Q: "Name one of the Ten Commandments."
A: "Freedom of Speech?"
Q: "Complete this sentence: Let he who is without sin...."
A: "Have a good time?"
Q: "Who, according to the Bible, was swallowed by a whale?"
(student responses to questions from Jay Leno)
A number of education critics contend that colleges and universities have become "breeding grounds for ignorance," graduating hordes of students who know "precious little." Defenders of the system, however, retort that American higher education is "a huge success." According to Steven B. Sample, President of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, this country has "the best universities in the world." Sure, he admits, the first two years of undergraduate education are "largely remedial by world standards," but by the time American students graduate, "our students are often far ahead" (USA Today, 6/24/99, 15A).
Both critics and defenders have the right idea: a cogent way to assess the quality of undergraduate education is to examine what college graduates know and what they can do. But this is no simple task. Higher education does not have, and probably never well, a standardized test--a sort of national "exit exam"--that measures the skills and knowledge of college graduates.
Without such an exam, the only recourse is to look at an assortment of tests, surveys, and anecdotal evidence that, together, might provide some clues as to whether undergraduate education is producing students with the skills and knowledge society has a right to expect.
Although there is no national "exit exam" of college graduates, there are exams college graduates take for certification or admission to graduate school. Do the data from these tests resolve the conflict between critics and defenders? No. After examining the ten-year trend-line scores for the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), the Dental Admission Test (DAT), the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), and the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT), I can report that some scores have gone up slightly, some have gone down slightly, and some have remained unchanged. Because each of these tests have changed over the years, longer trend-line numbers would not have been comparable. For a host of reasons, the scores on these exams "are inaccessible to interpretation," according to Clifford Adelman, a senior researcher at the U. S. Department of Education (Tourists in Our Own Land, 17-18).
The exams taken by those who want to become teachers, however, may be more helpful in gauging the rigor of undergraduate education, since the exams are less specialized and demanding, and have recently been subjected to considerable scrutiny. Forty-four states require candidates for secondary licenses to take some kind of licensing examination, although only 29 states require them to take tests in the subject area they will teach. Teacher examinations are provided by two agencies: the Educational Testing Service, which publishes the Praxis series, and National Evaluation Systems, which designs state-specific examinations.
NES designed the licensing examination given, for the first time, to college students seeking secondary certification in Massachusetts in the spring of 1998. The exam tested literacy, communication skills, and knowledge of the subject to be taught.
The results were appalling. Almost 60 percent of the 1,800 students who took the test flunked. In July 1998, a new group of about 2,100 teacher candidates took the test, and 47 percent failed. Since anyone who flunked had the right to retake the test an unlimited number of times, in July, some 1,000 of those who had failed tried again--only 6 percent passed. On the third try, 8 percent passed (Martin Gross, Conspiracy of Ignorance, 92). Among the Massachusetts universities with the highest failure rates were: Brandeis (47 percent), Boston University (34 percent), the University of Massachusetts-Amherst (45 percent), Simmons College (60 percent), and Northeastern (82 percent).
Was the test too hard? The answer depends on what you expect college graduates to be able to do. The reading and writing portions merely required test-takers to write lucid and correct English. But many of the soon-to-graduate students wrote at a fifth- or sixth-grade level, with some not able to compose sentences with both nouns and verbs. Even their grasp of commonly used words was feeble. One defined "abolish" as "a law about something."
The writing samples, at the bottom end, were so bad as to defy description. Test-takers were asked to write a summary of a lengthy passage on James Madison and the Constitution. Some examples: "Interpeting the Constitution rases many questions." Another wrote: "The major problem with this passage is that, there was no documentery of the debat, so the delegates kept them secret." "James Madison was the Father of the Constitution. But he was no good at notes. He wrote a lot of notes on the debats. But also left some stuff out. What we will never know. In the convention, delegats had to debat and compermise. 42 people did not sign and thanks to James Madison we will never know, why?" Remember, these samples were produced by students about to graduate, and who had the correct spelling of the words right in front of them.
