The Sad State of Higher Education in America

(Editor’s note: Dr. Meymandi, psychiatrist, scholar, and philanthropist, issues “Monday Musings” essays once a week. He wrote this essay in response to a request from the Pope Center. It also appears on his website.)

America’s greatness is in danger, not because as a nation we are economically bankrupt. Not because China owns us and could cash in their vast holdings of U.S. Treasury bonds and send us in a tailspin. Not because we keep borrowing without restraint and spend the money, among other things, to buy oil from our declared enemies in the Middle East and pollute the air we breathe, but because America is in mortal danger of ominous decline in education. 

Every day some flagship university announces that it is doing away with teaching foreign language and revising its curriculum to include more courses on cultural diversity and women studies and fewer courses in math, history, and liberal education.

The latest such diatribe comes from the University of Arkansas. Inside Academe, a publication of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) reports that the University of Arkansas is going down the slippery slopes of academic mediocrity. Until now, in order to graduate from the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences of the University of Arkansas, all students were required to take English composition, philosophy, mathematics, world literature, Western civilization, American history, fine arts, science and foreign language. ACTA reports that the university is planning on gutting its stellar core. The university has announced that the foreign language requirement will be eliminated, along with Western civilization, philosophy. and literature. Math and science will be trimmed, too.

These actions have borne disastrous results. For example, in a recent survey, 78 percent of University of Illinois students surveyed did not know the author of the phrase “of the people, by the people, for the people.” America is losing its memory. We are denying the type of education that imparts love of learning and prepares graduates to become effective workers and informed citizens. The late Senator Fulbright is turning in his grave…

We have replaced studies in chemistry with healthy cooking and trigonometry with understanding mortgages. A student will be more likely to read Harry Potter than anything by Thomas Jefferson. Most disturbing is that our young college students are better versed in a peculiar guilt for their forefathers’ misdeeds than in the proud history of the West’s pre-eminent society. That guilt will further compromise the basic understanding of what is sacred about our nation and the United States Constitution.

Survey after survey shows these startling facts: Americans know more about the TV cartoon “The Simpsons” than they do about the First Amendment. Only one in four American students of higher education can name more than one of the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment. As a reminder, the five freedoms are freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of press, freedom of assembly, and freedom to petition for redress of grievances.

With the recent turmoil in our beloved University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, allegations of misdeed and abuse by coaches and sports administrators, which according to the university leaders have eroded “the academic integrity of the University,” we thought a few reflections on American education would be in order.

The basic question is: Are our universities citadels of knowledge or a huge stage for entertainment? America’s higher education seems to be held hostage to sports, athletic programs, and entertainment. The new east addition to UNC’s Kenan Stadium costs $70 million, adding thousands of seats, luxury boxes, and plush athletic training and tutoring facilities, while the infrastructure of the science laboratories is eroding and in ill repair. I never understood a system that rewards a coach with as much as five million dollars a year income, fifteen times the chancellor’s salary, and rewards the science professors, those who deliver the end product of a university, namely, scientific research and knowledge, with a comparative pittance. Lord knows I have tried to understand this diabolic system but have failed. I fear America’s higher education is on the wrong track.

There are numerous instances today of individuals trying to deprive us of our freedom. For instance, our freedom of speech is threatened by those who say that the only allowable speech on our college campuses should be politically correct speech. Our freedom of religion is routinely targeted by groups who want to ban God from our schools, courthouses, and civic buildings. Freedom of assembly is challenged by those who believe the only legitimate protests are the left-oriented kind.

Listening carefully to Socrates, his teacher, Plato (427-347 BC) outlined in his Dialogue on Education, a curriculum that consisted of music, gymnasium, rhetoric, logic, and mathematics. Some six hundred years later, Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430) in his book The Teacher (he co-authored the book with his teenage son Adeodatus) recommended a school curriculum that was very much the same as Plato’s. Augustine added learning of one or two non-mother-tongue languages. He regretted that he himself did not learn Greek as well as he should have. I believe we must stop transforming our institutions of higher education and learning into arenas of sports and entertainment.

Here in America, I support ACTA because it has many colleges, universities, and places of higher education under surveillance to sound the alarm if the basic curriculum of liberal education is diluted.

Readers may recall my review of the book Take the Risk by Ben Carson, M.D., professor of pediatric neurosurgery at John Hopkins, who truly epitomizes the fulfillment of American virtues and what it means to be an American. Ben has performed numerous delicate neurosurgical operations at Hopkins and throughout the world, including separation of twins conjoined in the head and brain. He is a consummate physician, skilled neurosurgeon, and has the soul of a saint. 

In his book Take the Risk he talks about how education, and education alone, rescued him from the depth of a segregated neighborhood in Detroit, Michigan, marred by drugs, gangs, etc., to enable him to become one of the world’s most eminent neurosurgeons. He emphasizes (and admonishes) that America is on the slippery slopes of abandoning education and replacing it with sports and entertainment. He argues that America is producing fifty thousand engineers a year, while we need 350,000. How much longer can we import engineers form Bangalore, China and other developing nations? We are NOT producing nearly enough scientists. America ranks below Ethiopia and Somalia in math and basic science tests, and we do not know much about our own history, language, arts, and basic humanities that connect us with the rest of the world. Look at our daily newspapers: the sports section is the fattest, followed by the entertainment section. Take the Risk is a wake-up call worth reading by parents, educators, rabid sports fans and university Chancellors.

America needs to turn back to its roots.

Our founding fathers gave their lives, their sacred honor to fight a formidably powerful enemy to give us this beautiful Republic. In 237 years life of America, we have done very little to protect and preserve and nurture the gift of America, the gift that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison and other patriots gave us. We submit that every American child by the fifth grade ought to memorize George Washington’s Farewell Address, The U.S.  Constitution and John Adams’ Inaugural Address. We should also support organizations such as ACTA to keep a critical eye on the conduct of our colleges and universities, lest under social pressure and political correctness, they may dilute the curriculum to accommodate the lowest common denominator in education.

In my university lecture tours, I come across splendid examples of liberal arts curricula that have kept faith. These schools demonstrate reverential devotion to the notion of liberal arts as it was meant to be. They insist on teaching English composition, philosophy, mathematics (math in Greek means knowledge), world literature, Western civilization, American history, fine arts, science, and literature. One such school is our own Davidson College in North Carolina. Another is Hillsdale College in the boonies of Michigan, which has provided education to young people since 1844. We need more schools like Davidson and Hillsdale.