OPINION: Move over, Lady Macbeth. Lady Gaga is the star of this course.
Tuesday, April 10, 2012 6:16 AM
It's happening in Minnesota and all around the country. Fundamental elements of education are being passed up in favor of boutique courses, such as "The Music and Image Monster: Lady Gaga in Context" at St. Catherine University in St. Paul.
That's not to say there's no room for engaging, albeit non-traditional, courses on our campuses. Rather, any class that inspires discussion and encourages students to think in new ways is beneficial. But not at the expense of the basics.
Nationwide, we're seeing an abandonment of the core curriculum as colleges jockey for the attention of prospective students. Don't want to learn about American history? Take a class about the historical influence of the horse. Not interested in the great works of literature? Check out a course called "Monsters, Robots, Cyborgs."
You can do both. Right here in Minnesota.
At the University of Minnesota, those courses fully satisfy the historical perspective and literature requirements - and can be the only collegiate exposure a student has to history or literature.
Some believe students already know American history by the time they reach college. However, a survey conducted by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis found that only 34 percent of college seniors from elite institutions could identify George Washington as the general at the Battle of Yorktown. More than a quarter couldn't name John Adams as the second president. And just 22 percent could identify the phrase "Government of the people, by the people, for the people" as part of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.
Will students learn this if the only history class they take in college is about the horse? Probably not.
It may not be necessary for students to memorize that James K. Polk was No. 11 or that James Buchanan preceded Abraham Lincoln - to be honest, neither are likely to come up in casual conversation. But to graduate from college without a basic grasp of our history leaves us poorly prepared to face America's many challenges, not to mention the fact that it is a tragic slap in the face to the men and women who formed America, and defended her since. After all, only 37 percent knew the Battle of the Bulge occurred during World War II, despite many students being descended from the very men who took to the beaches.
Enough is enough, and it's time to equip our students with the skills they'll need to be successful.
Employers are noticing these skewed priorities. Fully 87 percent of employers believe that our colleges must raise the quality of students' educations in order for the United States to remain competitive globally, according to the Association of American Colleges and Universities.
It's a serious case of academic irresponsibility. Students and families are paying more and more - tuitions have more than quadrupled in the past 25 years - yet colleges are failing to provide our students with the educational foundation they deserve and our country needs.
A nationwide study of more than 1,000 colleges and universities, "What Will They Learn?" (www.whatwilltheylearn.com) found that 80 percent of our colleges don't require students to take even a single foundational course in American history - that is, one that involves more than just the study of horses. About 85 percent don't require students to study foreign language. And despite the state of the global economy, an unbelievable 95 percent of colleges don't require even a basic economics course.
Here in Minnesota, of the 23 prominent college campuses studied, not a single one requires a foundational course on American history/government or economics. Shouldn't we ensure that our students are getting the foundational education that employers expect? In the words of James Madison, "A people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives."
Just don't ask our students about James Madison. Just 23 percent knew he was the "Father of the Constitution."
Daniel Burnett is the press secretary at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a higher education nonprofit committed to academic excellence.