On this note, their orthography was "atroshus." According to an AP report (27 June 1998), some test-takers, when trying to rewrite sentences, misspelled words almost any 9-year-old could spell. "Different" was spelled "diferant," "debris" was written "debri." "Surveillance was spelled in various permutations, including "survelance." One question asked students to listen to a short passage and write what they heard. This resulted in all kinds of creative spellings: "improbally," "coruptk," "integraty," "bouth" ("both"), "bodyes," and "relif."
Naturally, some who flunked claimed the exam asked about arcane topics, such as parts of speech. Complained one student, "You had to write an example of an 'interrogative sentence.' I was at a loss. I'm sure 99 percent of Americans would be at a loss" (AP, 12 July 1998). But another who flunked--and who graduated in mathematics cum laude from Regis College--was chastened by the experience: "I'm a dunce. I paid $80,000 and my piece of paper is worth nothing."
Which of these hapless college students is right? The second one, according to a study completed under the auspices of The Educational Trust, a non-profit organization that monitors K-12 education. The study concluded that with a few exceptions the content in the subject tests of both NES and ETS is "within easy reach of many of the students the test-takers are expected to teach-about the same level as in high-level high school courses" (Not Good Enough: A Content Analysis of Teacher Licensing Examinations, Spring 1999, 3). Indeed, a few tests, notably in science, "devoted a significant proportion of questions to content learned in middle school" (7). The specialists who examined the tests "found no evidence of content at the baccalaureate level" (8).
Passing scores on these exams are not set by the test publisher but by the state. One would assume that, given such an easy exam, states would set the cut-off score rather high, but most do not. Most states require candidates to answer correctly only 60 percent of the time to pass. In some states, such as Nevada, Mississippi, Nebraska, Tennessee, Minnesota, and Montana, candidates can get less than 50 percent on the Praxis I Reading or Praxis I Math exams and still pass. In states where teachers are in short supply, the requirement for minimum performance may actually be waived (4).
Yet, despite easy questions and low cutoff scores, dismaying numbers of college students flunk. In 1998 in Virginia, 33 percent failed. If Virginia's passing score--the highest in the country (requiring 70 percent correct)--were applied nationally, 44 percent of college students would flunk a high-school level exam (13).
What do these results tell us? First, that there is something terribly wrong with Colleges of Education. But then many knew that already. The blame should not stop there, however. Undergraduate education generally stands indicted by these scores, since the very students who can't write or spell or reason on these exams have managed to pass courses in departments throughout the university.
The humanities, especially English, have much to be ashamed of in this regard, but even the sciences should rethink the rigor of their courses and standards. A recent survey of biology teachers found that 20 percent think that dinosaurs and humans lived at the same time (they missed each other by about 60 million years). Those of us in higher education who laughed at the Kansas Board of Education when it waged a benighted campaign against unwelcomed scientific theories were laughing at ourselves: it was a veterinarian scientist on that board--a sterling product of American higher education--who wanted all science to be relegated to the status of unproven "theory."
Another way to test the rigor of undergraduate education is to look at the results of national literacy surveys given to seniors or recent graduates. These results, which I have not recounted in full for space reasons, are bleaker than the test data.
In l993, a Department of Education survey of adult literacy found that among those with a four-year college degree, 50 percent of whites and more than 80 percent of blacks couldn't state in writing the argument made in a newspaper column or use a bus schedule to get on the right bus, 56 percent could not calculate the right tip, 57 percent could not figure out how much change they should get back after putting down $3.00 to pay for a 60-cent bowl of soup and a $1.95 sandwich, and over 90 percent could not use a calculator to find the cost of carpeting a room. Remember, these are college graduates.
More bad news. Only 35 percent of four-year graduates could do such tasks as write a brief letter explaining a billing error, only 11 percent were able to reach the top literacy level (requiring the ability to write a brief essay contrasting the perspectives of the authors of two stories), only 13 percent of college graduates reached the highest level in math skills, defined as the ability to perform multiple-step math problems. The top 25 percent of adults with only a high-school education scored higher than the bottom 25 percent of people with a college education.
Albert Shanker drew the only reasonable conclusion from the report: "the self-satisfied story we've been telling ourselves about our higher education system is not supported by the facts." This self-satisfied story is also contradicted by a host of surveys--sponsored by diverse groups--that assess the cultural literacy of college seniors and recent graduates. I cite these findings in some detail to provide a more powerful and grounded impression of just how much college graduates don't know.
