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October 04, 2004

What Does That College Degree Mean?

George Leef:

On Sept. 20, the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy released a study conducted by Gary C. Brasor, associate director of the National Association of Scholars. In the study, he examined the general education requirements of 11 of the universities in the UNC system and found them, on the whole, to be weak.
The trouble is that many colleges and universities have so watered down their general- education curriculum that it no longer fulfills its function. Students can graduate without getting a well-rounded basic education. The study shows that students can earn their degrees without ever taking courses that used to be regarded as pillars of a college education.
Start with American history. Of the 11 institutions analyzed, not one requires students to take a single course in American history. Of course, American history is one of the options. Students can take it, but they can just as readily satisfy the history requirement by taking a course on some aspect of African or Asian history. There’s nothing wrong with studying, say, the history of the Ottoman Empire, but it would be better to ensure that all students have some grasp of the basics of our own history first.

Why is this important? When they graduate, students will not be living in Asia or Africa -- they will be living in America. It is our history, culture, and traditions that they must understand first and foremost. If they are to heed the advice of American philosopher George Santayana that "those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them", they must begin with an understanding of how our laws and mores came into being. Thus, American studies should form the core curriculum of any college degree. Other classes are more properly electives to be taken after the core requirements have been satisfied.

Natural science used to be one of the great challenges for many students, obligating them to do laboratory work as well as mastering the essentials of biology, chemistry, or physics. Such courses are still required for science majors, but many of the UNC schools have created far less demanding courses for students who aren’t science majors, such as Phys. 16 at Chapel Hill, a course described as “Demystifying the workings of objects such as CD players, microwave ovens, lasers, computers, roller coasters, rockets, light bulbs, automobiles, clocks, etc.” Interesting, but students would learn a lot more about scientific method in a traditional science course.
When it comes to the social sciences, students are typically required to take three courses from a great array of offerings. They might choose fundamentals such as principles of economics or introduction to sociology, or they might instead choose very narrow, trendy courses. Many students seek out information about professors and courses so they can decide which courses are the most easy and fun.
Courses in Western civilization are now optional, but most of the UNC schools studied have a “cultural diversity” requirement. Brasor writes that this is “at best a sign of interest in non-Western cultures, but all too often it’s an exercise in politically correct ‘education.’”
Great literature has similarly gone into the grab bag of courses that students may choose, but don’t have to. Foreign-language requirements have also been relaxed, with only East Carolina University still requiring the 12 credit hours that has long been regarded as the minimum needed to achieve a degree of basic competence in a language.

Why has this happened? The study concludes that colleges are offering students a la carte education. I would offer another possible explanation: affirmative action and the political correctness movement have made schools extremely squeamish about the D/W/F rate in many classes, leading them to "dumb down" the curriculum, make tests easier, and eliminate difficult material from courses.

When I was in school, I was a student instructor in College Algebra, Probability and Stats, and Business Law, all classes with very high D/W/F rates. The pressure on teachers in these classes was very high. Students were admitted to the courses regardless of preparation and did not do the coursework needed to succeed. When they failed, the teacher was blamed, not the student. Teachers were rated on several factors: among them, how many of their students passed the class. Anyone with half a brain can see the built-in incentive to dumb-down the class content. And unfortunately, anyone with half a brain can see how lowering admission standards, even with the best of intentions, leads to lowering academic standards for everyone. Over the last 10 years, I have watched this phenomenon in operation at three different colleges I attended as a student, an employee, and a student member on academic and faculty committees.

The law of unintended consequences is like the law of gravity - it operates with brutal regularity, regardless of our wishes to the contrary.

- Cassandra

October 4, 2004 at 09:43 AM | Permalink


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I knew the game was up some years ago when it was revealed that English majors could graduate Georgetown U. without ever studying Shakespeare. Georgetown, as college junkies will know, is not exactly East Jesus A & I.

Posted by: George at Oct 4, 2004 11:05:05 AM

That's sad. I was actually looking at Georgetown for grad school.

Posted by: Cassandra at Oct 4, 2004 11:27:00 AM

Don't let that discourage you Cass. What you have to take and what you do take are two different things. A good education can still be had, it just isn't required as stringently as it used to be. And at this point in your career I suspect you are considering further education more for your own personal growth and satisfaction than for any benefit the degree may bestow upon you.

So go for it, if that is what you want. Or write a bestseller...whatever.

Posted by: Pile On® at Oct 4, 2004 11:39:36 AM

While I have given up a lot of my background, I won't go so far yet to divulge my undergraduate institution. Suffice it so say that if you want the type of education NC is not requiring, you are pretty much looking at small, private liberal arts colleges with some conservative outlook left. The problem is many people say, "what can you do with a _general subject area__ degree?"

National Review did a College Guide back in 1991 or there abouts on the 50 best colleges and universities at keeping the western core education requirements. My undergrad school was in there (and it is a top 50 national liberal arts school, so the lists are not mutually exclusive), as well as many other fine schools. I don't know if they ever updated that book, but that would be a good place to start.

