Lowering the bar with education

Commentary

Most universities have a general education program. This program requires that college students take classes in a smorgasbord of subjects outside of their major and supporting fields. They often must take classes in English, foreign language, gym, hard sciences, history, math, social sciences, etc., although these requirements are sometimes satisfied by classes in other departments such as communication, education, and women’s studies. General education classes often include introductory classes in communication, creative writing, psychology and sociology.

Some elite universities have little or no general education program. This includes universities such as Brown (14th best university), Amherst (second best liberal arts college) and Grinnell (11th best liberal arts college). Universities in some countries, such as Great Britain, have little or no general education requirement. This is one of the reasons that it takes three years to graduate from them rather than four as is typical of American universities. Other elite universities have or had a general education program that focuses on the Western cannon in art, history, literature, music and philosophy. This includes Columbia and the University of Chicago (tied for 3rd best). Few general education programs have such a focus.

The argument against the general education program is that if, on the whole, a program is bad for students and makes the world worse, then a university should not have it. On the whole, a general education program is bad for students and makes the world worse.

The reason such programs are bad for students can be seen in Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s 2013 book: “Academically Adrift.” They found that roughly half of the students gained no general-reasoning and writing skills in college. Roughly 40% gained only a modest amount of these skills. Only 10% gained significant skills. As Jason Brennan and Phillip Magness argue in their recent book, “Cracks in the Ivory Tower,” improving skills in these areas is one of the leading goals of a general education program and likely the leading one. They argue that this is especially true for English composition classes. They point out that most colleges require such a class. Even when students improve their skills in one area, this improvement does not, in general, transfer to other areas. Experts such as Richard Haskell, Douglas Detterman, Terry Hyland and Steve Johnson conclude that there is little evidence of a transfer of learning from one subject to another.

The lack of skill-development and transfer is a problem given the high cost of college to students and taxpayers. Consider the cost to students. For example, it costs more than $20,000 per year to attend a SUNY school (tuition, room, board and fees) as well as giving up a year of income. On one estimate, in the U.S., government at all levels spends half a trillion dollars per year on higher education. States shovel money into higher education. For example, each year New York spends $8,600 per college student (13% more than the state average). As a result of these costs, requiring an extra year of college so a student can complete a general education program is a significant cost to him and taxpayers.

Bryan Caplan, author of “The Case Against Education,” argues that an example of this is the foreign-language requirement. He argues that less than 1% of Americans are fluent in a foreign language (that is, speak it very well) as a result of high school or college classes. This despite the widespread requirement that students study it in high school and college. Even if you lower the bar below fluency, only 2.5% of the population speak a foreign language well due to classes and this likely overestimates the percentage.

As Unz Review’s Steve Sailor points out, in 2011 for high school students roughly 1,000 scored a 5 (top score) on the French AP test despite the fact that millions of students took French for years. In contrast, roughly 40,000 students earned a 5 on the advanced AP calculus test. Sailor points out that only about 8,000 students nationwide scored a 5 on a foreign language (specifically, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese or Spanish). Thus, he concludes, foreign language teaching is ineffective. Even if it were effective, though, it’s hard to see why this subject should be given priority over advanced classes in one’s major or a subject one loves.

As Brennan and Magness point out, general education programs have additional bad features. First, because students are made to take these classes, departments do not have as strong an incentive to ensure these classes are well-taught. This can be seen in that departments often dump these classes on adjuncts (faculty not on the tenure-track) and junior tenure-track faculty. Second, an enormous amount of energy is put into fighting over these programs.

In summary, general education programs harm students and make the world worse. They cause students to spend tens of thousands extra on college, prevent them from taking classes that they value or would enjoy more, and weaken the incentive to ensure that such classes are well-taught.

Stephen Kershnar is a State University of New York at Fredonia philosophy professor. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com

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