A 1990 Gallup survey for the National Endowment of the Humanities given to 700 college seniors--chosen to represent the national student population--found that 25 percent did not know that Columbus first landed in the Western Hemisphere before the year 1500; 42 percent could not place the Civil War in the correct half-century; 31 percent thought Reconstruction came after World War II; 77 percent could not identify Flannery O'Connor and Eudora Welty as the authors of stories set in the American South; 42 percent did not know that the Koran is the sacred text of Islam; and well over a majority could not identify the authors of The Aeneid, Crime and Punishment, The Tempest, Pride and Prejudice, The Sound and the Fury, Ulysses, and The Invisible Man.
As Gallup put it, if the overall results were to be graded according to the standard that less than 60 percent correct equals failure, then "more than half of those tested would have failed," with 55 percent receiving an F and 20 percent a D.
Every cultural-literacy survey administered to seniors or graduates within the last ten years reveals the same palsied grasp of history, geography, literature, and other realms of knowledge.
On a 1987-88 cultural-literacy survey of 100 fourth-year medical students at the University of Kansas Medical Center School, students correctly identified a mean of only 30 items (range, 8-74) of the 100 items taken from E.D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (1987). According to the author of the survey, the results revealed the failure of students "to acquire cultural knowledge during their premedical and medical education," including important knowledge about the non-medical sciences and the history and philosophy of medicine (Charles R. King, M.D., "Cultural Literacy of Fourth-Year Medical Students," Journal of Medical Education 63.12, December 1988, 919-921).
A 1989 survey asking 96 first-year graduate students--from 60 different institutions in 21 states--at the Babcock Graduate School of Management at Wake Forest University to provide short, specific descriptions of 250 cultural literacy items from E.D. Hirsch's Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (1988) found that: 70 percent could not define "amortization"; 62 percent could not define "capital gains"; 79 percent could not define "lien"; and, 85 percent could not define "actuary." Commonly used terms were also a mystery: 99 percent could not define "common law"; 80 percent could not define "gulag"; 97 percent could not identify "amicus curiae"; and 70 percent could not identify "Jehovah." As a group, they answered correctly only 17.2 percent of the items.
These numbers don't quite tell the whole story; one can miss a question by a little or a lot. Here are a few errant definitions from apparently quite confident college graduates: acrophobia: "fear of acronyms"; actuary: "a home for birds"; Aaron Burr: "Perry Mason"; cellulose: "fat deposits"; gerrymander: "to speak at length in Congress to keep a bill from passing"; duodenum: "number system in base two"; Annunciation: "to speak clearly"; Ramadan: "Jewish holiday"; Salome: "'hello' in Hebrew"; 1066: "an IRS form"; Stradivarius: "as in 'Rex'"; zylem: "as in 'insane'."
It is easy to dismiss survey data by saying that the sample wasn't representative or that the items were too hard. To discourage this form of denial, I'll cite some more evidence about the cultural illiteracy of vast numbers of college graduates.
A survey of seniors at a fairly selective university found that 90 percent could not identify the "Three-Fifths Compromise," over 80 percent could not name both Senators from their state, over 80 percent could not identify Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, and that more than 50 percent could not identify Ralph Nader.
A 1995 survey assessing the knowledge of basic facts of American history and government of 500 graduating seniors at the University of Florida and Florida State University found that 63 percent did not know the number of justices on the Supreme Court, 91 percent could not name four justices, 78 percent could not identify Alan Greenspan as the current head of the Federal Reserve Board, 79 percent could not name both of their state's U.S. Senators (more than half couldn't name either), and 90 percent could not identify Lincoln as the author of the phrase "a government of the people, by the people, and for the people."
In 1996, a survey of the cultural literacy of seniors conducted by the University of Connecticut's Roper Center for Public Opinion Research found the same levels of ignorance: 71 percent could not identify Martin Luther as the founder of the Protestant movement, 84 percent did not know the president of the United States at the time of the Korean War, 79 percent did not know who wrote The Republic, and 76 percent could not identify Italy and Japan as Germany's two main allies during World War Two. And 92 percent couldn't name Lincoln as the author of the phrase "government of the people..." (good news! another survey found that only 75 percent of Ivy League students didn't know this).
