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A New Hope for Restoring American Education

Posted on Thursday, January 4, 2024
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by David Lewis Schaefer
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AMAC Exclusive – By David Lewis Schaefer

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The widespread demonstrations on college campuses in support of Hamas since the October 7 terrorist attack on Israel have crystalized for many Americans the deep rot at the center of the U.S. education system. Perhaps the most promising proposal in decades for addressing these problems is the General Education Act (GEA) recently released by the National Association of Scholars, the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

The GEA calls for establishing a new, independent School of General Education at every state’s flagship public university. It would authorize instituting a core curriculum of thirteen courses totaling 42 semester hours (roughly 40 percent of the standard course load at most American universities) covering Western history and humanities, world civilizations, and U.S. history, government, and literature.

The proposal is based on the eminently sound goal of restoring “a common civic education to the center of American public university education,” one “that includes examination of fundamental moral and philosophical questions via a study of the history and the greatest books of Western civilization and the world.”

The GEA is a remedy to the virtual disappearance of a solid liberal arts curriculum that supplies students with a grounding in the basic principles of classical and modern philosophy, a broad knowledge of Western history and American constitutionalism, and an appreciation of the learning that can be gleaned from great literature ranging from Greek tragedy and comedy through Shakespeare and up to classic American fiction.

It has become obvious that the programs of general education which were once standard requirements have gradually been replaced by “distribution requirements,” with students merely choosing from a cafeteria menu of specialized, unrelated courses in different fields, often accompanied by mandated DEI instruction that forecloses any useful intellectual exchange.

The meaninglessness of such programs, barring careful course selection (which few students undertake) at a solid liberal arts institution is signified by the title of a recent op-ed by a college instructor in the New York Times: “I Teach the Humanities. I Still Don’t Know What Their Value Is.” If faculty don’t know why they are teaching humanities courses (aside from using them for ideological indoctrination), how can anyone expect students to find value in them?

The proposed curriculum in the GEA still leaves room for students to major in a particular discipline, and the number of required courses would be reduced to ten for science/pre-med majors, given the extra number of specialized courses they may need to take. But the GEA’s drafters point out that the choice of whether students at public institutions should be required to take courses in “critical theory” (e.g., so-called Critical Race Theory or critical legal studies, both anti-Western, anti-constitutional doctrines) rather than in Western Civilization is one that properly belongs to the people’s elected representatives, rather than to academic specialists and bureaucrats.

As the GEA drafters emphasize, “traditional liberal education belongs to no single ideology or political party.” Nor does their proposed curricular outline exhibit any such ideological bias.

Aside from one-semester courses (at various levels and specializations) in mathematics and laboratory sciences, the program begins with a required course in Rhetoric and English Composition (a replacement for open-ended freshman English courses) that includes “grammar, logic, and rhetoric, and substantial readings from works devoted to rhetoric and composition” by such figures as Aristotle, Cicero, and eighteenth-century Scottish rhetorical theorist Hugh Blair.

That course alone, I believe, based on my own professional experience, would equip students not only to “produce correct and lucid academic writing,” but to better participate in public debate in their roles as adult citizens.

Other required courses in the GEA include a two-semester sequence in Western history from 3000 BC to 2000 AD and single courses on U.S. history from 1607 to 1877, U.S. government, American literature extending to 1914, and introductory economics.

The first semester of Western history would highlight such important themes as classical Greece, the Roman Republic and empire, the rise of Christianity, and 12th-13th century English legal and constitutional history, “including Magna Carta, common law, and Parliament.”

The second-semester curriculum, beginning in 1450, would cover the Renaissance and Reformation, the development of British parliamentary history, the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, and the rise and fall of Soviet communism and Nazi Germany.

The U.S. Government course, exploring such founding principles as “natural rights, liberty, equality, representative democracy, separation of powers, checks and balances, federalism, and constitutional self-government” and their historical development, properly emphasizes the study of original source materials.

Besides the above, the GEA curriculum includes a two-semester sequence on “Western Humanities,” exploring “works of first-rank literary quality and enduring literary and philosophical influence” in the first semester, such as those by Plato, Augustine, Homer, and Dante, along with the Bible. This is followed by a humanities course running from 1450 to 1950 and including such great authors as Montaigne, Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Donne, along with “Catholic and Protestant religious literature,” but with “approximately equal coverage” of the five centuries it encompasses.

Additionally required is a course on World Civilizations, “covering the distinctive history, culture, literature, and social structure of at least four nations or cultural areas to be selected from among China, India, the Islamic Middle East, Africa, Latin America, Russia, Japan, and Southeast Asia.”

Finally, students are required to choose one of three courses respectively devoted to “Founding Ideas of Western Liberty” (including such writers as Locke, Adam Smith, Montesquieu, and Tocqueville), “Founding Traditions of Western Art” (including music and architecture), and “Founding Ideas of Western Economics.” The study of a foreign language is encouraged though not required.

