Skipping Through College: Reflections on the Decline of Liberal Arts Education

Educators are talking again about raising teaching standards, restructuring courses, and restoring educational values—as well they should be, says a professor who has studied and taught at half a dozen colleges and universities. Will it reverse the trend that has caused a prestigious foundation to describe contemporary general education as “a disaster area”? The professor hopes so, but he is skeptical.

THE Atlantic


by Alston Chase

The class is about to begin. The amphitheater is nearly full. Over 150 students, evincing the sartorial fashions of Goodwill Industries and Eastern Mountain Sports, wait, along with supererogatory faculty spouses and other auditors, for Professor Eikopf to appear. He enters by the stage door and stands behind the podium. He is a small, bald man with shining, innocent eyes slightly magnified by rimless glasses. His looks somehow combine the narrow calculation of a petroleum engineer with the ascetic humility of a Buddhist priest. He speaks into the microphone in a low, well-modulated voice.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he says, “welcome to German 101. I am humbled by the number of you present. In this course we will be reading the great classical works of German literature, written by such men as Goethe, Schiller, and von Kleist, in translation. No prerequisites are necessary. Before we go on to the subject of the course, however, I want to cover an administrative detail. So many of you have chosen this course that, having no teaching assistant, I cannot hope to read and correct all the assignments you will be given this semester. Therefore, in all honesty, I would like to ask a favor of you. I would like to ask you to take this course on the pass/fail option, so that I will not need to spend a lot of my valuable time grading your papers. If, however, any of you feel you cannot take this course on a pass/fail basis, I will have no recourse but to give you an A.”

There is a titter of laughter. This course policy is not a surprise to most. In fact, for many, it is a reason for being there. Few opt for the pass/fail grade, naturally, preferring the guaranteed A.

Professor Eikopf’s courses are very popular. A couple of years ago he was given the Noah Webster Award. This prize is presented every other year to the professor who, according to a panel of college administrators, is considered the outstanding teacher on campus. He also knows what he is doing. He honestly does not like to waste his time grading papers and feels genuinely uncomfortable giving objective grades for work whose qualities can be only subjectively assessed.

He is tired of black accusations that his department is racist because minorities tend to get poorer grades.

Most important, he is trying to protect his department colleagues. Like so many other colleges in the country, his college abolished the requirement that students achieve a certain level of proficiency in a foreign language before they graduate. As a result, enrollment in German, as well as in French and Spanish, dropped dramatically in the last decade (on a national average, 9 percent since 1970). Meanwhile, the dean of the college—aware of the decrease in enrollment for the entire college—is busy trying to cut the size of the faculty by refusing, whenever possible, to refill positions vacated by retiring or departing faculty. The dean, in reviewing the staffing needs of a given department, looks to see how many “full-time equivalent” (FTE) students are taught by each member of the department in a given term. If, say, the college average is fifty FTEs per faculty member per term, and the average number of FTEs per teacher in the German department is twenty-five per term, then, when the next vacancy occurs in the department, the dean will not fill it. In this way, as Professor Eikopf knows too well, the German department has been reduced from five professors to three. If they lose another they will be unable to offer enough courses to provide a major in German.

The “battle of the FTEs” is a struggle for survival, where salesmanship is the name of the game and the strong departments are those most successful in providing “marketable courses” to meet student demand. Obviously a gut is more marketable than a tough course.

What Professor Eikopf is doing on a small scale is what his college is doing on a larger one. For the college is approaching the problem of attracting students strictly as a problem of sales: it has hired a good PR person to ensure a positive image and it tries to sell what is in current demand.

The New Dark Age

Although Eikopf is a fictional name, the straight-A professor really exists. His actions give meaning to the current buzz phrase “the decline of academic standards.” There is no doubt that there is such a decline. Now everyone is aware of the problems at the secondary school level: since 1963 national average SAT scores have dropped 49 points in verbal aptitude and 32 points in mathematical aptitude, and our public schools are turning out thousands of functional illiterates. The same situation obtains at the college and university level. According to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, “General education is now a disaster area.” As reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Carnegie Foundation “argued that, instead of being shaped by a coherent educational philosophy, the content of general education had been determined by a number of internal and external forces—faculty interests, student concerns with the job market, ‘relevance,’ social fads, and the like.”