Most recently, a 1999 survey by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni of seniors at the nation's top 55 liberal-arts colleges and universities (as identified by U.S. News & World Report) found that 98 percent could identify Snoop Doggy Dogg and Beavis and Butt-Head, but only 34 percent knew George Washington was the general at the battle of Yorktown. Eighty-one percent of the college seniors surveyed received a grade of D or F on history questions drawn from a basic high-school curriculum.
I could probably go on like this for the whole Spring issue of The Montana Professor without persuading some readers that there's a problem with undergraduate education. They might say that questions on a survey simply don't reflect the quality of the education students receive, and others might say that American education produces advanced "critical thinkers," not slaves to facts. And, since there is no consensus within higher education about what levels of ignorance are unacceptable, a few might find in these dismal survey results proof positive that American colleges and universities are indeed producing students who are the envy of the world: 'Wow! Just think, 8 percent of graduating seniors could identify a phrase from "The Gettysburg Address"!'
But should we not be concerned when vast numbers of college graduates do not know what even high-school graduates once knew? The authors who surveyed those graduate management students think so. "We submit," they soberly argued, "that everyone should be concerned with these results." Cultural literacy, they explained, is crucial because it is knowledge that millions of others use to discuss and understand the world; this cultural information also contextualizes and explains new information found in books and classrooms. "The importance of cultural literacy in management education is therefore obvious.... We believe that the business education community ought to demand that our educational process produce more culturally literate students" (Richard P. Vance, et. al., "The Cultural Literacy of Graduate Management Students," Business Horizons 35.5, September/October 1992, 20-24).
When too many people are culturally ignorant, society as a whole is in danger. As long ago as 1978, Christopher Lasch, a man of the left, was alarmed that Americans "were becoming increasingly ignorant about their own rights as citizens." He noted with concern that 47 percent of 17-year-olds did not know that each state elects two senators. Well, now 56 percent of college seniors don't know this. Other survey results that Lasch found troubling were that 50 percent of 17-year-olds did not know the protections of the Fifth Amendment and thought that the president appointed members of Congress. Worse, "large numbers of Americans now believe that the Constitution sanctions arbitrary executive power" (129). "If an educated electorate is the best defense against arbitrary government, the survival of political freedom appears uncertain at best" (The Culture of Narcissism, 129). And Lasch wrote this before it was clear that higher education was not remedying such dangerous ignorance.
Lasch, who could recognize intellectual deterioration when he saw it, had dark premonitions about the fate of our country and culture: "In the space of two or three generations, enormous stretches of the 'Judaeo-Christian tradition,' so often invoked by educators but so seldom taught in any form, have passed into oblivion. The effective loss of cultural traditions on such a scale makes talk of a new Dark Age far from frivolous" (150-51).
The decline of undergraduate education has been going on for quite some time, at least a quarter of a century. The first to complain about the dumbed-down students produced by colleges and universities came from the business community. This from a 1975 article in Newsweek: "Businessmen seeking...junior executives who can produce intelligible written reports complain that college graduates no longer fill the bill. 'Errors we once found commonly in applications from high-school graduates are now cropping up in forms from people with four-year college degrees,' says a personnel official for the Bank of America" (8 December, 59).
In the mid '80s a woman who administered personnel tests to job applicants at an accounting business said that more and more applicants--almost all from prestigious universities--were failing. When she told one pleasant young college graduate that he had flunked, he broke down and sobbed that he had never received any grade lower than B. More recently, a study by the Society of Professional Journalists found that "graduates of broadcast journalism often have poor writing skills and an inadequate knowledge base." The report said that many college graduates do not come close to meeting news directors' expectations. Although most educators thought that their graduates knew how local governments worked, only 4 percent of news directors thought so (Chronicle of Higher Education, 4 October 1996, A45).
It was also in the '70s that professors began to complain about the decay of undergraduate education. In 1978, Lasch could write:
Such studies merely confirm what everyone knows who has taught high school or college students in the last ten or fifteen years. Even at the top schools in the country, students' ability to use their own language, their knowledge of foreign languages, their reasoning powers, their stock of historical information, and their knowledge of the major literary classics have all undergone a relentless deterioration.... Nor is this functional literacy confined to freshmen and sophomore. Scores on the Graduate Record Examination have also declined. (129)
Lasch concluded that higher education was "destroy[ing] the students' minds" (The Culture of Narcissism, 153).
