Study Only What You Want? Not If You Want to Be Successful

Recently, a general education course at UNC-Chapel Hill, “Big-Time College Sports,” was canceled. This sparked controversy after the course’s professor, Jay Smith, argued that the class, which he had taught in previous semesters, was axed because its treatment of Chapel Hill’s recent academic/athletics scandal cast the university in a negative light.

Lost in much of the news coverage, though, was a more important consideration: should such a course be offered at all? Mitch Kokai, senior political analyst at the John Locke Foundation, suggests not. “A typical undergraduate will take roughly 40 classes before earning her degree. It’s hard to picture a course tailored narrowly to ‘big-time’ college sports issues coming anywhere near the top 40 on the priority list,” wrote Kokai in this Carolina Journal article.

“Big-Time College Sports” is one of thousands of general education courses offered at UNC-Chapel Hill in recent years. Many of those, such as “Intersectionality: Race, Gender, Sexuality, and Social Justice” and “First-Year Seminar: Issues in a World Society: Sports and Competition,” are trendy and/or activist. One reason universities provide such courses is to satisfy students’ interests. But this often comes at the expense of a more structured, rigorous curriculum.

The good news is that UNC-Chapel Hill is in the process of revising its general education core, and changes are expected to take effect in 2019. The curriculum’s content will be closely examined to determine how it can better serve students in an era in which their majors won’t always determine their career trajectories. Campus leaders say they will emphasize skills such as communication and critical thinking, which should transcend specific degrees.

Unless Chapel Hill moves away from its tendency to cater to the sometimes narrow educational whims of students, however, real reform won’t occur. As a 2016-17 report on general education from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) states, “[When] schools replace their core curricula with a ‘study-what-you-want’ philosophy, they undermine the goal of ensuring for their students a broad and coherent education….”

ACTA’s report evaluated Chapel Hill and over a thousand other universities, giving grades based on whether schools require certain key subjects in their core coursework. In a Martin Center interview, ACTA’s Eric Bledsoe said that UNC-Chapel Hill received just a “B” because it has a watered down literary arts requirement, and doesn’t require U.S. history/government, or economics—subjects (the others being composition, foreign language, math, and natural science) ACTA says should be mandated if colleges are to produce well-rounded graduates.

A few North Carolina colleges did well in the survey. But Gardner-Webb University, a private institution in Boiling Springs, is the only school that received an “A.” Three universities, including North Carolina State University, received an “F,” and five received a “D.” The report makes clear that most schools don’t require students to follow a unified course of study. As a result, students often are left shortchanged—and confused.

Kelly Hogan, assistant dean in Chapel Hill’s office of instructional innovation, told the Daily Tar Heel earlier this year that for many students, general education is “overwhelming.” Students, she said, “spend a good deal of their time figuring out how to check boxes and not reflecting on what those courses really mean as a whole….” Some higher education reformers argue that the solution to this problem requires renewed emphasis on the traditional liberal arts curriculum.

Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars (NAS), said in an interview that Western civilization in particular should be required because it is the “backbone for the whole curriculum.” He said that studying “history, science, philosophy, psychology, medicine, law, or even mathematics without understanding the three thousand years or so…that gave rise to modernity is to be blind to the underlying order and interconnections of these subjects.”

At many universities, Wood’s argument would probably be met with hostility. Increasingly, Western civilization is viewed as oppressive and racist. For instance, some students at the University of London are campaigning to remove all “white” philosophers such as Plato, Descartes, and Kant from the philosophy department’s curriculum. And at Yale, students have demanded that authors such as Shakespeare be removed from English major requirements.

An interesting exception is St. John’s College, a small liberal arts school with campuses in Maryland and New Mexico. The college offers only one program—steeped in the Great Books tradition—and does not offer specialized majors. The program is set up so that students are exposed to the gamut of Western thought, with coursework structured chronologically.