It is not difficult to agree with the Carnegie Foundation. Consider:

• During the last ten years most colleges have dropped mandatory courses in essay writing and foreign languages and have weakened distribution requirements in the three basic areas of social science, natural science, and the humanities. During this period the number of electives taken at the major private liberal arts colleges has increased from 29 to 35 percent.

• Curriculum committees, often with students on them, and college faculties routinely add new courses to the curriculum regardless of academic value, including courses in wood shop, photography, soap opera, roller coasting, political internship, and backpacking! Thus, each year the course catalogues become thicker with fashionable offerings of little or no academic value. Even the Harvard catalogue has doubled in thickness in the last twenty years and now contains over 2600 listings. And it is still growing.

• Giving “extensions” on papers and “incompletes” in courses has become a national epidemic. At Yale, according to a recent report by Associate Dean Martin Griffin, 22 percent of all students took at least one “incomplete” in the fall term of 1977. Most disturbing is the trend: while only 6 percent of the freshmen took “incompletes” that term, 20 percent of the sophomores, 33 percent of the juniors, and 31 percent of the seniors took at least one. Evidently the Yale experience teaches the rewards of procrastination.

• Grade inflation is also epidemic. At Harvard, where one must assume resistance to this is greater than average, 85 percent of the class of 1977 graduated with honors, as compared with 39 percent for the class of 1957. Also, according to a recent report of the Harvard administration, 85 percent of all grades given there last year were B-minus or higher (compared with 70 percent in 1965-1966).

• Students are permitted to drop courses, in many cases well past the midpoint in the semester. This means a student can take a course, see how well he or she does and how hard the course is, and, if it is too hard, drop the course. At one well-known liberal arts college, 50 percent of recent registrations resulted in “drops.”

• Many colleges delete from a student’s transcript any failing grade. At Unity College in Maine, for instance, this is known as “non-punitive grading.” The idea is that successes, not failures, be recorded.

• Many colleges have committees, or “courts,” often with students on them and sometimes without any faculty, that are empowered to overrule a professor on matters relating to giving grades, changing grades, granting extensions, incompletes, or dropping courses. Often these committees automatically find in favor of the student.

• Minority programs have affected academic quality. At some schools the average SAT score of the disadvantaged students is nearly 200 points lower than that of other students (the national average for minorities is 100 points lower than that for non-minority students). Faced with that disparity of achievement in the classroom, the professor, feeling pressure from the minorities and suffering from white guilt, usually gives passing grades to minority students even if they are failing. But if failing students are given C’s, those students who would normally have earned D’s and C’s will have to be given B’s and A’s, or else, like Professor Eikopf, the professor would simply throw up his hands and give all students A’s.

As these examples suggest, America’s colleges and universities have grievously failed to maintain minimum academic standards. For surely such standards require colleges to certify that students have taken courses in a range of subjects which a consensus of scholars believes are important and intellectually respectable; that the work done is of a certain quality and students have been sufficiently challenged to gain new confidence in their abilities and awareness of their weaknesses; that course policies recognize learning as a function of time, where taking twice as long to master a subject means learning half as much; and that students have mastered certain fundamental skills such as reading, writing, computation, and speaking a foreign language.

Reinventing the Wheel

Nothing is more trendy than education. Yesterday’s heresy is today’s creed. Five years ago everyone was still calling for more “relevant” courses and dropping “obsolete” requirements. At that time those who saw a decline in academic standards were either afraid to say so or were not listened to when they talked. Now it is respectable to decry the decline, to advocate quality and getting back to basics.

This bandwagon effect leads to the periodic reinvention of the wheel. For the last 150 years or longer, American education has seen a swing of the pendulum between scholasticism and vocationalism and between permissiveness and authoritarianism. It appears we are about to reinvent the wheel again.