Of course, professors have complained about student ignorance since they lectured in olive groves, but now they complain about graduate students. Actually, even these complaints started some time ago: "Increasingly...officials at graduate schools of law, business and journalism report gloomily that the products of even the best colleges have failed to master the skills of effective written communication so crucial to their fields" (Newsweek, 8 December 1975, 58). Alfred Kazin, who had only the best students in his graduate courses, lamented in the mid-'80s: "I encounter graduate students who don't know the date of the Russian Revolution, who have never heard that 'the unexamined life is not worth living,' (and don't know who said it), who ask...what 'a Garibaldi' is, and read Yeats without knowing what happened at Easter in 1916. No one who does not teach in America has an idea of the depth and complacency of our ignorance."
Complaints from old fogeys are easy to brush aside but it is harder to dismiss complaints from students. In an article published in The Montana Professor I quoted students who pleaded for higher standards and more rigor: "I wanted to be challenged," "try not to 'spoon feed' us," "I think more assignments might be helpful," "grading seemed to be a bit lax," "make the quizzes a little bit harder...Come to think of it, just make everything harder" ("What Students Want: A Meditation on Course Evaluations" 6.3, Fall 1996, 12-19).
Sixty percent of students recently interviewed by Arthur Levine said it was possible to get good grades without even understanding the material, something once said only of high school (When Hope and Fear Collide, 124-5). Confessed one student (an Education major, by the way), "I think it's kind of amazing that I'm graduating because I haven't studied in five years at Virginia Tech." An MSU student recently wrote this in a journal: "It doesn't take that much effort to get a good grade. I consider myself a slow learner, but I've gotten all A's this semester for very little effort. What reward is there for working hard in college? Personal satisfaction? A sense of achievement? We are being 'spoonfed' these things. Why should we work any harder? We've got the system figured out." At Yale, a group of students drew on the college catalog to shape a four-year program of study filled with courses such as "Intermediate Yoruba" and "Troubadours and Rock Stars." The administration acknowledged that the program would lead to a degree.
Some students are so fed up with their light-weight education that they are suing their indulgent alma mater for fraud. A graduate student suing Northern Arizona University called his school 'a diploma mill' after he earned a doctorate with distinction (he had a 4.0 GPA) in Educational Leadership despite not having studied. Calling his education a "fraud," he tried to give back his degree (Chronicle of Higher Education, 16 Aug 1996, A29). At least 27 other students who resented paying for an inferior education sued their universities in 1996 alone.
Since the "relentless deterioration" of undergraduate educations has been going on for 30 years, it's hardly surprising that the United States is turning into a sic society, with "Rolodex watches," "academia nuts," "Plutonic relationships," "pigeon English," "Dali Llamas," "Hollywood Bowels," "historic millstones," "vulcanized" race relations, and "feta compli" (all real examples from distinguished college grads). Sure, colleges and universities have been graduating inarticulate and illiterate athletes since the '60s (remember Dexter Manley, or O.J.'s illiterate "suicide note"?). But now even multi-degreed professionals have trouble spelling, writing, talking, and thinking.
Overlooked aspects of Dan Quayle's disastrous spelling bee with a sixth grader were that Quayle needed flashcards in the first place, that these flashcards were written by an adult involved in the after-school literacy program, that Quayle's advanced team had approved the spelling on the cards, and that none of the smug reporters covering the disaster caught the mistake until the boy told them.
There are now trial lawyers so witless as to ask (I do not make this up): "Did you ever commit suicide?," "Now doctor, isn't it true that when a person dies in his sleep he doesn't know about it until the next morning?," "Were you present when your picture was taken?," "Were you alone or by yourself?," Was it you or your brother who was killed in the war?," "Did he kill you?," "The youngest son, the 20-year old, how old is he?" "How many times have you committed suicide?"
There are now doctors so semi-literate as to write on patient charts: "The baby was delivered, the cord clamped and cut, and handed to the pediatrician, who breathed and cried immediately," "The skin was moist and dry," "The patient has waffles for breakfast and anorexia for lunch," "The patient lives at home with his mother, father, and pet turtle, who is presently enrolled in day care three times a week," "Bleeding started in the rectal area and continued all the way to Los Angeles," "She is numb from her toes down," "Exam of genitalia reveals that he is circus sized."
