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IdeaFest

There's no shortage of ideas for reforming higher education--the National Association of Scholars has 100.

By Jay Schalin

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February 22, 2013

It is getting harder to ignore the fact that American higher education is in great need of reform. Academia is lurching along unsteadily down an unsustainable and uncertain future—with rising student debt, suffocating political correctness, falling standards, and unrestrained debauchery. Change is inevitable; whether it will come from deliberate policy changes or as an inevitable collapse remains to be seen.

The problems do not come from a shortage of viable ideas to set academia on the right path, but, rather, from Ivory Tower intransigence and denial. Ideas for reform are everywhere; some are proven, some are untried, some are still up for judgment, but many can certainly improve the status quo.

In celebration of the 100th issue of Academic Questions, a publication of the National Association of Scholars (NAS), 100 academics, higher education critics, and independent scholars were asked for their suggestions on how to improve this obstinate and arrogant institution, the Ivory Tower. The results appear in the 100th issue, entitled  “One Hundred Great Ideas for Higher Education.”  The publication of these ideas coincides with the NAS’s 25th anniversary celebration. (For more information about that celebratory event in New York City on March 1-2, 2013, please visit the organization’s website.)

The “One Hundred Great Ideas” article should be required reading for everybody involved in higher education, as it represents some of the best out-of-the-box thinking on higher education that exists.

The 100 participants range from household names, such as author Tom Wolfe, sociologist and author Charles Murray, historian Victor Davis Hanson, and even Jill Biden, the wife of the vice-president who is also a community college teacher, to the relatively unknown (including yours truly).

The ideas expressed in the report extend from the sublime to the sensible to the silly.  Although, given some of the reports from campuses around the country, perhaps the suggestion by Chester Finn, the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, that students be fed “the modern equivalent of saltpeter” to keep their hormones from raging is not all that silly.

Despite the wide variety of suggestions, the list naturally organizes itself into a few common themes. Some of the themes are frequently mentioned in higher education circles, while others are rather surprising or novel. The most frequently cited category of suggestions called for some sort of renewed emphasis on the study of Western civilization, American history, or the classics of Western thought. Some of the other frequently discussed topics concern improving students’ writing skills, increasing transparency, combating political bias or correctness, and raising standards (including ending grade inflation).

One surprise was the lack of emphasis on financial matters and cost efficiencies. Talk about such matters as tuition, state appropriations, staffing levels, and student loans often dominate both the public discourse and official policy discussions. Only one of the 100 focused on student loans, while only two mentioned cost-cutting.

Instead of dollars and cents and headcounts, most NAS suggestions reflected a concern with the quality and purpose of higher education—classroom issues, not bean-counting. That concern stands in opposition to the higher education establishment, which often seems to show little concern for the content of higher education.

The NAS contributors, on the other hand, seem well aware that, while efficiency is important, it does no good to more efficiently produce the same sad levels of scholarship and learning that academia is currently producing. Many of the NAS contributors recommended foundational changes Often, those suggestions were ideas discarded back in the 1960s during the headlong rush to reinvent higher education as a less formal and exacting institution.

For instance, three people suggested the reintroduction of memorization, both of poetry and of the great documents of American history. And that’s just one example of the yearning for a return to a more civil era. Quite a few contributors wanted to rescue the campus from today’s casual, crass campus culture. Tom Wolfe and Joseph Epstein, both illustrious authors, suggested that faculty once again be required to dress rather formally for class (Epstein added that students should be addressed by their last names). Others suggested that colleges return to the days of mandatory class attendance, quiet time for reflection, moral instruction, and in loco parentis (the colleges assuming a parental role). And yes, even making instruction in Latin mandatory.

The suggestions from the preceding paragraph (and other similar ideas) would nearly restore the campus culture of a century or so ago—which roughly coincides with the period when the United States was emerging as a leading global intellectual center. Perhaps not a bad thing.

The 100 ideas include a preponderance of “back-to-basics” over “creative destruction.” The NAS contributors were astute enough to recognize the need to restore methods that once worked well.

That may be why my two fellow contributors from the Pope Center, both of whom have eagerly embraced online education’s potential for transforming the academy, suggested different ways of returning to the basic education techniques from the past. Jane Shaw suggested that phonics once again be the primary method by which colleges teach education majors for reading instruction, while George Leef called for mandatory instruction in logic for all students.   

Rather than waiting for creative destruction to work its free market magic, many contributors issued a call to arms in the “culture war,” either by addressing left-wing academic bias directly or by ensuring that students are familiar with American traditions and ideals. Steve Balch, the founding prof the NAS, attacked bias head on, recommending that universities should create “task forces on intellectual pluralism.” Jay Bergman, a professor of history at Central Connecticut State University, took a different but equally direct approach by suggesting that all schools require courses in Western civilization—not just the introductory history survey, but course in Western philosophy and literature as well.

One idea that is certain to strike fear into all of academia came from Harry Stein, the editor of the City Journal. “[A]cademics should be obliged—forced—early in their careers to spend several years in the workaday world… They should learn what it takes to succeed, and how it feels to fail.” In other words, get a real job, at least for a while. That idea might fix academia, but one must wonder what havoc an army of academics in productive jobs would wreak on the economy.

My particular favorite suggestion came courtesy of Mitch Pearlstein, the founder of the Center for the American Experiment. He recommends that faculty spend time at think tanks rather than their universities to help them “break at least partially free from writing for too small slices of the world” (he means other faculty). As a think tanker, I’m not thrilled about my office being inundated by a flood of academics, but I appreciate Pearlstein’s observation that think tanks are now generating much of the fresh new thinking that exists.

All in all, the breadth of these 100 ideas is tremendous: Some combination of them would be certain to set higher education back on a better course. The report’s real value is the promotion of ideas and exposure of issues that the establishment avoids, ignore, or denies.

It also focuses on the things that are truly important. In particular, Kevin Nestor’s suggestion should be framed and posted on many administrators’ office walls. Nestor, a former trustee at Ohio State University at Mansfield, offered a reminder that it is a university’s ultimate duty to “safeguard the pursuit of the truth.”

 


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