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February 29, 1988 - Image 26

Resource type:
The Michigan Daily, 1988-02-29

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

Colleges Chart a
New Course of Study
Scholars continue the never-ending search for the perfect curriculum



Cambridge, Mass. They sit at the bar, hunch over their
drinks and ignore the bowl of salted peanuts between
So, these two shaggy, intellectual types go into a tavern in
them. The first one, Ralph Waldo Emerson, takes a long,
slow sip of his blue Margarita and proclaims, "Harvard
teaches all the branches of learning." The second one,
Henry David Thoreau, slugs down a shot of whisky, chases
it with a gulp of beer and grimaces before responding, "Yes, indeed.
All the branches and none of the roots."
Sure, this sounds like a joke, but Emerson and Thoreau actually
said those words about 100 years ago. And it sounds not unlike
exchanges now taking place, often loudly, in classrooms, faculty
meetings and cocktail parties all over the country. Once again,
Americans are clashing over the goals and methods of higher
education. But if the topic is eternal, the volume (in both senses of
the word) has never been higher. During the past five years a
regiment of committees, commissions,
think tanks and assorted free-lance ex-
perts has aimed a barrage of critical ver-
biage at academe. Two of the critiques
even turned into unlikely best sellers last
year-Allan Bloom's "The Closing of the
American Mind" and E. D. Hirsch Jr.'s
"Cultural Literacy."
Critics contend that today's college
students can barely identify Plato, let
alone analyze his philosophy or write a
cogent essay on his works. Any reason-
able person might therefore conclude
that higher education wasn't doing its
job-and, indeed, that's what some au-
thorities say. Secretary of Education
William Bennett, for one, declares that
the general state of America's colleges
and universities is only "fair. Better than
terrible, not as good as good." Yet as
many or more experts are encouraged.
"Despite all their flaws, America's uni-
versities are pretty terrific," says E. D.
Hirsch Jr., who reserves his harshest -
criticisms for elementary and secondary
curricula. He concedes, however, that
colleges "could be better."
Disagreement, of course, has always
been central to higher education. But one
current fact is incontestable: colleges are

in the midst of massive change. A survey by the American Council
on Education (ACE), taken a year ago, found that 95 percent of all
two- and four-year institutions in the nation had overhauled their
curriculum in the past few years or were about to do so. Many of
these reforms predate the wave of criticism that started in 1984
and reached a crescendo last year. Today's rethinking of college
education began in the late '70s, in response to the loosening of
standards that followed student protests of the '60s. Academicians
finally grasped, in Thoreau's sense, that schools had branched too
far from their roots, and the critical reports encouraged them to do
something about it. "They gave a big push to what was already
under way," says Elaine El-Khawas, the ACE's vice president for
research. Perhaps the most thoughtful critic of colleges, Ernest
Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement
of Teaching, thinks "something more interesting is going on now,
which will be more consequential."



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