Posted by: KJ at Oct 4, 2004 11:49:21 AM


Grad school, and the curriculum required for an undergrad degree, have no relationship to each other.

Posted by: KJ at Oct 4, 2004 11:50:41 AM

KJ: My choice of schools will, as always, be severely limited because my husband is in the military. It's not like I can just up and go wherever I want to, unless I want to be divorced. Not that the thought hasn't occurred to me on occasion.

When I applied for jobs here and had my first few interviews, I was rather amused to have one interviewer turn his nose up at one of the schools I attended as a "commuter school". And it wasn't a bad school either - it was a branch campus of a very fine private school. But people are such snobs.

I pointed out that my husband was active duty military, I had been working full-time the whole time I was taking classes, had a 4.0 GPA while overloading on computer science courses, had been living in the desert in California miles away from any other schools. It's not like I had my pick of upper-echelon institutions to choose from -- I went to the best of the 4 that were available. I also pointed out what Pile said - you can get a good education anywhere you go: most schools use the same textbooks, and it's more what you put into the coursework.

If the idiot had bothered to look at my test scores or the rest of my transcript he'd have seen that I had also been admitted to an Ivy League school, so it wasn't lack of ability but lack of opportunity.

I have a couple of grad school reviews the Unit bought me before he left - I just haven't looked at them yet. I guess I'm a little discouraged right now, but I'll get around to it. It's a little soon after moving - I still have a lot of unfinished stuff to do.

Posted by: Cassandra at Oct 4, 2004 12:07:39 PM

I'll go along with a lot of what's beebn said, but as a history major I did not take "American History," per se, in college. One reason was that I din't have to (honors program), but the other reason is that I had been studying American history since I learned to read, both in and out of the classroom. I was dying to learn about the history of China, of Japan, of South America, of Russia, and yes about the Ottoman Empire, tright through to the Balfour decalaration. I also studied French and American Military history. Later, in law school, I studied the helk out of legal history (both American and English) and all the permutaions from the development of eminent domain to the civil rights movement. I love this stuff.

On the other hand, my eldest daughter was completely dumbstruck by the how much she hadn't learned about American history in high school. I remeber her telling me that history seemed to stop with the Second World War. She gobbled up everthing she could about the Cold War, the arms race and Vietnam. To her, that's history. To me, that was yesterday.

And Cass, I hate math.

Posted by: spd rdr at Oct 4, 2004 12:35:37 PM

spd, I hated math too when I first went back to school.

But I found it challenged my mind like nothing else - it was the only thing I tried that was really hard and made me stretch, because I'm not good at it naturally. And it develops your thinking skills - I've always been more of an intuitive than a logical thinker, and math helped me be more organized and methodical.

Besides, people who hate math paid my way through school - I tutored Algebra, Stats, and Calculus for 4 or 5 years for extra money :)

Posted by: Cassandra at Oct 4, 2004 12:48:21 PM

I am still only on Algebra one. High school.
Oh well. I know how to calculate the number of bricks needed to fill up a space, and concrete. Basic geometry and algebra. No sweat. BUT when you get into particulate physics, or why nanites are on line, I have to sit down. I would love to scratch my brain where it itches, so I content myself with blog walking.

Posted by: La Femme Crickita at Oct 4, 2004 1:33:02 PM

"I would offer another possible explanation: affirmative action and the political correctness movement...." At their root: cultural Marxism.

Posted by: ELC at Oct 4, 2004 2:21:09 PM

I would agree that "dumbing down" higher education curriculum serves nobody. To some degree this may be the result of a general desire to see everybody go to college whether they need it or not. Nowadays there are a lot more community colleges and trade schools for those who don't want or need a four-year degree.

I didn't take American History in college either. I took economics and political science as an elective, but the engineers didn't have much in the way of requirements for non-engineering courses. Our American History in high school was pretty thin, I wouldn't know anything about it unless I had done a lot of outside reading.

One problem seems to be that everybody feels they have to have a four-year degree at least, because the economic opportunities are so thin without it. When I was a kid, the cement plant workers in our town made more than my parents who both had masters' degrees. (Of course my parents were teachers). Good jobs for high-school educated people are pretty scarce now. So there's an element of desperation to it on the part of the underachieving kids and their parents.

Posted by: Al Peck at Oct 4, 2004 2:49:39 PM

I am a HUGE fan of our community college system. I think it's absolutely wonderful. I think everyone should be able to go to community college, but on the otter heiny, the people who aren't ready shouldn't be holding back the ones who are ready for more challenging material.

I think perhaps we're at the point where we need a two-tier college system, and there is a real anti-elitist bias in America that needs to be addressed: especially since, in many cases, it is the immigrants now who are outperforming the native-born American students. So it is no longer a question (as some would frame it) of the rich vs. everyone else or the white kids vs the "people of color", as very often it may be the Pakistani kid who is outperforming you, and his skin is much darker than yours and he doesn't make as much as you do, either.