Thirty-three years ago a prestigious Harvard committee issued a report defining and supporting the concept of a liberal (general) education (the famed “Redbook”). This report was highly influential. After it was issued, Harvard established its now well-known system of general education, and most of the rest of the community of higher education followed suit. Last March another prestigious Harvard committee, under the direction of Dean Henry Rosovsky, issued a report containing virtually the same message. It called for a return to the concept of a liberal education and suggested a system of “core requirements” which would ensure that students received a general education and which reflected the changes in curriculum and knowledge that have occurred in the last thirty years.

No doubt this report, like its predecessor, will be highly influential. The Harvard faculty, in early May, approved some of its recommendations and will probably soon adopt the remainder (with revisions). Later, the rest of the country will follow.

Or will it? Surely we will find, over the next few years, a great deal of momentum in the direction of higher standards and general education, more blueribbon academic, governmental, and foundation committees, more curricular reviews, more highly publicized wars on illiteracy and pious posturing about the “educated man”; but where will it lead? Will we, ten years from now, look back on the coming decade as just another period of great hope and little achievement in American higher education?

I think we are in great danger of letting this happen.

Many important and perhaps irreversible changes have occurred in the last decade; one of the foremost has been the profound change in governance, whereby considerable control of the decision-making process devolved to students and faculty, making the role of college president the toughest job in the world. No longer can decisions be made by one person, sitting in Old Main, after conferring with a few colleagues. New ideas must now filter through student, faculty, and administrative committees, through the trustees or regents; they must be approved by the school’s lawyers and be okayed in Washington. Then protests or lawsuits may send them back to the drawing board. Throughout this process the president, in many cases, acts only as a glorified referee.

Besides increasing the level of bureaucratic inertia, these institutional changes signal resistance to any academic revival because the present educational establishment adheres to the “new academic ideology,” which is hostile to a quality education. This new orthodoxy is so pervasive that it will be difficult to find reformers who do not believe in it. To expect the educational establishment to reform itself, therefore, is so much wishful thinking.

What is this new academic ideology? To understand it, let us first take a look at the old one and see how the former grew out of the latter. This way it will be clear just why the new ideology is antithetical to quality education and why genuine educational reform is a long way off.

The Old Ideology, 1945-1960

The years immediately following World War II were a time of academic renewal. The GI Bill brought veterans into the colleges in large numbers, infusing higher education with a new dynamism. In 1945, the Harvard committee recommendations calling for revisions in the Harvard curriculum had a ripple effect across the entire country. The essence of their message was that a liberal education was a general education as opposed to a special education. A general education, the committee held, should introduce students to a common historical and cultural background and should scrutinize the underlying ideals and assumptions on which modern society is based. In effect, general education became humanistic education, emphasizing the analysis of the value judgments on which our actions are based.

As we all know, by today’s standards institutions in those days were thoroughly elitist. Only one person out of six went to college, compared with two out of five by the mid-sixties. Higher education was for the wealthy and, to a lesser extent, but ideally, for the gifted. So the fusion of the meritocratic ideal and the concept of a liberal education as essentially value-oriented produced a vision which was, at least unconsciously, Platonic.

Plato developed his philosophy largely as a response to the Sophists. The Sophists were itinerant teachers who claimed to teach citizens of fifth-century B.C. Athens and other city states how to win debates and, generally, how to succeed by appearing to be clever. As theoretical support for their teachings, the Sophists developed a philosophy of relativism. There was no central, objective truth: anything that anyone believes is as true as what the next person believes. All ideas are equally true.

So the Sophists were the first egalitarians of ideas. In response to this, Plato held that not only is there objective truth, but the highest truth has ethical value and the pursuit of truth is an intrinsically good activity. In fact, the only activity which has intrinsic moral value is the pursuit of truth, and the order of reality— the truths which we pursue—is hierarchical. This in turn led him to a principle of social organization: A society comes closer to the truth (and thus is a better society) if and when the wisest rule, the bravest are soldiers, those with green thumbs grow food, etc. This meant that the best society is one where everyone does what he or she does best.