Even educators now wage war on the language. In 1975, school officials in Maryland were horrified to find that half of the teachers who applied for English-teaching jobs failed a basic test of grammar, punctuation, and spelling. In the same year the Board of Education of Stamford, Connecticut, required all teachers already employed to pass a test in written and spoken English after a member of the board had received a number of incomprehensible communications from English teachers in the district.
In 1983, an editor at Newsday wrote that the articles about education from teachers and administrators were so poorly written that "sometimes I cannot figure out what they are trying to say.... Grammatical mistakes and mangled thoughts pour in from first-grade teachers and college professors, from high school principals and education commissioners. Once I suffered through the extraordinary syntax of a university division head who specialized in teaching remedial writing to teachers.... Educators' essays are less lucid on the whole than those written by housewives or lawyers." No wonder an adult literacy survey commissioned by the federal government in 1992 found that 90 million of our 191 million adult citizens cannot read, write, or compute adequately.
Everyone--even the most soundly educated academics--will verbally blunder at times (The Montana Professor has its share in every issue). When this happens, the gaffes are dismissed as "bloopers," laughable brain burps with little significance. Some are. But their proliferation may be further evidence of the relentless decline of higher education.
Envelopes containing invitations to a celebration at the California GOP convention" said "Your invited." The New Yorker, famous for its fact-checking, recently misspelled Tucson as "Tuscon." A recent headline in USA Today read, with no pun intended or even possible: "U.S. players say success worth the weight." A recent stamp that placed the Grand Canyon in Colorado had been scrutinized by committee after committee.
A couple of years ago the University of Wisconsin presented 4,000 graduates with diplomas that misspelled the name of the state, but it took six months for anyone to notice. At Annapolis, graduates received a diploma that said "The Seal of the Navel Academy is hereunto affixed." A recent ad for a receptionist at the University of California said that applicants must have "execellant communications" skills and "Max experience." Consult the "Marginalia" section of The Chronicle of Higher Education for a steady stream of vetted gaffes from the pros of prose. The very fact that more and more of these errors survive thorough vetting--by college graduates--perhaps reveals more than we want to admit.
Bloopers aside, the evidence is mounting that many Americans can't think straight. Here are a few questions frequently asked at certain Visitor's Bureaus, according to those who staff them: "Which beach is closest to the water?," "Have we made peace with the Indians?," "What is the official language of Alaska?," "Where are Scarlett and Rhett buried and are they buried together?" and, "What's the best time of the year to watch deer turn into elk?"
Here are some questions that brainy Marilyn Vos Savant says were sent by loyal readers--many of whom must be college educated: "How long is the implied time limit on fortune cookie predictions?" "Would an acrophobic person who grew to be 50 feet tall have to lie down?" "When a bank is sold, who gets all that money?" "Must one always begin at the beginning? Much time could be saved if we could begin at the end." "Wouldn't any deodorant with a scent of its own wipe itself out?" "In B.C. days, did clocks run backward?" "Could we stop a hurricane on the East Coast if everyone on the coast turned on a fan outside pointed east?"
No wonder a Swedish chain-saw manufacturer feels obliged to warn Americans, "Do Not Attempt To Stop Chain with Your Hands."
Higher education should not shoulder all the blame for this "spread of stupidity," to use Lasch's phrase. The whole school system has been deteriorating for decades, though higher education has played a role in that deterioration, too. The decline of intellectual competence is also the result of the seismic shift from a print to a visual culture, with its disastrous effects on student reading, writing, concentration, and habits. Yet, it is hard to deny that for at least twenty-five years colleges and universities have made a thriving business of awarding degrees to hordes of "potatoe" heads.
Faculty members may disagree about a lot of things but most of us still believe, I hope, that it is better to be smart rather than stupid, to be informed rather than misinformed, to be articulate rather than inarticulate, and to be logical rather than illogical. Yes, one can function--and sometimes even succeed--in this very rich and indulgent society with inadequate skills and knowledge, but ignorance and illogic are always to be shunned because they are always costly and dangerous; a report issued in December 1999 by the Institute of Medicine estimated that hospital "mistakes" kill as many as 98,000 people yearly.
