topic in today’s society because it is a source of frustration for taxpayers. Each year, millions of dollars are poured into an education system that is seemingly less and less efficient. See this sample education research paper from Ultius about how there is a true crisis going on in the nation.
The Curriculum Crisis
Stanley Fish’s New York Times essay, “What Should Colleges Teach?” comes across as a quite reasonable examination of the challenges facing the United States’ academic establishment. At the core of Fish’s argument is his assertion that today’s myriad range of teaching methods and styles serves some subjects well, but not others. Basic skills, like writing and mathematics, can only be taught effectively so long as they are part of a curriculum that includes little else. He bases this assertion upon his own negative experiences with students who, despite having made it into graduate-level literature courses, seem barely capable of constructing a grammatically coherent sentence. How in the blazes, he asks, could that be possibly be the case?
After launching an inquiry at the university at which he teaches, he was dismayed to find that nearly every single course offered provided precious little instruction in the actual mechanics of writing. Courses which were ostensibly concerned teaching college-level composition were instead being driven by lesson plans focused on a range of disparate cultural or political topics. Fish readily concedes that such issues “are surely worthy of serious study,” but he considers it both misleading and unproductive for courses to delve too deeply into such subjects when they are supposed to be providing instruction in the necessary fundamentals of grammar and rhetoric (1). When he tried to relay his concerns to the course instructors, he was soundly rebuffed and dismissed as a “reactionary who knew nothing about current trends in research” (1). Read more about the rising costs of education.
What Students Learn in School
Presumably, this rejection spurred Fish to do some further digging into the “current trends in research.” This brought to light some support for his viewpoint, albeit from an unlikely source. As it turns out, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni had published a paper entitled “What Will They Learn? A Report on General Education Requirements at 100 of the Nation’s Leading Colleges and Universities.” The ACTA is a conservative organization concerned with promoting a more rigorously traditional suite of educational values throughout the country’s colleges. As a lifelong scholar and academic himself, his acute belief that “the impulse animating the effort to regulate is always political rather than intellectual” has generally left him with little sympathy for such an agenda (1). Nonetheless, he found in the report considerable justification for his fears about the educational state of today’s college students.
The goal of the ACTA’s report was to outline seven key areas of study and rank one-hundred colleges and universities based on their adherence to a strict set of criteria in each field. As might be expected, the criteria have been derided as parochial by critics of the study. Even so, Fish found that in “at least four of the seven area they make perfect sense” (1). He cites several examples of how credit is not granted in the report for math, science, foreign language, and composition courses with only a perfunctory emphasis on the actual fields themselves, praising it for its rigor. These four fields, he explains, are each centered on a core set of basic skills that are necessary in order to achieve success and understanding within their confines. With regards to composition specifically, he naturally agrees with the idea that credit not be given for courses that are merely “writing intensive” instead of focused on the actual mechanics of “grammar, style, clarity, and argument” (1).
Disciplines in Danger
Curiously, Fish renders no opinion about economics, despite it being of the seven fields stressed within the pages of the ACTA’s report. He takes exception with its findings where the other two, history and literature, are concerned. Broad survey courses in those fields, with their reliance on a fairly static crop of traditional classics, can certainly be worthwhile in their own right. The trouble is that they tend to be quite stale, which turns off students. Since both history and literature are subjects that lend themselves to a far greater degree of subjectivity than the aforementioned four, he feels that it is appropriate that instructors have a greater degree of freedom to teach them as they see fit. New approaches are not necessarily always more effective, but they certainly can be. Focusing on more esoteric subjects can be highly illuminating, their lack of academic “orthodoxy” notwithstanding. That the ACTA is critical of colleges for failing to uphold standards “indispensable for the formation of citizens and for the preservation of our free institutions” insofar as literature and history are concerned shows just how transparently political the organization actually is (1).