Plato presented many arguments in refutation of the Sophists, arguments which were so convincing that they seemed to bury relativism for all time. Stripped to their essentials, they said that if relativism is true then there is no truth, no knowledge (an implication some Sophists, such as Gorgias, were willing to accept). But we know there is knowledge; we have perfect examples of it in mathematics. Besides, if there were no knowledge, relativism, as it pretends to give knowledge, would be false.

For many centuries Plato’s philosophy has presented the paradigm rationale for scholarly activity, and it is not surprising that it perfectly expressed the values of the early postwar academic establishment. Classicism at that time was still very strong. At Princeton in the forties and fifties, the classics department was the most influential on campus. Under Whitney Oates, it helped Robert Goheen, a professor of classics, to the presidency of the university and Francis Godolphin, another classicist, to the deanship. President Pusey at Harvard, arriving in 1953, was also a classicist.

The private liberal arts colleges at that time at least pretended to be committed to one value: the pursuit of knowledge. Their ideal was of a community of scholars sharing this value and through sharing becoming a harmonious whole. The method of college governance at that time reflected this vision: if, ideally, relations between members of the community were based on trust, there was no need to provide institutional safeguards to protect individual rights.

The Academic Revolution

There were already at work, however, during this period of 1945-1960, powerful demographic forces undermining the Platonic ideology. These forces as a group constituted what Riesman and Jencks called “the Academic Revolution.” In essence, the Academic Revolution was a transference of allegiance by the members of the scholarly community from the particular colleges and universities which employed them to their professions or professional fields. The loyal Mr. Chips was replaced by the highly mobile professional.

The Academic Revolution had been going on for over a hundred years as just another facet of the trend toward specialization. But it was greatly accelerated by the post-World War II growth of colleges and universities, the foundation of many state colleges and universities, and the demand for faculty, which in turn accelerated the Ph.D. mills, academic salary increases, and competition between institutions for teachers. As a teacher became more in demand, he saw himself as a philosopher or linguist first and only secondarily as a member of a particular college community.

Also, these new academics, having received a highly specialized schooling in graduate school, regarded themselves as specialists training other specialists in the same field. Thus a professor of philosophy would teach philosophy to students who would become teachers of philosophy, and so on, apparently forever.

Then, too, as professors became increasingly itinerant, few had the opportunity or the incentive to become involved with questions of curriculum and academic standards, or to develop a profound educational philosophy.

Most important, however, this new generation of academics tended to see the campus as consisting of a number of separate and often competing departments rather than as a community of scholars united in a common pursuit, just as they tended to see the world, through their work, as a collection of disparate problems to be solved rather than as a community of life, linked in interdependence and sharing a common history and future.

The Politicization of Academe

The violence of the last decade—the Kennedy and King assassinations, the escalation of the war in Vietnam, the invasion of Cambodia, the antiwar demonstrations, the race riots, the campus riots, and the Kent State tragedy—destroyed the apolitical, Platonic innocence of the campus. It was a time when it was difficult to put one’s mind on scholarship. Students came to college hostile to any institution or individual that did not take a stand against the war or for civil rights. They demonstrated. They demanded more participation in college governance. They demanded more relevant— i.e., more political—courses. They demanded more social freedom, better grievance procedures, and a documentation of their “rights and freedoms.” They demanded veto power over endowment investment decisions and the abolition of grades and “outmoded” course requirements, including English essay writing, foreign languages, religion courses, comprehensive examinations.

The faculties and administrations, largely sympathetic to the students’ political concerns, and fearing violence, gave in to these demands to one degree or another, usually without much debate.

At the same time the civil rights movement was accelerating. Most colleges and universities, again responding to student concerns, carried along by the momentum of the times, and making use of newly available federal funds for the purpose, began aggressively recruiting disadvantaged minority students whose preparation for college was in many cases far below that of other students. This gulf was bridged by a more liberalized application of grading standards.

