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Sometimes Attacks on Higher Ed Mask Other Agendas

Seems that everywhere you turn you are likely to either read or hear about someone bemoaning the crises facing American universities and higher education in general. While this topic is far from being original, it always manages to revitalize and reinvent itself periodically with a list of grievances directed toward the ivory tower.

On January 27, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni released a report entitled “Education or Reputation” that came to the conclusion that many liberal arts colleges and research universities are not providing their students with an “academically sufficient” enough education. Sound familiar?

Without going into heavy detail of all the arguments made in the report, some of the group’s main findings were that:

· Classical liberal arts education had been substituted by less rigorous scholarship.

· Too many professors do not teach enough compared to 50 years ago.

· Many teachers spend too much time researching narrow areas of scholarship.

· Scholarship on western civilization and Europe is often marginalized or ignored in favor of non-Western literature and History.

I will admit that after reviewing the report, I briefly thought that I was reading an article from the early to mid-1990s.

This was the era of the so-called “culture wars,” which gripped mainstream America, and academia was front and center in the argument, one that was often passionate and frequently contentious. For those of you younger folks (say those born after 1977), you probably have a vague, if any, memory of this movement. It was a debate in which scholars, journalists, other public intellectuals, policy analysts and, in some cases, private and ordinary everyday citizens, provided their opinions on what they saw as the “good and evils” that were prevalent in society at the time.

Liberals, conservatives, moderates, apolitical people and more brashly took sides and often staked out uncompromising positions as they adamantly defended their arguments. This was the era before the internet. The only avenue that one had to read and peruse such opinion was from newspapers and magazines.

Such a movement gained increasing interest from the public and, before long, mainstream media outlets such as the New York Times, The New Republic, The Weekly Standard, The National Review, Christian Science Monitor, The Progressive and Conservative Digest weighed in with their own often spirited commentary. Being a graduate student at the time, I was fascinated and taken in by the emotion that such an issue generated among its followers. Moreover, I was in one of the prime disciplines of study where such occasional acrimony took place — history. English was the other academic filed of study where the literary canon/culture wars debate took front and center.

Fortunately, for me and my graduate school cohorts, we were in a department where professors were professional enough not to impose their political viewpoints on students. By this, I mean they did not drag students into their personal conflicts and use them as pawns against faculty colleagues they were at odds with. Truth be told, I remember the department as one where faculty members seemingly got along with one another fairly well.

Positive experiences aside, my main concern with this report released by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni is that the organization is most likely using their report as a subtle attack against what it sees as the supposed erosion of Western civilization on campus. It is commonplace that such groups often will employ code words such as “politically correct,” “non-traditional” and other related terms as an sophisticated attempt to discredit and denounce faculty, research, scholarship and courses (read ― gender, race, gay, lesbian, transgender, deconstructionist, postcolonial, global, etc.) they deem as at odds with their agenda. These are the sort of groups that long for the days when Eurocentric scholarship dominated the ivory tower. Such a myopic position is misguided and must be aggressively challenged.

Including divergent perspectives in the college curriculum is not political correctness, it is acknowledging the significant contributions that Americans of all races, ethnicities, religions, sexual persuasions and regions have made to our society. It is a positive and healthy activity that should be encouraged by all who are part of the academic community. In an ever growingly and permanently diverse and pluralistic society such as ours, such a direction and commitment is paramount.

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