Monday, February 12, 2007

Institutions of Higher Ignorance

From; the original report was produced by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and may be found in its entirety here.

A recent study of college students shows that those attending elite schools such as Yale and Cornell tend to lose more of their knowledge of U.S. history and government while at the school than do their counterparts at smaller, less prestigious colleges.

Some of America's Ivy League universities are going backward when it comes to teaching civic affairs. Students at prestigious schools such as Yale, Duke, Cornell, Brown and Georgetown lost knowledge of American history and government between their freshman and senior years.

Conversely, smaller, less prominent campuses showed moderate success in teaching U.S. history, government and civics. More than 14,000 students at 50 schools participated in the three-year study. The startling facts are revealed in "The Coming Crisis in Citizenship," a new study from Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI).

According to ISI, a non-profit educational organization, Johns Hopkins led the losers with student knowledge loss of 7.3%. Also in the bottom ten were Cornell (-3.3%), Duke (-2.3%) and Yale (-1.5%).

Among the colleges where students actually learned something about American history and government, the top four were Rhodes College (+11.6%), Colorado State (+10%), Calvin College (+9.5%) and Grove City College (+9.4%).
(Waffler note: the table of colleges and how much one learns/unlearns is appended below.)

This is not terribly surprising. Beloved but Expensive Daughter did extremely well at Trinity University (not surveyed), which is a pretty highly-regarded school. She learned a lot about her chosen field of study, and did very well on her GREs. In terms of her general level of knowledge about who we are, how we got to be that way, and why – the basic structural framework around which one structures one’s life as an educated citizen and that one expects to receive from a liberal arts education – I don’t think she knows a heck of a lot more than she did when she graduated from Hyde Park Baptist High School. I am very glad she is well positioned to continue into a successful professional career, but I expected a lot better for $27 K a year. Having worked and taught for many years at the University of Texas, the state’s flagship university, I guess I should have known better.

I think a big part of the problem is the total abandonment of any really meaningful “core curriculum.” Like many (if not almost all) universities and colleges, Trinity abandoned a “core” in favor of some set of “area requirements.” Different colleges have different names – I forget what Trinity calls them. The upshot is that you have to have a certain number of classes from different areas, such as social sciences, natural sciences, humanities, language, etc., but there are very few constraints on what you take within those areas. The net result is that a student can fulfill his requirements with Congolese History, Introduction to Zoroaster, IndoChinese Buddhist Philosophy, Food Chemistry, Medical Spanish, and Comparative Psychology. Now please note! I have nothing against any of these classes! Even though I just made up the titles, I’d love to have the chance to take several of them! HOWEVER, it is one thing to add these classes onto an existing intellectual framework of American and European history, Western philosophy, Latin, Greek, ancient and medieval theology, the development of psychological thought, and a couple of degrees in the real sciences. It is quite another thing to substitute them for the framework itself!

If you don’t share the common historical framework on which to organize your Weltanschauung[1], you are left with two possibilities. They aren’t just theoretical - I run into people all the time who have gone with one or the other. One response is to go without an intellectual framework and wing it. For such people, the world is a jumble of disconnected facts that can only be filtered through their own personal experience. The other approach is to create your own framework. This, in essence, is the intentional equivalent of schizophrenia without the voices. Your world may make sense to you, but not necessarily to anyone else, and its reflection of reality is largely a matter of chance. Once again, in the absence of shared understanding, one’s perception of the world is colored primarily by personal experience. The first response leads to mental chaos; the second to paranoia and conspiracy theories. Both lead to a society that can no longer come up with a reason to justify its own existence. Sic transit gloria mundi.

[1] I’ve only gotten to work that word into a sentence a couple of times since college 35 years ago! Yeehah! (It implies a concept fundamental to German philosophy and epistemology and refers to a wide world perception. Additionally, it refers to the framework through which an individual interprets the world and interacts in it, according to Wikipedia.) I don't mean to be an intellectual snob - we used to have an informal game where you scored points by working obscure words into sentences. Weltanschauung was one of my favorites and a sure winner if you could get it in. As you might guess, I hardly ever could. Doesn't rhyme well, either.


RankCollegeLearning Added or Subtracted
1Rhodes College11.60%
2Colorado State University10.9
3Calvin College9.5
4Grove City College9.4
5University of Colorado, Boulder8.9
6Spring Arbor University8.3
7University of New Mexico8.2
8University of Mobile7.5
9Florida Memorial University6.8
10Central Connecticut State University5
11George Mason University5
12Youngstown State University4.9
13North Carolina Central University4.8
14Utah State University4.5
15Lynchburg College4
16Catholic University of America3.2
17University of Massachusetts,Boston3
18Princeton University2.8
19Eastern Kentucky University2.7
20Baylor University2.6
21West Texas A&M University2.5
22University of South Alabama2
23University of Texas, Austin2
24Wheaton College1.9
25Harvard University1.9
26University of Washington1.8
27AppalachianState University1.7
28University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill1.6
29Capital University1.3
30American University1
31Stanford University0.9
32University of West Florida0.7
33Washington & Lee University0.2
34Dartmouth College0.1
35University of Michigan-0.1
36Ithaca College-0.2
37University of Chicago-0.3
38Massachusetts Institute of Technology-0.4
39Williams College-0.7
40University of Florida-0.8
41Wofford College-0.9
42University of Virginia-1.1
43Georgetown University-1.2
44Yale University-1.5
45State University of West Georgia-2
46Duke University-2.3
47Brown University-2.7
48Cornell University-3.3
49University of California, Berkeley-5.6
50Johns Hopkins University-7.3