Equally significant and running against current trends in higher education is the proposal’s ban on academic credit for so-called “service learning” and political lobbying.

Having spent 63 years in the “ivory tower” of American academia, I am convinced that many students (and their parents) will find this curriculum appealing, and a vast improvement over that of typical college offerings. So will other public-spirited citizens. But is the proposal realistic?

The broad goal of the proposal’s authors is that, following adoption by flagship public universities, other schools would follow suit, along with implementing dual-credit professional development programs that will assist high school teachers in offering courses covering some of the proposal’s required course materials. The GEA further provides for instruction for graduate students, by equipping them to teach in similar programs at other colleges, public and private.

Yet the authors of the plan realistically acknowledge that the expansion of the proposed School of General Education will require faculty reductions in other university divisions, “through program discontinuance or substantial curtailment,” subject to the sole discretion of the university’s governing board. Faculty for the School of General Education would be permitted to hold joint appointments with other divisions of the university. But, faculty from other divisions will not be allowed a role in hiring, tenure, and promotion decisions.

The proposal leaves it up to policymakers to decide how a state’s governing board will be selected, and it is designed to be instituted gradually, over a three-year period.

It is undeniable that, as the proposal’s introduction observes, “in the last generation, the American public has justly lost confidence in the higher education establishment’s judgment about general education,” refusing “to defer to faculty and education administrators who advance their personal politics under the guise of academic expertise.”

Several legislatures, as the authors write, have already “begun to exercise their legitimate authority over the content of general education,” noting “the failure of public universities to nurture a robust marketplace of ideas” in favor of so-called cancel culture, or worse, in the form of the Hamas demonstrators harassing and threatening Jewish and other pro-Israel students, along with the growing conflict between specialized faculty research interests and students’ needs.

Nonetheless, you don’t need to be a habitué of academia to recognize that once a legislature attempts to institute anything like the GEA, all hell will break loose. Opposition will come not only from faculty anxious about their job security and professional administrators zealously and jealously committed to retaining their authority, but also from political partisans who have bought into the notion that the very function of a college education is to recruit activists for their favored causes. Such a view has long infected the realm of humanities research as well, as a cursory glance at the Publications of the Modern Language Association (the most prestigious journal in the field) over the past half-century will readily disclose.

Even worse will be the political opposition generated by faculty unions. The response from the University of Pennsylvania’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors to the forced resignation of UPenn president Elizabeth Magill over her mushy response to campus antisemitism is a preview of what this might look like.

Despite the justified outrage over Magill’s congressional testimony stating that the question of whether calls for genocide against Jews violated the school’s code of conduct “depended on the context,” the AAUP released a statement lamenting that “unelected trustees with no academic experience are evidently attempting a hostile takeover of the core academic functions of the University of Pennsylvania — functions related to curriculum, research and the hiring and evaluation of faculty.”

In other words (as losing 2021 Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe told parents protesting ideological indoctrination in public schools) trustees, parents, and other taxpayers have no business interfering with decisions arrived at by incumbent academic “professionals.”

But the current situation of America’s system of higher education system, at least outside the STEM fields, is critical, and increasingly characterized by outright intellectual corruption. At one college that I know well, even courses on introductory Greek include five-minute lectures on Critical Race Theory.

Like the aforementioned Times contributor, many faculty in the humanities and social sciences lack any plausible justification for their curricula. So why should taxpayers continue to support them?

Only the renewal of the pursuit of truth, grounded in the study of what the nineteenth-century British critic Matthew Arnold called “the best that has been thought and said,” can set us free from the dominion of intellectual and civic decay. The GEA proposal is a positive first step in that direction.

David Lewis Schaefer is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science at College of the Holy Cross.

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Lieutenant Beale
Lieutenant Beale
5 months ago

Until you hobble, or flat out dismantle, the NEA and powerful teachers unions, not much will change. the wokesters have been entrenched in academia for decades.
The Dems will never take no for an answer and all the Pubs do is talk a good game but when it comes down to brass tacks, all they can do is wring their hands in a dither.
Conservatives need to get involved at the local level and start running for school boards. It’s not going to be instant grits and it’ll take a lot of hard work.
As far as higher education goes, donors need to start withholding funds. But even so the two presidents who “resigned” are still drawing their lucrative outrageous salaries

Deborah Wood
Deborah Wood
5 months ago

SCHOOL CHOICE

Charles
Charles
5 months ago

It would make more sense to make American History to 1877 and 1877 to Present, American National Government, State and Local Government, and Comparative Foreign Government all required courses for graduation in any degree. Along with World Civilization1000BC to 1820 and 1820 to Present. That is easy to legislate and let the colleges figure out the rest it will cut out a lot of campus politics and get the main job of educating done.