Even though St. John’s students all study the same books, the skills they gain allow them to enter into a variety of careers. According to a June 21 Quartz article by Peter Marber, those who graduate from the program have entered into fields as diverse as law, business, and medicine.

The school’s unique curriculum provides an excellent training ground for intellectual and professional development. “What could be more valuable than…distilling enormous amounts of information to form a rational position or knowing how to listen and respond to—or perhaps integrate—someone else’s point of view?” asks Marber.

Of course, not every university should follow the St. John’s model, which is focused solely on works in the Western canon. But that model does show that not only is it inherently valuable for students to deeply engage with works such as Dante’s Inferno and Thomas Aquinas’ Summa, but also that doing so helps them gain skills that are valuable on a more practical level.

According to a 2015 survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, 91 percent of employers sought employees with critical thinking and communication skills. And in North Carolina, employers seek similar qualifications in recent graduates. Many of these skills, which employers and results from the Collegiate Learning Assessment reveal are lacking in recent college graduates, are the very skills imparted by a traditional liberal arts education.

UNC-Chapel Hill and other North Carolina schools should work to develop a general education curriculum that is more intellectually coherent and more conducive to producing graduates ready to succeed in civic life and the work force. Evidence suggests that real reform will require returning to more foundational coursework that has stood the test of time, as well as university leaders courageous enough to challenge students or others who may feel differently.

  • Jane S. Shaw

    A very good overview. I wonder if those who are revising the UNC-Chapel Hill core curriculum will consider the Martin Center’s specific recommendations, at: https://www.jamesgmartin.center/2013/10/general-education-at-unc-chapel-hill/.

  • redweather

    “Big-Time College Sports” was one of the “Making Connections” courses forming part of the General Education Curriculum at UNC Chapel Hill. But students are to take only one of the many courses offered in that category. Am I missing something?

  • bdavi52

    The answer is really pretty simple.
    But it leads to a very ‘consumer-unfriendly’, revenue-depressing solution.

    Human knowledge builds upon human knowledge, brick by brick, failure by failure, discovery by discovery. We live upon the summit created by all who came before us; we benefit from their works; we enjoy the fruits of their labor. And — when we are dedicated, brilliant, and blessed with a bit of luck, we ourselves add to that edifice and prepare the way for those who come after.

    Every generation, then, faces the challenge of ‘mastering’, at least to some degree, the essence of the truths we as a people have established over these millennia. Every generation must grasp what came before. We must understand the foundation (what it is and how it works and how it was formed and why) before we can build upon it. And the only way to do that is, as Peter Wood describes it, is to study with great diligence & attention Western civilization. Why? Because, as he says, “it is the “backbone for the whole …”

    To study anything else…to study even those curricular cores, “history, science, philosophy, psychology, medicine, law, or even mathematics without understanding the three thousand years or so…that gave rise to modernity is to be blind to the underlying order and interconnections of these subjects.” And when we lose that, we lose everything, our graduates full of sound & fury, signifying nothing.

    So the answer? Clearly a Great Books curriculum, a classic Liberal Arts structure which guides the unlearned through to their graduation, allowing them to emerge with a deep & abiding appreciation for the world they have inherited.

    But this means we don’t spend that 4 year flicker of time studying “Big Time College Sports”. It means we prune Identity Studies. It means we abjure the trendy, the topical, the activist, the popular, and the EzPz GPA builder and substitute instead high standards, shared values, and a commitment to work harder than we or they have ever worked before. And that means, in the end, that college is not for everyone. It means enrollments decline. It means the education market shrinks. It means we come to value scholars and teachers more than show ponies. It means the Big Business which is Higher Ed is reduced to simple education and the discovery of Truth.

    And if you’re the VP of Marketing at PolyTechnic State, those revenue streams begin to look very dry indeed.

  • Robert Armstrong

    It was “consumer-friendly” revenue-enhancing solutions that created the problem in the first place. Markets exist to give people what they want, not what is true, beautiful or just or even what is good for them. Universities exist to promote truth, beauty and justice. They exist to give people what is good for them. Do you now see the problem with a market orientated university?