These events transformed campuses into the antitheses of the Platonic ideal. The supposition that truth was objective was replaced by ad hominem suspicions and a belief only in “commitment.” The close-knit community of scholars dissolved into a Babel of conflicting groups, each using the campus as an arena in which to pursue its interests and ideas. Governance by an autocratic if benevolent president gave way to pluralistic democracy.

The Platonic ideal itself was given up, not only because events made it apparently so irrelevant, and not only because it was simply not understood by the new students, but also because a majority of the faculty and administrators, themselves children of the Academic Revolution, did not share it. When the students began to attack the system as elitist, the faculty and administration had little ideological ammunition with which to defend the status quo. It was as though the majority were ashamed of the existing system and the quicker things were changed the less embarrassment for all. The students had exposed a gaping void in educational philosophy.

The New Ideology

During this period the social scientist began to assume more influence on campus. These were political times with political problems that were thought to call for political expertise. The social scientists were seen as possessing this expertise. The campuses appeared transformed into microcosmic versions of the country at large, and they apparently needed reorganization along the lines of a state or federal government. Faculty constitutions were rewritten, students’ bills of rights were composed, and judicial committees were set up to settle disputes. It is not surprising, therefore, that during this period social scientists and lawyers emerged in positions of power in college administrations. Bok, a lawyer, replaced Pusey at Harvard. Brewster, another lawyer, became president of Yale. Bowen, an economist, assumed the presidency of Princeton.

The social scientist approached the problem then facing the campuses with a new ideology, and this ideology quickly became the new orthodoxy. It saw the campus as a pluralistic society of competing interest groups, each fighting for its slice of the pie. The college resolved these disparate claims on its purse by a process which could be described as adversarial resolution. That is, as decisions were made by the administration or by faculty or student senates on the recommendations of committees where all relevant interests were represented, priorities were established by compromise between the different factions. This in turn rewarded those who organized politically and brought further fragmentation to the campus.

Somewhere in the profusion of competing interests the goal of the pursuit of knowledge was submerged. At best it surfaced as one of the values being touted. For this process was thoroughly egalitarian. If all interests are equal, so are all ideas. If there was sufficient demand for courses on auto mechanics for women (which Goucher College offers today), then these courses were valuable, and presumably as valuable as courses on Shakespeare.

The New Sophism

If Platonism was at the heart of the old academic ideology, sophism was at the heart of the new. For this new egalitarianism of ideas was based on a new relativism, a relativism which was derived from the methodology of the social sciences.

Social science is the study of man’s actions, values, ideas, emotions, and institutions. The scientific approach to these subjects requires the scientist to be as objective as possible. Objectivity in any discussion of human values requires that the scientist remain neutral with respect to the ideas of the peoples studied. But to remain neutral in any discussion of values is to refrain from making any value judgment; it is to remain an egalitarian of ideas. Ideas are so much “data,” to be quantitatively measured, not subjectively or qualitatively assessed. This is what it means to be “value neutral.”

The social sciences are, or aspire to be, sciences; they have a scientific methodology. Although there are many scientific methodologies, the majority of social scientists have adopted a form of radical empiricism. According to this doctrine, the only sentences that are scientifically acceptable are those that are directly verifiable by experiment. But no value judgment is verifiable, and therefore, it is held, no value judgment is objectively true or false; one is as true as another.

This means that sentences such as “The pursuit of knowledge is better than the pursuit of sex,” “Shakespeare is a better writer than Larry Flynt,” and “Writing essays on Macaulay, although dull, is good exercise,” are no more or less true than such sentences as “The pursuit of sex is better than the pursuit of knowledge,” “Larry Flynt is a better writer than Shakespeare,” and “Writing essays of any kind, but especially on Macaulay, doesn’t teach a person anything of value.” It also means that such sentences as “The academic establishment’s insistence on the study of Western heritage represents a cultural bias” may very well turn out to be true because, depending on how “cultural bias” is defined, it may be verifiable.

