by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
New North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory caught some heat for recent radio interview comments in which he seemed to suggest that public universities ought to spend less time teaching students classes in the liberal arts and more time offering those same students skills that will lead to jobs.
While critics blasted the governor, they ignored a more pressing concern: the fact that what passes for a liberal arts education on today’s college campuses often falls short of the mark. The latest Intercollegiate Review highlights this concern.
In fact, there used to be mandatory courses with set reading lists that every BA student on campus took, like it or not. Undergraduates typically sat in these classes in freshman or sophomore year, in large lecture halls where full professors (not nervous grad students) taught “surveys” meant to bring people up to speed on subjects they might not have learned enough about in their (widely divergent) high schools.
It’s hard to imagine, but colleges used to insist that students master whole bodies of knowledge about subjects they might not even be interested in, using parts of their brains they hadn’t already developed, learning the basics of disciplines they might not ever use. The theory behind these old-fashioned “core curricula” was that every student ought to be literate concerning the basics of the culture he or she lived in the books that formed its ideas, the ideas that formed its institutions, the institutions that shaped its laws, and the laws that governed the country.
Every BA student, regardless of major, had to conquer these classes to graduate. So you had future ad execs in courses on the American Revolution, aspiring politicians reading Chaucer and Shakespeare and Milton, psychology majors thumbing through the King James Bible. These were the kinds of classes Bluto and Flounder were cutting in the movie Animal House—and no wonder. New ideas only aggravate a hangover.
In the late 1960s, however, student radicals took over campuses across the country and tore down every “repressive” structure that stood in the way of their doing . . pretty much whatever they wanted. Single-sex colleges and even dorms mostly disappeared; dress codes were stripped away; and core curriculum lists were largely put in the shredder. Instead, you could broaden your mind not by learning specific things about the civilization in which you lived but by dipping your toe into a wide array of classes, broken out into fuzzy “discipline clusters.”