This is why it is the august and crucial role of education--at every level--to get as many people as possible to talk, write, reason, and compute as expertly as possible. It is the duty of education to always wage war with the assortment of intellectual incapacities that the poet Alexander Pope called Dulness.
The mounting mass of test, survey, and anecdotal evidence suggests--at the very least--that higher education could wage this war more energetically and effectively. Here are a few collective strategies for doing so.
Students should have to take an entrance exam testing basic skills and knowledge. Such an exam would put more pressure on high schools to actually prepare students for college work. Students, once admitted, should be required to take specially designed courses in a core curriculum that encompasses history, literature, mathematics, natural science, and the arts. A 1992 analysis of college transcripts by the U.S. Department of Education found that 26% of recent bachelor's degree recipients did not earn a single undergraduate credit in history; 31% did not study mathematics; 39.6% earned no credits in either English or American literature; 58.4% did not study a foreign language. Only 10% of schools now require a course in philosophy, even fewer in logic or critical thinking.
Students should have to pass a comprehensive examination of their cultural literacy and their writing, reading, and computing skills to graduate. Since college administrators applaud high schools for implementing "exit" tests (see "Colleges Prepare for the Fallout from State Testing Policies," Chronicle of Higher Education, 21 January 2000, A26), they should be eager to institute the same exams on their own campuses. In 1964, a majority of schools required a comprehensive exam or a thesis for graduation, but now only eight do.
Higher education should devise a National Exit Exam that would provide more dependable data about, and establish baselines for, what college graduates know and can do.
Recommending standardized exams almost always elicits what Hirsch labels "test evasion," predictable anti-exam rhetoric about teaching to the test, high-stakes testing, unreliability, etc. It is ironic, of course, that this rhetoric often comes from academics who give spot quizzes, mid-terms and finals, and who want the rigorous testing of airline pilots, engineers, brain surgeons, teachers of their children, etc.
Yes, testing can sometimes be abused or over-rated, but if diagnostic and performance testing is valuable in other contexts, it certainly should be more widely used in higher education to establish a common measure of how well students are doing and to provide a strong incentive for both professors and students to do the right thing. What Hirsch says of testing at the primary and secondary level applies just as aptly to 13 through 16 education:
Properly used, tests have an irreplaceably positive effect on learning. In the classroom, for example, they give the teacher feedback to determine whether students have attained a desired learning goal and are ready for a new one. Tests are also effective in determining the adequacy of a teacher's or a school's performance, in gaining students' attention, and in creating an opportunity for further learning while students are reviewing for the test and while they are taking it.... Test that carry high consequences have been shown over and over again to act as spurs to effort--a fact that (to the distress of all Romantics) tends to support the Augustinian view of human nature (The Schools We Need, 177-78).
No matter how effective or needed, reforms that would improve the rigor of undergraduate education are not likely to be championed on campus. Too many campus "stakeholders" gain something from the current situation to make a sweeping upgrade of undergraduate education an attractive cause. Ratcheting up standards and student performance means more work for everybody on campus. Try to find in the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education any conference devoted to, or that even discusses, any of these reforms. As Chester E. Finn, Jr. put it: "virtually all institutional imperatives press against the imposition of requirements, the rigorous evaluation of performance, and the elevation of standards" (Change, May/June 1984, 32).
But if these or similar reforms are not adopted voluntarily, it is only a matter of time before a critical mass of people outside academia--fed up with college graduates who seem to have attended Father Guido Sarducci's "Five-Minute University"--lose faith in the exchange value of a college degree and do something about it. Then citizens' groups, governors, state legislatures, alumni organizations, employers and others--the real consumers of the product (students)--will raise the same stink about higher education that they have about its decaying feeder system.
And then the same large-scale reforms now being imposed on primary and secondary education will be imposed on higher education as well, including testing for diagnosis, accountability, and quality control. All the highfalutin anti-assessment rhetoric won't stop it.
Society will do what it must to get what it has every right to expect--college graduates who can spell, speak, write, reason and compute competently, and who know something about human culture and history as well.
As a sign held by a student protesting cutbacks at a California university so perfectly put it, "Knowledge not ignorence."