American Higher Education: From Butterfly to Caterpillar to What?

Do American college graduates have a coherent understanding of the world? Very few do. We have our universities to thank.

A new paper just issued by the Pope Center, From Christian Gentleman to Bewildered Seeker: The Transformation of American Higher Education by Russell K. Nieli takes a sweeping view of college education in America, from the colonial days up to the present. Nieli shows that the point of going to college used to be the acquisition of a coherent body of knowledge about the world so that the individual might understand its interconnectedness. Today many schools offer the student nothing but a smorgasbord of courses that give little more than a bit of vocational training. Missing entirely is any effort at to achieve what used to be thought a “well-rounded” education.

Nieli’s purpose is to explain how this unhappy metamorphosis came about and he accomplishes that purpose beautifully.

Higher education in America began as a religious endeavor. Various Protestant sects established schools whose primary objective was the training of clergymen. Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth, Nieli reminds the reader, were created by Congregationalists; Princeton by Presbyterians; Penn, Columbia, and William and Mary by Episcopalians; Northwestern, Vanderbilt, and Duke by Methodists, and so on. Not every student, of course, actually entered the ministry, but the moral and spiritual education of students remained the highest priority.

Even the early state universities, such as the University of North Carolina, were modeled after the avowedly religious institutions. And as late as the 1880s, the founders of Stanford University, even though not affiliated with any religious denomination, emphasized the moral and spiritual dimensions of education.

Throughout the 19th and well into the 20th centuries, most colleges and universities in the United States had a curriculum solidly based in the liberal arts. Nieli points out that the thinkers of the Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment were widely read, including such notables as John Locke, Adam Smith, Joseph Butler and Thomas Reid. These authors “integrated moral, spiritual, and social concerns in varying ways that tried to do justice to the dual imperatives of high morals and sound practical judgment.” In those days, the mission of colleges and universities was to train people for good citizenship, more than for particular occupations.

After the Civil War, however, some of the leading American universities started to copy the model of the research university that had developed in Germany. The crucial difference was that professors devoted much of their time to specialized research. While the liberal arts curriculum was not abandoned, the new research areas were where “the action” was. They proliferated and the numbers of courses available in each discipline grew. Literature and the humanities declined in importance, says Nieli, as “natural science, economics, and vocationally-oriented graduate and business programs” increased. The result: “a clear loss of educational cohesiveness and shared educational mission,” says Nieli.

A few educational leaders held out. In 1885, for example, Princeton’s president James McCosh said that he was troubled by the fact that a student at Harvard could graduate without taking a single course dealing with religion or morality. But try as they did, educators like McCosh couldn’t do much to change trends.

They could, however, protect the older educational concepts by instituting at a few schools core curricula that exposed all students to some of the most significant writings of western civilization – what came to be known as “great books” programs. Columbia University and the University of Chicago were especially known for their efforts at combining a traditional program of learning with the activities of a research university.

Such efforts helped to preserve a few oases of liberal arts education in the middle of the 20th century, but for the most part, the college curriculum became increasingly fragmented and geared toward occupational training. And then the 1960s happened.

Nieli refers to the “destructive generation” – professors and compliant administrators in the 1960s and 70s who wanted to banish the remnants of the traditional curriculum in favor of a kaleidoscope of courses on multiculturalism, feminism, environmentalism and other “isms.” Then, in a famous confrontation at Stanford in the 1980s, activists chanted “hey, hey, ho, ho, Western culture’s got to go” in their quest to get rid of a part of the curriculum that required students to study key aspects of western civilization. They won. In the spring of 1988, Stanford dropped a three-semester core that focused on classics of western philosophy and literature, replacing it with courses on “oppressed groups” and their views. Often, the students were not so much taught about different cultures as taught that western culture is uniquely bad.

Nieli advocates a college curriculum that has room for vocational study but gives each student a grounding in the fields that used to comprise the pillars of college education. It would, he believes, alleviate “the drift and anomie among college students that is so endemic today to the a la carte university.”

Commenting on Professor Nieli’s paper, former president of St. John’s College John Agresto, agrees. “The best students still cry out for an education that speaks to them of what’s important and how to integrate that knowledge into a coherent whole,” he says.

“When students try to impress us by saying they’re double or even triple majors, what they want us to hear is that they are trying, against all odds, to take in as much of the world as they can. When they favor ‘interdisciplinary’ courses, they’re trying to tell us that they’re looking for the interconnectedness of the universe and not just a bit here or piece there. The best students still crave a meaningful education about the most important human matters and hope the world will make some sense to them.”

I think that Agresto is right. Many young Americans want something more from their college years than merely a pile of credits for courses ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. Unfortunately, many more want to get a college degree with as little effort as possible and are largely indifferent to the content of the courses as long as they’re entertaining and don’t call for too much work. An educational equivalent of Gresham’s Law appears to be at work, with bad education driving out the good.

In any case, for a concise, excellent overview of the changing focus of American higher education, Nieli’s paper is the thing to read.