David hoha
David hoha
5 months ago

About time someone has started to bring back real education in order to stop the brainwashing that is being done in schools today including grade schools, high schools and most definitely colleges. The nut job professors tell these kids they deserve everything everybody that has worked hard for years to accrue right off the bat. They teach all white people are privileged even though the majority got to where they are by working hard. As a manager of manufacturing engineering I was exposed several times to these children coming out of college telling me what they expect, what they want and how they plan on working during the interview for a job. They have no clue what the real world has in store for them because of what they tell them in colleges, it is pathetic. Our country is in deep trouble with the next few generations coming out of college. Thankfully some get it and enter the workforce with the knowledge that college is not the real world, it is a fantasy built by people who have never had a job in the real world, nothing against teachers but usually only adjunct teachers hold a job outside the schools. those teachers that do try to teach the reality students will encounter when they graduate are chastised, harassed and many times relieved of their job unless they comply with the schools indoctrination curriculum. The GEA is on the right tract but has a long uphill battle.

barney
barney
5 months ago

The Education system from one room school house to the late 50’s spent time teaching history, and the ABC’s. This country became the greatest in the world because of it. The progressives got into the system and changed it. They started teaching the collective instead of the Individual. They have taught that individualism is BAD, in other words, that Communism is great and to be admired. We have lost our way as a country and need desperately to go back to the ABC’s of life and learning.

Stephen Russell
Stephen Russell
5 months ago

2 Restore Education:
More Voc Tech Ed
Hands on classwork
Field trips
Merge like schools
reuse closed schools or Raze
Update testing
Job Fairs
Adult Ed expanded
More Hands On vs lecture
Use CAD CIM
Teach IN DEMAND JOB SKILLS
Scrap PTA & Teachers Union
Hiree RETIRED TO teach IF have LOVE to Teach

Ben Ray
Ben Ray
3 months ago

Sounds great but meanwhile the sick ideology that has grabbed hold of and is destroying our youth and in-turn our nation has now already seeped into the system and taken hold as young as Kindergarten. Things like U.S. history and government should be as freshman in high school. (Is the term even fresh’man’ still?).

John Beach
John Beach
5 months ago

All this represents is the inconsistency of values in the belief systems of the improbable diversity of the recent immigrants and asylum seekers from countries whose heritages are so far removed from that of the Judeo-Christian heritage of the United States that a coherent, foreign policy will be impossible to formulate or implement, given the opposing belief systems to which these recent immigrants adhere. They are, fundamentally, incompatible with the historic heritage, values, traditions and rule of law of the vast majority of Americans.
This judgment is not based on discrimination or prejudice or personal animus, but is a rational assessment of the realities which have become obvious from the expressions of opinion and protest which these recent arrivals have made. History has taught us that “A house divided can not stand.” Yet, government has fostered the house divided for the purpose of perpetuating its political power. In the recognition of fundamental differences, the basic problem is the common acceptance of the sources of the rule of law which, ALL in a society must obey in order for there to be security. Democrats have failed us miserably!

Robert Zuccaro
Robert Zuccaro
5 months ago

I noticed today Northern Nevada schools are still out on Christmas-New Years break. No wonder we’re always last or close to it! Maybe they’re “remote learning”? That worked so well during Sisolaks COVID shutdown!

Pat R
Pat R
5 months ago

A lofty goal, and one that is sorely needed. I hope and pray it is accepted, even if there will be those who fight it.

~Bacon
~Bacon
5 months ago

As long as we leave “education” in the hands of demonicrats nothing will change. I recently finished an MA at USU. Hardly the midst of liberal domination, one would think. Yet it was here that I first became aware of how far the Marxist movement has come, in spite ot its historical record of failure. The name of the course has nothing to do with the message (indoctrination) being conveyed. I had professors who openly promoted what they called “Neo-Marxism,” as though it isn’t actually Marxism but something more refined. The further removed a student was from normalism the more that student became the focus of the professor involved. It was stunning to me that in an institution reputed to home intelligence, stupidity was the call of the day. One of the great mysteries of our time is how did such an anti-freedom/independence ideology become so potent? Satan I suppose, though I don’t like it, seems the only logical explanation.

Morbious
Morbious
5 months ago

Ok, sounds good, but as he notes, the high pitched screaming from the ‘experts’ and their fanatic opposition will have to be dealt with. Then, conservative or classical liberal professors would have to be found. The left is sure to insist on their co travelors being given these jobs. Not mentioned is the sad fact that parents are still shelling out vast sums to leftist universities. This is an end run around lazy and uninformed parental choices. The slavery to style determines these choices along with fear of kids reactions.

Melinda
Melinda
5 months ago

The GEA sounds wonderful, especially as regards history and civics, and is sorely needed. However, it is not likely to be widely instituted any time soon, given the forces arrayed against it. More’s the pity.

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