He concludes his essay eloquently enough, reasserting his support for the apolitical segment of the ACTA’s report while dismissing its politically loaded finding with regards to the social sciences. The fact of the matter, he explains, is that the lack of a national core curriculum in the fields of history and literature has led to a fascinating expansion of specializations in the humanities. That someone can now major in gay and lesbian studies should be accepted as a matter of course. The focus should be on just what “can a core curriculum do that the proliferation of options and choices cannot” rather than on what the content of those courses might be (1). Both factions should check their political baggage at the door and arrive at a consensus based on what they have in common. Ideally, he adds, that would include “a writing course that teaches writing and not everything under the sun” (1). It is clear that issues like these are far more important than the debate on school uniforms for example.
For my own part, I am in full agreement with Fish’s sentiments. The actual mechanics of the English language are something that I found were seldom stressed throughout high school, and the college courses that are designed to build upon what little foundation exists from one’s years of formative schooling often deign not to address the issue. I am completely in favor of alternative methods of teaching, but it almost seems like teachers purposefully gloss over essential information because they struggle themselves with the mechanics of composition. That so many students can climb so easily through the ranks of higher education without being taken to task by their various instructors for the gaps in their knowledge only strengthens my belief about the seriousness of the problem. Writing is not something to be taken lightly, and students lacking the essential skills necessary to do it at a level commiserate with their education need to be held to account. But so should the schools that have failed to teach them those skills.
Sciences Still Doing Well
Where science, foreign languages, and mathematics are concerned, I would argue that the problem is somewhat less severe. The widespread existence of courses which, more or less, are designed to fulfill credit requirements does not offend me. To the extent that educational professionals see a problem with this, they should be willing to take a long, hard look at just what exactly constitutes a reasonable and proper body of knowledge for achieving proficiency in a particular field. That such courses have sprung up to fulfill the need for meaningless credits should not come as a surprise to anybody. The best way to address the issue would be to tackle the disparity between what students actually need to know for their majors versus what the college would like them to know and minimize the gap accordingly. Taking this step would be an effective way to build a unified curriculum around a core set of subjects that would save both students and faculty a great deal of time and money.
There can be little doubt that a lack of common agreement on what exactly students should be learning is harmful to higher education as whole. For example, Jeff Dugas noted that nearly sixty percent of college students transfer at least once in the pursuit of their degree (Dugas 1). This is especially true of community college students, who often must transfer if they desire a bachelor’s degree. By the time they do so, they have earned 20 more credits than are necessary to complete his or her degree, costing both thousands of dollars in tuition fees and countless hours of time and effort that might have been better spent elsewhere (Dugas 1). If colleges and universities could come to a better understanding about just what exactly to require of their students, mobility between institutions could be facilitated with far less tribulation.
The European Comparison
As to whether or not a core curriculum can itself be a positive force for society, one needs only to look the academic performance of European school systems as compared to their American counterparts. Students throughout the European Union, at all levels, routinely outperform students from the United States (Berger 1). There are doubtless many reasons for this, but it may have a lot to do with the fact that European students are benefiting from uniform educational standards across the board (Berger 1). American students, by comparison, come from a hodgepodge of school systems that have little or nothing to do with one another. By the time they reach college, they tend to be underprepared, even if they were exemplary students in secondary school (Berger 1).
To conclude, Stanley Fish’s essay on the costs and benefits of implementing a core curriculum into the American higher education system injects a sorely needed burst of common sense into a debate that has dragged on for a pointlessly long period of time. Traditionalists should drop the nostalgia, and free-thinking academics need to understand that students need consistency and more focused and disciplined coursework from their classes. Both Fish and the ACTA report are right on the money when they say that an “important benefit of a coherent core curriculum is its ability to foster a ‘common conversation’ among students, connecting them more closely with faculty and with each other” (1). The time has long since come for action on this paralyzing issue, if the United States is to have any hope of getting its educational act together. In an increasingly competitive global economy, it sorely needs to.
Berger, Tamera. “Educational Systems in Europe.” Montana Professor 6.1 (1996): 20 Feb 2011
Dugas, Jeff. “Community College Students Waste Thousands on Unnecessary Credits.” Campus Progress. Center for American Progress, 10 Oct 2010. 20 Feb 2011.
Fish, Stanley. “What Should Colleges Teach?” Opinionator. The New York Times, 24 Aug 2009. 20 Feb 2011.