Failing to educate at the university

Recently, a friend and I attended a luncheon meeting at the Country Club of Landfall in Wilmington, N. C. sponsored by the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy located in Raleigh. The event celebrated Milton Friedman Legacy Day and featured Dr. Michael Munger, a Duke University professor of economics and public policy. Prof. Munger, a dynamic and witty speaker, did not disappoint his audience of about 50 people: humor, energy and clear thinking made our day.

Jane Shaw, president of the Pope Center, introduced the speaker and told us the organization’s goal: “Pursuit of excellence in higher education”—largely and sadly lacking in the modern politically polluted academy. The Pope Center (www.popecenter.org) also provides a “watchdog” function over budgeteers at the University of North Carolina; generally out-of-control and unaccountable, in my opinion.

Munger’s message hit at some fundamental problems tangled within the ivy-covered walls of academia—resulting in failure to educate students who pay dearly and are misled that they will get good value for the cost. Many do not, especially students with left-leaning views, according to Dr. Munger.

He suggested that they should sue the university. Without a proper education, students flounder in independent life pursuits: unable to think critically, communicate with clarity and understand the reality of the past and present world around them. Prof. Munger calls this being “educated by neglect,” partly because most university administrators and faculty seem fixated on “diversity of hues, rather than views.” According to his experience, these people operate under a veil of “collusion with error” thus, “shortchanging students on the left.”

Pope Center staff have dug into and routed out some of this academic poison ivy—specifically, the general education requirements; or lack thereof. In one excellent report Jay Schalin and Jenna Ashley Robinson analyzed the general education program at the UNC “flagship” campus at Chapel Hill.

College level “general education”, properly crafted and applied, provides the foundation for an academically “educated” person, emphasizing “skills, knowledge and reasoning that are applicable to all careers.”

Mature, motivated and well-schooled college students can sort through the UNC curricular mish-mash and select courses that will help them to become educated, but they get little direction from the university to shake out valuable learning from its “incoherent” curricular offerings. Schalin and Robinson found the program overloaded (4700 courses) with a “smorgasbord” curriculum: “narrow…unstructured and unwieldy.”

The authors of “General Education at UNC-Chapel Hill,” November 2013, provide an “Optimal Alternative” to the UNC program. In 40 credit hours with 13 courses a student could get an education “essential for an understanding of the world.” Courses in logic, science, statistics and writing would provide a background in “Reasoning.” Philosophy, economics, Western Civilization, U.S. history, comparative religion and British and American literature would give students important “Ideas and Cultural Knowledge.” Schalin and Robinson recommend eliminating over 3000 courses now offering mostly chaff in the sparse wheat field of knowledge at Chapel Hill.

They would eliminate courses that require prerequisites; those based on limited time periods and geographical regions; courses that duplicate information and lack importance; reduce the number of foreign language courses; add courses in quantitative reasoning (statistics and another math or logic course); and some “common-sense modifications,” such as ending gym classes (euphemistically called “Lifetime Fitness”).

The Pope Center authors conclude that because of the large bureaucracy with a complex form of governance it’s likely impossible to reform the general education system in the foreseeable future. Still, they believe it is “too flawed to maintain in its present state.”

Big Ed will never be reformed from within. Aside from a small number of true educators such as Dr. Munger who have a limited positive influence, students, parents and State legislators will have to take charge. Serious students must learn how to make wise curricular choices; parents should provide better guidance to their children; and our State legislators should scale back public funds now used at the UNC that fraudulently fail to educate.

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About R. E. Smith Jr.

Mr. Smith writes essays and commentary on politics, American history, environment, higher education and culture. He's been published in print media and at blog sites for about 25 years. Smith's formal education includes B.S. and M.S. degrees from the State University of New York and Syracuse University. He has earned a 21-credit hour Certificate in Professional Writing from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. Training/work experience: NYS Ranger School; U. S. Army, Corp of Engineers; soil scientist and forester with USDA; Assoc. Professor at SUNY; real estate agent; small business owner.
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