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Posted at 12:19 PM ET, 02/ 8/2011

ACTA's Neal: Student 'choice' has run amok

By Daniel de Vise

Here is a guest post from Anne D. Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a District nonprofit that has criticized the academy for requiring too little essential knowledge of students completing degrees.

In a prior postNealPhoto3.jpg, Neal cited the influential book "Academically Adrift" -- which contends students aren't actually learning that much in college -- as support for her organization's position. Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges, wrote a response piece that said the book did not really speak to Neal's point. Take a look at them, and then read this.

My colleagues at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and I appreciate Richard Ekman's latest contribution to the national discussion about excellence in higher education. However, we believe his ultimate argument is misguided.

Mr. Ekman writes that colleges and universities "allow students only limited choices within set categories." Although many people assume that to be true, our research actually indicates it is not. For example, students can choose from among 600 courses at Emory to fulfill the "History, Society, Cultures" requirement, from over 550 courses at University of Wisconsin-Madison for "Humanities, Literature, and Arts," and from over 500 at University of Florida for the Humanities requirement. Ekman suggests students must choose between "Shakespeare and Chaucer." The facts are they must choose between English Literature and Amphibious Warfare, Philosophy and History of Recreation, and History of Rock and Roll.

Nor are we the only ones to say so. Steven Cahn, former Provost of the CUNY Graduate Center noted in Saints and Scamps, "[t]he faculty is responsible for ensuring that students granted B.A. degrees have, in fact, obtained the essentials of a liberal education. A faculty that cannot offer such a guarantee ought not to be issuing diplomas."

Mr. Ekman complains that schools like Amherst, Swarthmore, and Yale should not merit Fs for their curricula when their graduates do so well. We are not grading these schools on their wealth, their reputation, or students who attend -- students chosen after a highly selective admissions process. What we are evaluating is whether or not the institutions -- the adults in charge -- have offered a well-considered curricular framework for their students. Mr. Ekman does not address the possibility that students at these schools would succeed to an even greater extent had they learned foreign language, mathematics, and composition at the college level. Since survey after survey indicates that employers want students with better writing and math skills, we can only imagine that they would.

We do not quarrel with Mr. Ekman's suggestion that "diverse approaches are good for America, given the different missions, educational philosophies, and distinctive strengths among the 4,633 colleges in the U.S." But the fact remains that the nearly 750 schools we review -- virtually all of the four year schools with more than a few thousand undergraduate liberal arts students -- typically claim to introduce their students to a rich curriculum. All we ask is that they live up to their promises.

Mr. Ekman concedes that "it is possible for a cynical student to navigate requirements in order to learn very little," but reassures us that "the vast majority of students are eager to take demanding courses and to learn as much as they can during precious college years." Even if we share his optimism, which seems not borne out at all by the Arum and Roksa study and surveys of student engagement, we do not share his belief that first-time college students are academically mature enough to develop their own curricula entirely. After all, the reason we send students to college and not to a library is because faculty have something to teach students and the background to guide them intellectually. Part of that guidance must be through a rigorous, diverse core curriculum. Hence our call -- and Professor Cahn's call, and many others' -- for the liberal arts.

Speaking of the liberal arts, we share Mr. Ekman's pleasure in the Arum and Roksa findings that students with exposure to rigorous writing and reading courses demonstrated stronger cognitive growth than those avoiding them, and that students in less rigorous programs such as communication and education demonstrated less cognitive growth than those in the liberal arts. In other words, requiring students to read, to write, and to take academically rigorous liberal arts courses -- as ACTA recommends -- correlates to stronger education.

Yes, students can learn -- and many of them do. But ACTA believes learning in college shouldn't be a matter of chance. At too many schools -- even Independent Colleges -- it is. Isn't it time for adults at our colleges to restore quality undergraduate learning to the heart of the academic enterprise? Requiring a structured liberal arts curriculum would be a great place to start.

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By Daniel de Vise  | February 8, 2011; 12:19 PM ET
Categories:  Administration, Liberal Arts, Pedagogy, Research  | Tags:  ACTA What Will They Learn, ACTA general education, Academically Adrift, Anne Neal ACTA, Anne Neal Richard Ekman, college general education  
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