This methodology was borrowed from the teachings of the logical positivists, who held that, roughly speaking, no proposition is meaningful unless it is verifiable. Using this principle as a forensic weapon, they dismissed whole categories of propositions as meaningless. For instance, they held that all moral statements were meaningless. When I say, “Stealing is wrong,” they said, I am not saying anything at all; what I am doing instead is announcing my opposition to stealing, just as though I were saying, “Down with stealing!” So such statements have no “cognitive content” and there can be no rational argument about them. Moral utterances, therefore, only express emotional attitudes which have no objective validity.

Logical positivism was given up long ago by most scientists and philosophers, including many of the positivists themselves. Yet this positivist doctrine, germinated but failing to flower in philosophy, has taken firm root in the social sciences. It has done so because it provides a simple (if oversimple) distinction between fact and value which allows social scientists to make the (sometimes bogus) claim of scientific objectivity. They can claim they are dealing with facts and are neutral with regard to values.

The growth of a pluralistic social framework and egalitarian ethos on campus during the sixties found its perfect rationale in this positivistic ideology from the social sciences. For its message was clear: All ideas are of equal value and therefore everyone should have an equal voice in the determining of academic policy.

The influence of this philosophy on campus became pervasive. That one subject was thought no more worthy of study than another was reflected in the curriculum, where courses were offered seemingly with no overall rationale other than a random response to demand: a department of African studies here, a political internship program there, and a nursing program somewhere else. The colleges were “lengthening the cafeteria line” from which students could choose while at the same time diluting the quality of education.

The relativism of standards, moreover, invaded many disciplines, affecting the content of courses. English literature, for instance, was at one time considered the study of good writing. That is, one could not define the subject without making a value judgment. But the new ideology held that no value judgment has objective validity. Hence the study of literature should not be considered the study of good literature, where what is deemed “good” is determined by some broad, historically established standard; rather, what is good is what anyone—instructor, student—thinks is good. So, for instance, a professor I know gave a course on “the literature of feminism” which excluded such classical feminists as George Sand and Virginia Woolf and devoted itself entirely to journalistic and political pieces by leaders of the contemporary movement. Regardless of the value of what this person was teaching, she was not teaching English literature, the only thing she was qualified to teach. In reality, she was teaching sociology.

Academe Today

It is not surprising that the traumatizing events of the sixties generated a new academic ideology. But those events are well behind us; the campuses are quiet again and today’s students are more serious than ever. And yet relativism, a philosophy without any sound foundation, which Plato discredited two thousand years ago and which few philosophers would accept today, still pervades academe. It does because it is encouraged by current political and demographic forces: the new democratic forms of college governance, American political opinion and trends in litigation, the decreasing number of students and amount of money now entering higher education, and the growing federal involvement. In particular, there are five phenomena which encourage the persistence of the new ideology.

• First, it still provides a rationale for the status quo. Present practices in college governance usually involve the use of committees which include at least one representative of each campus interest group. But such committees, being evenly balanced, almost never succeed in making unequivocal value judgments, because to do so is to put one interest over another. This usually suits the administration, because any “hard” decision promoting one policy over another makes a lot of people angry. So, in the present world of higher education, with its hodgepodge of programs and confusion over goals, as long as all values are equal there is no need to make difficult decisions which commit an institution to one set of values over another. Despite all the jargon about “prioritizing,” few institutions do it.

• Second, the new student generation is concerned about its dwindling opportunities in the job market and is more competitive and practical-minded than ever. As a result, students put pressure on faculty to give them high grades to increase their chances of finding jobs. They also encourage the colleges to offer vocational courses for academic credit (today over 58 percent of all undergraduates are enrolled in vocational courses, as compared with 36 percent in 1969). The former creates a new incentive for grade inflation and the latter further dilutes what little meaning there is left in the phrase “academic credit.”

• Third, the baby boom has passed and colleges are competing with each other over a decreasing pool of student applicants. Faced with this stiffer competition, the colleges are making a more concerted attempt to find out what kinds of courses are wanted and to offer them. This approach, like that of our straight-A professor, recognizes no academic value as more important than another, unless it is the value which is determined by supply and demand.