It truly is a meritocracy, and we need to get the heck out of the way and let the people who want to work hard show us what they can do.

And you know what? It may not be us.

Posted by: Cassandra at Oct 4, 2004 3:03:26 PM

In other words, I agree with Al :)

I think there are great community college degrees that are unfairly stigmatized.

Not everyone needs a 4 year degree.

A 4 year degree should be worth something though - it's getting to the point that it's almost what a high school degree used to be.

Posted by: Cassandra at Oct 4, 2004 3:06:18 PM

Al, your last paragraph is a tricky one. It's one of those chicken/egg situations. Do today's jobs require college degrees because they are that much more advanced than they were in the past, or do they require them because a college degree today is equivilent to a high school degree then.

It's probably a little of both. 30 years ago, no one was doing the kind of analytical work I do today, but I also work in a fairly specialized field. Most of your white collar jobs don't require advanced Mathematics degrees. Maybe if today's high schools were more effective there would be better job opportunities for those who stop at HS.

Posted by: Masked Menace at Oct 4, 2004 3:13:45 PM

There may be truth to more than one generalization. Allow me to put out another partial truth: Signaling.

Employers use degrees as a form of signaling. It is a short cut to a costly process of finding the right employees. Many jobs are not static. So employers look not for someone with knowledge of the job, but for someone with an ability to learn, and re-learn, the job. An extra degree means that person has shown the ability to learn. A HS degree may have meant that in the past, but no longer means anything - grade inflation is even worse there than in college. So a college degree is just a signal that this person can learn and is willing to work a little bit to learn.

Posted by: KJ at Oct 4, 2004 3:21:44 PM

I was one of those folks who entered college with the naive impression that a Liberal Arts education was meant to broaden the mind. Silly me.

Unfortunately, to far too many people, college has turned into a glorified tech school. If I hear one more moron say that "some people don't know how to use their education," I'll keel over. Especially when this comes from people who would die before they "wasted" money on a book.

Posted by: RIslander at Oct 4, 2004 3:37:49 PM

I agree that a two-tier or even three-tier college system is a realistic response to our needs. The US higher education system has been a cornerstone of our competitiveness for years now and we shouldn't compromise it.

Community colleges are a realistic and very useful alternative for those who want job training or a more limited program. They really work.

As far as the discussion of jobs for high-school educated people, I don't have any answers, just an observation. I don't think these people should necessarily be thrown into the global pool to compete with Bangladeshis at two dollars a day, though. If our government is a government of the people, it includes these people too. That doesn't mean they have to go to college and get inflated A's or social promotions.

Posted by: Al Peck at Oct 4, 2004 3:48:14 PM


My youngest boy just graduated from a school where he did nothing but read Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Descartes, Euclid, Adam Smith, etc. for four years. Everyone gets the same degree - Bachelor of Arts.

He never took a modern math course or a modern science course.

He is now employed as a financial analyst-programmer doing SAS programming of mortgage applications for PhD Economists. He translates their work into computer programs. So far, he seems to be tearing it up.

People were absolutely horrified when we told them what he was studying, ("you want fries with that?" was the usual comment) but his education taught him how to think and to solve problems.

He found a job two weeks after graduation.

Posted by: Cassandra at Oct 4, 2004 4:22:45 PM

Cass I think we are getting a little of course here. College is what you make of it, dead white guys are cool and all but the important things you learn in college are where the good parties are, how to hold your beer, and what that little hole on the side of the bong is for. And how to pick up chicks, that can't be dumbed down and it is definately a meritocracy of sorts.

As long as you don't choose Texas A&M you can learn these things at almost any college.

Posted by: Pile On® at Oct 4, 2004 4:43:10 PM

Pile hon... as you might imagine (on second thought, stop right there - I'd just as soon we don't go there right now) I have very little use for 'picking up chicks' as you so quaintly put it.

Posted by: Cassandra at Oct 4, 2004 5:14:59 PM

Uh, well, I uh do uh , have use for "picking uh up chicks." So what, uh , is the little hole on the uh side of the bong for?

Posted by: Ted Kennedy at Oct 4, 2004 5:36:05 PM

I went to Berkely and got a Masters in East Asian Yoga Techniques, a Doctorate in Confucious Philosophy, another Masters in Pig Latin Liturature of the Twentieth Century, a Doctorate in Independent Film Making 101, and a Ph.D. in Ebonics as a Second Language.
With all that I still can`t find a good job and I blame Bush and his Nazi policies.

Posted by: DU Gurl at Oct 4, 2004 5:53:28 PM

Yeh, I was giving Ebonics some serious thought myself.

Posted by: RIslander at Oct 4, 2004 8:25:08 PM

who ever wrote this is fucking retarded

Posted by: Mike Poult at Feb 23, 2011 10:32:13 AM