Wednesday, April 18, 2007

How colleges are failing our undergraduate students...

"Many of the authors deplore the lack of any overarching purpose in the undergraduate curriculum. As Allan Bloom declares, "There is no vision, nor is there a set of competing visions, of what an educated human being is." In the words of Bill Readings, "The story of liberal education has lost its organizing center--has lost, that is, the idea of culture as both origin and goal, of the human sciences." Without a compelling, unifying purpose, universities are charged with allowing their curricula to degenerate into a vast smorgasbord of elective courses. Knowledge itself has splintered into a kaleidoscope of separate academic specialities with far too little effort to integrate the fragments, let alone show students how they might connect. Hence the education offered undergraduates has become incoherent and incapable of addressing the larger questions"of what we are and what we ought to be" a point elaborated at length by Bruce Wilshire in his Moral Collapse of the University."


"A number of the detractors have pilloried universities for cheapening their students education by allowing intellectual standards to deteriorate. As they see it, discourse on campus is seriously inhibited by the orthodoxies of political correctness. Affirmative Action has undermined the integrity of faculty hiring. The great canonical masterpieces of literature have been downgraded to make room for lesser works whose principal virtue seems to be that they were authored by women, African Americans, or Third World writers."


"A final complaint accuses the faculty of neglecting their students. Authors such as Charles Sykes in Profscam have assailed tenured professors for caring only about their research and appointing new colleagues almost entirely for their scholarly reputations, with little heed to the quality of their teaching. The few young faculty members who manage to inspire their students are regularly passed over for promotion. Meanwhile, according to the authors, professors content themselves with lecturing to large audiences, leaving the real teaching to inexperienced graduate students in small sections. Lost in the crowd, many undergraduates finish college without knowing a single faculty member well enough to ask for a letter of recommendation."

...excerpts from "Our Underachieving Colleges" by Dr. Derek Bok, President Emeritus, Harvard University

This book discusses what is wrong with undergraduate education in America. We are cheating young people out of a challenging liberal arts education. There are thousands of students turned out into the world with Bachelors degrees each year who cannot write at the college level nor are they capable of analytical and critical thinking. I have personally known undergraduate students who somehow aced their way through their undergraduate program without having to do much work. How can this happen? One of the reasons is that many liberal arts courses are being made easier and students aren't having to work as hard. What value is an "A" to the student who works hard and puts out high quality work if half the class never shows up, turns in half decent work and also earns an "A"? What to high grades mean anymore if everyone gets them?

I've talked to students who have a hard time in grad school because they didn't have to work as hard in their undergraduate program. They were unprepared for the rigorous challenge of graduate coursework. I've seen students who can't spell, can't write a simple research paper and can't make higher than a "C" in English Comp courses yet they graduate with an undergraduate degree? How is it possible? A person can't possibly write coherent research papers if they earned C's or below in the courses which TEACH them how to do it!

A well-rounded undergrad liberal arts education makes a student a better person overall. They can write, organize thoughts, research, and perform analytical and critical thinking. They can also view problems from many angles and are more able to develop solutions.

For example:

My freshman comp course taught me the basics of organizing my writing, and how to properly research and cite sources.

My writing for literature taught me to analyze writing, perform critical thinking, AND even poetry which I once loathed was probably one of the single most fascinating analytical challenges in my English courses. I learned to understand the meaning, rather than reading mere words. I learned to read between the lines, ask questions...

My advanced composition class challenged me to write better and put what I learned in the first two courses to work. It's no wonder I earned A's in all three courses.

My social problems class taught me to THINK OUTSIDE my normal realm of thinking. I took the course for the sole purpose of learning how to look at society's problems from a solution-oriented point of view rather than a political point of view. When I kept telling myself that (and my best friend Deb told me to keep it in mind too!) it worked. I learned so much, and I am applying what I learned every day.

My Art History courses, one being western world and the other non western have opened upt he world to me and other cultures. Learning about ancient and other cultures, religions, governments, rituals, helped me understand more about human beings and how we evolved. Art History is extremely important to understanding the evolution of mankind. But I wouldn't have realized it until I took the two courses.

The list goes on and on....

Every course especially in the Humanities, is IMPORTANT and if taken with the mindset of getting something out of it that one can apply to one's life and to the world, can be interesting and challenging and not just a course that fufills gen ed or elective requirements. Students should be advised to take courses for the purpose of personal, professional, and even spiritual growth and not just to fulfill graduation requirements. Sadly, many students take courses for the purpose of doing the least amount of work required. What is worse is they are encouraged to do it!!!

These are the people who will run our government, education, health care, and big business in the future.

Scary eh?

What happened to quality over quantity? Former UF President John Lombardi once envisioned a day when UF enrollment would hit 50,000. Great, we are nearly there, but what has it cost us? Larger classes so crowded students sit on windowsills? More graduate assistants performing teaching duties, more videotape and web-based courses because faculty positions go unfilled due to budget cuts? Fewer promotions for those professors who excel in "teaching" but simply don't publish enough journal articles which make their department, college and university look prestigious? Students who graduate but barely have the grades to get into grad school and worse can barely even write a coherent term paper?

Dr. Bok's book is an eye-opener. I'm not necessarily promoting the book so people will buy it, I'm promoting the problems which exist. We need to find viable solutions before the problem is so far out of control it's too late. Each of us has a stake in the success of education in America. Many people are focused on the K-12 public schools and rightly so, but few think about or even know a problem exists within the undergraduate college establishment.

This book should be read by parents sending their children to college, current undergrads, future teachers, the public in general, and most of all---UNIVERSITY PRESIDENTS!

To continue to sacrifice the quality of undergraduate education is to sacrifice the future of America.


  1. Wow, you certainly can cover a subject well! I have to admit though, that I had to read it twice to get the full understanding of what you were saying. Not your fault, you did a great job, it's me and my old age creeping up on me ;-)

  2. I've been thinking for a long time now about the future of our country now that our most respected and elite universities are becoming nothing more than a place to indoctrinate students in the art of hating one another based on sex, race or religion, with any professor or even university president being thoughtlessly fired for the "crime" of daring to speak any truth that conflicts with the dogma of the PC Police. Meanwhile, A's are said to be given out routinely for work that is inferior. Long ago visionary men established universities to help build future leaders for this nation, something we continue to need now as much as ever. Today I wonder where the leaders we desperately need are going to come from. I don't see them coming out of the current system, unless it's by accident or luck.

    Anyway, this is a great post.

  3. Great reply Steve, and It's good to know I am not alone in my thinking!