    • William Murray

      Firstly, the relevant contrast is not between “markets” and “universities” — the set of feasible alternatives includes either privately run universities or governmentally run universities.

      Now, if it is true that an ideal university would be one that exists “to promote truth, beauty and justice” (which, I agree with you, it would be), the only question for those of us living here, below the Platonic heaven, is whether private colleges or public ones better approximate that ideal.

      And, of course, it is an elementary leftist mistake to assume that since private institutions are generally accountable to the demand of the public they serve, they should be expected to erratically jettison their aims.

      Perhaps even more egregious is the opposite inference, that *non-market* (i.e., governmental) mechanisms are somehow insulated from the contingencies of the world or from the changing motivations of some group of people, and that they can be relied upon consistently “to promote truth, beauty and justice.”

      But that is not, and never has been, an option. Governmental institutions are not run by angels (!) but by fickle, flesh-and-blood mortals.

      The only choice is whether to have a university whose administrators are immediately accountable to a public they must please year after year, generation after generation (or they will starve), versus one whose administrators are either accountable to some particularly loud minority of voters at some given time or, more often (as happens with bureaucracies), no one at all.

      There is no reason whatever to think that the latter arrangement is preferable to the former, however noble one’s view of the ends and goals of the academy, and very good reason to think the opposite.

      • Robert Armstrong

        Those of us who were born as seekers after the truth and can’t change ourselves to adapt to the demands of the market are in a very bad situation in a market based economy. Entitlement is our only means of survival. Free market advocates would be done with entitlement which puts us in a very bad situation.

        • William Murray

          But that’s not true, actually!

          Probably the two most famous “free market” advocates of the last century are Milton Friedman and F.A. Hayek. Both were in favor of a strong safety net. Friedman favors a negative income tax that will guarantee the poorest group of people a minimum income. Hayek also supported a guaranteed basic income.

          Notably, Friedman supported governmental monetary support for those poor who wanted to attend university (and, of course, private grade schools). (I don’t know what Hayek thought about this.)

          The point being that a market based economy and entitlements for the least well off are not in any way exclusive of each other. The only question is whether the entitlements should be in monetary form — leaving the price system undistorted and the poor free to use their entitlements in those ways that are most valuable to them — or in the form of some bundle of pre-designated goods (the content of the bundle presumably being determined by an unaccountable bureaucracy).

          The former, “free-market” solution would arguably leave the poor much better off.

          But it also would not leave the poor systemically dependent on the people they vote for. And again, since governments aren’t run by angels — or at least not by *good* angels — it’s easy to see which policy governments will choose (and which they will advertise as the only feasible option).

          • Robert Armstrong

            But actual politicians who support free market economics support taxes so low entitlements for the least well off are impossible. I give you Republican health reform as it has played out over the past 6 months as a prime example.

          • William Murray

            As you could have guessed, I can heartily agree with you on this point. Republicans — like all politicians — are human beings, motivated by fickle, human considerations.

            My only worry with your point is that it isn’t the case that one set of politicians is more angelic than the other; so, whenever we can, we should push for policies that tend to get government out rather than deeper in.

            Neither Republicans nor anyone else in government can be relied upon to consistently push those sorts of policies.

            But I suppose that is a debate for another time! 🙂

    • J K Brown

      Universities charge money and compete for students who pay that money. They are in a market. That they advertise increased future earnings then let students major in non-exchangeable skill producing majors is fraud. It’s not that they shouldn’t offer the majors that create only intrinsic value, but they should be honest that after graduation the student will only have the check off on the BA cell of the spreadsheet, not skills directly in demand.

  • tdaly29

    Einstein studied only what he wanted – was he successful?
    Why should not artist only study art, biologist biology?
    If you do not have critical thinking and communication skills by junior year you probably will never have them..
    I wounder how many classes Jobs and Gates had in history, science, philosophy, psychology, medicine, law, or mathematics.