• Fourth, the influence of the federal government within higher education is increasing. As the amount of money for private colleges and universities shrinks or is eaten up by inflation, and as their share of the market declines relative to that of public institutions, they are becoming increasingly dependent on federal aid. According to William F. Buckley in his article “Giving Yale to Connecticut,” Harvard receives 25 percent of its income from the government, while MIT gets 65 percent. These amounts are increasing, and with the increase in aid comes an increase in interference, involving faculty hiring practices, student rights, minority programs, and administrative procedures. This interference cannot help but have a substantive effect on the quality of offerings in the classroom.

• Fifth, the fragmentation of the campuses is getting worse, not better. As the financial problems of the colleges increase, the relative income of their employees goes down. Since 1969, for instance, professors’ salaries have risen at a 6 percent annual rate as compared with an 8 percent annual rate for other workers. But as the pie shrinks, faculties are less inclined to fight for academic quality and more inclined to fight for their pocketbooks. According to a recent survey of college faculties across the country, over 75 percent are in favor of collective bargaining for professors. But in unionizing, they are reinforcing themselves as merely another campus interest group, fighting its battles with little concern about the future of the institution or the quality of education. In this way they instantiate the devisive pluralism of the new ideology.

It should be noted that all faculties see a perfect identity between their economic self-interest and the needs of higher academic quality. That is, they assert that unless they are paid more and given more research time, the quality of the people entering their profession or their college will decline, and so will the quality of research and teaching. But this is not the case. If it were, then the quality of education offered during the sixties—when professors were better paid than before or after—would have been noticeably better than at other times; but though more courses were offered during the sixties, there is little evidence that education improved and much that it declined.

The Future of Higher Education

In the past year, Amherst, Middlebury, Cornell, Stanford, and Johns Hopkins, among others, have, along with Harvard, addressed or initiated curricular reform. Their efforts are at best the first steps at righting a disgraceful situation, dealing primarily with distribution requirements and not touching a range of other problems, from grade inflation to quality control in the curriculum. Harvard’s proposed reform is the most ambitious of the lot (Yale and Princeton recently rejected similar ones); yet it affects only 25 percent of the curriculum, and within that quarter (the so-called “core” requirements) students still have a considerable range of options.

More significant, the mechanism by which the Harvard reform is being effected, and the personnel responsible for it, graphically symbolize the continuing influence of the new ideology. For the problem facing reformers is a highly political one. Henry Rosovsky is reported as saying that Harvard is involving many more people in the decision than did the colleges where similar proposals were quashed. Yet the price paid for politicizing the decision-making process is compromise, and Rosovsky’s proposal, having passed through so many hands, is now a considerably diluted version of the original (the number of core areas having been reduced from eight to five). Also, as this process is seen as one requiring intense lobbying for passage, it is not surprising that social scientists have emerged as its custodians. In an article in the Saturday Review (“Confusion at Harvard”), Susan Schiefelbein quotes eight members of the Harvard community, including those most intimately associated with the proposal. All are social scientists. Surely their high profile demonstrates that, as there is little consensus on the question of priorities, the contemporary academic community perceives that its major problems are still political ones.

To achieve a more profound reform, therefore, requires that these and other institutions of higher education reject the new ideology. They must eschew the temptation to be all things to all people by rededicating themselves to the pursuit of knowledge and the analysis of values. They must discourage divisive pluralism in their own communities by adopting new mechanisms of decision-making which reward partisan advocacy less than current mechanisms do. Finally, they must resist government encroachment by a determination to do without aid whenever possible, and through this paring develop more streamlined and less diffuse academic programs.

This does not mean that colleges and universities must become enclaves of autocracy and intellectual snobbery. Rather, they should strike a balance between the requisites of scientific objectivity and the adoption of values, and between the egalitarian demands of a democratic society and the needs of scholarship. This will occur, however, only when academe comes to perceive that it is not necessarily a microcosm of the nation but an entity somewhat apart and different, a community of scholars, diverse to be sure, but engaged in a common pursuit. Paradoxically, it will serve us best not by copying society but by remaining a constructive critic of it; not by responding to ephemeral political and economic pressures but by remaining sensitive to the long-range requirements of its mission.