Fixing a Liberal Arts Education Requires a Standardized Curriculum

In higher education, the value of a liberal arts education has been frequently debated. Defenders on the left argue that it exposes students to coursework and teaches critical thinking skills they would otherwise miss. Critics on the right, however, have argued that the liberal arts can be a vehicle for leftist indoctrination and provide minimal value to students in an increasingly technical job market.

But the promise of a liberal arts education can be revived if universities consider standardizing their general education curriculum. Doing so could raise academic standards, depoliticize the curriculum, and improve students’ critical thinking skills.

The need for change in the status quo is shown by the difficulty students have in developing critical thinking skills. A 2017 analysis by The Wall Street Journal of the College Learning Assessment Plus, a standardized exam which measures an institution’s ability to improve critical thinking skills, showed that at least a third of seniors at more than half of the 200 participating schools were unable to make a cohesive argument, assess the quality of evidence in a document, or interpret data tables. But the analysis also showed that schools which establish high curricular standards tend to offer students a better education. The biggest student gains in improving critical thinking were not made at the most selective institutions, but at oft-overlooked state institutions such as Plymouth State University in New Hampshire, West Chester University in Pennsylvania, and the University of New Mexico.

Most colleges require students to take core classes ranging from the humanities to the sciences, or what is referred to as a liberal arts education, in the form of a general education curriculum. However, this coursework can vary wildly in quality, rigor, and instruction by faculty, by department, and by institution.

Standardization can fix that inconsistency by requiring content taught in core classes to be updated and reviewed, holding faculty to high teaching standards. Many universities still view faculty as self-governing and self-regulating, erroneously assuming that academics will improve their teaching methods independently without guidance or assistance. But universities, particularly those with graduate programs, place a greater emphasis on academic research. Here, research determines university prestige and faculty promotion, especially for academics pursuing tenure, which incentivizes improvements in research over teaching.

For standardization to be effective, the executive responsibility should reside in university colleges, who would be charged with reviewing class content and requirements, ensuring that faculty provide students a robust education. Faculty would submit a syllabus to a committee of peers and administrators to review, drawn from across the college. Then, much like academic peer review, the class would be approved, or the faculty member would be asked to revise and resubmit their syllabus. The review committee would adhere to strict criteria for ideological neutrality and academic standards to approve only classes that provide both an inclusive array of topics and require students to do more than show up to pass. Bringing together faculty across a college could increase the differing academic perspectives students encounter in class. Hence, it would become harder for individual faculty or isolated departments to push a narrow view of acceptable ideas in their curricular offerings.

By contrast, the current approach to syllabus review at most colleges does little to control for either ideological bias or curricular skew. Departments, not colleges, approve course syllabi developed by the instructor with perhaps an occasional administrative review and virtually no input from fellow faculty. This lax approach is a far cry from the meticulous scrutiny associated with academic peer review.

If colleges aren’t sure about how to approach standardization, they can study standardized testing as a blueprint. Already, professional schools rely on standardization for admission standards. The Medical College Admissions Test, for example, outlines the required coursework and content for aspiring medical students. The benefit of using standardized tests is that they are developed by both content and measurement experts to ensure quality and consistency. Even professional organizations, such as the American Chemical Society and the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Media Communication, have established program requirements for accreditation. But those organizations are a minority. However, by using standardized testing or professional organization guidelines, universities could “back engineer” their curricula to ensure it covers the necessary material.

The benefit of using standardized tests is that they are developed by both content and measurement experts to ensure quality and consistency.

Embracing standardization could also safeguard the free exchange of ideas and protect against what Angela Logomasini of the Competitive Enterprise Institute has called “the academic nanny state.” It could generate better discussions around controversial issues such as sexual and gender identity, abortion, and climate change by building a curriculum that puts intellectual merit above ideological sound bites. When a college reviews potential coursework, it can correct political excesses in the classroom by adding readings that offer competing interpretations or removing poorly argued opinions masquerading as academic research. Standardization could at least require faculty to understand conflicting views and present them intelligently for students to evaluate.

Faculty may argue that standardization reform is fantastical, but several universities already recognize that the haphazard approach to general education needs to change. At the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, a research-intensive institution serving over 25,000 students, administrators created capstone courses which integrate standardized, core coursework. At Temple University, administrators have introduced a sequence of “Great Books” courses to introduce undergraduates to canonical works of literature. But the changes made by the most daring administrators is slowed by the current decentralized structure; support systems have arisen for the status quo, rather than reform that would standardize the university.

Faculty may also contend that standardization will infringe on their academic freedom, but faculty and interested students will still have room to pursue specialization through elective coursework outside the general education requirements. Or, they may also argue that their political leanings hardly affect their teaching. While this disinterestedness may be the case for instruction, it is difficult to defend such an argument in terms of curriculum, which is influenced by works instructors consider worthwhile. If true, though, then standardization should be welcome, as the professor will be commended for their commitment to exposing students to unfamiliar and competing ideas.

It is important to acknowledge that standardization does not herald the end of creativity. History has shown us that, as the demands and needs of societies become more complex, standardization is the cornerstone of progress. In the 18th century, the introduction of the metric system revolutionized measurement in the natural sciences; during the 19th century, the introduction of the Napoleonic Code laid the groundwork for modern European continental law; and in the 20th century, the Bretton Woods Agreement established the rules for international banking and finance. Standardization breathes life into interdisciplinary thought and creativity and helps ensure that students receive a superior education—an ideal higher education aspires to but often falls short.

A robust liberal arts general education is more important now than ever. But subjecting students to attenuated curricula riddled with dogma does a profound disservice to both tomorrow’s leaders and the credibility of higher education. With standardization, universities can avoid academic irrelevance and restore public faith in higher education.

Ethan S. Ake-Little is a PhD candidate in urban education at Temple University.