Survey finds universities teach a “thin and patchy education”


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The coming dark age: A national survey has found that today’s universities no longer teach a well-rounded education but instead allow their students to skip important subjects so that their education is “thin and patchy.”

The group evaluated more than 1,100 colleges and universities based on their requirements in seven “key areas of knowledge”: composition, literature, foreign language, U.S. history, economics, mathematics and science. The results showed that 66.5 percent of the schools required only three or fewer of those subjects.

This leads to a “thin and patchy education,” the report states. “Students may have dozens or even hundreds of courses from which to choose, many of them highly specialized niche courses,” it states. “Once distribution requirements become too loose, students almost inevitably graduate with an odd list of random, unconnected courses and, all too often, serious gaps in their basic skills and knowledge.”

Additional key findings include that fewer than 18 percent of colleges and universities require a foundational course in U.S. government or history, and only about 3 percent of the institutions require students to take a basic economics class.

Read it all. It is quite depressing, but also not surprising. It also suggests that parents and their high school children need to demand more from colleges, and reject those colleges that are failing in providing the basics of a college education.

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7 comments

  • Diane Wilson

    A fair amount of that should have been covered in high school; that was the last time I saw required courses in government or US history. (late 1960s, before the liberal rot set in, and the liberals wouldn’t have set foot in northwest Arkansas at that time, anyway.) At Purdue, which was certainly a rigorous school but by no means “liberal arts”, most of those core areas could be avoided by choice of major. Between humanities, science, engineering, and business, only the school of science required a foreign language. Economics (even basic) was only required in the school of business. None required any history. Humanities and business could skate past core science by taking geology. Even humanities didn’t require literature, beyond maybe one course, unless you were majoring in languages.

    I would say that the “essentials” for a well-rounded citizen go even further. Statistics, aside from any other mathematics. World history, to include at least European and at least one course outside of modern western cultures.

  • FC

    Since when is “composition” a university level course? That’s elementary school stuff.

  • Prior to 6th grade I’d had three years of French and a couple of survey courses on non-Western history, plus the usual math, English, etc. Both universities I attended required a foreign language and math through ‘calculus for poets’ if your major didn’t demand otherwise. One school required an ethics course. These were state schools not so terribly long ago.

    It’s the Third Rule of Management: people work to expectations.

  • John Conyers

    Agreed. I graduated from college in 2005. What a waste of time. I should have joined the military. College is very much overrated and a waste of money and time. I know a vast number of millennials who have graduated from college and are poor and living with their parents. At least when I was in college the LIE that college graduates would automatically make more than non college graduates was still believed. There is no reason to believe that lie anymore. Colleges and universities have disgraced themselves so many times in the past decade and you would be throwing your money down the drain by sending your children there.

  • mike shupp

    I dunno. I got a decent college education, I think, fifty years ago and only the science and math and engineering courses I took were really “prescribed” — I was working for an engineering degree, after all.

    Oh pity me! poorly educated me! I’ll never meet the minimal goals of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, and it’s too late to change my ways and there is no hope for me!

    So. I took a classical history course, because the commonwealth of Massachusetts required it. Herodotus and Thucydides and all that — it blew my little mind really, and I still think about Greeks and Romans, almost every week if not every day. Who’d have thunk that, knowing me in high school? I took a course in Biblical history for the same reason — state requirement — and most of that has sadly skipped my mind– not that I’m ignorant of Judeo-Christian history and theology today, but I can’t recall actually learning much in that class. Apologies to a scholar named Houston Smith, who graded my papers meticulously but never called on me in class, because I skipped just about all of them!

    I had to take an American history class, so I took one dealing with constitutional law. I do think I learned stuff there but I’d be hard put to say what, fifty years later. I was in ROTC till I flunked a physical, so I took Air Science ! and 2 — American Defence Policy, in other words, taught at the height of the Viet Nam War. That pushed me eventually into taking a graduate course in defence policy, taught by a fellow who had a sideline of giving defence policy advice to Lyndon Baines Johnson. Whom you might have heard of — he was gainfully emplpoyed in the late 1960s. And the next year I had Military Science 22, American Military History, which made me into a history buff ever since. There were a couple of other courses along the way, dealing with world history and politics from say 1700 to 1950. Kind of conventional; I learned from them; I wrote the required papers and spoke up in class; I can’t say I really shook the world, or even my fellow students.

    I took a semester of German, because I’d had a year of German in high school. I was dismal. Shucks. But I still recall ein bischen von Deutsch! So, who can say. If I were suddenly dropped, nude and penniless, into the middle of Germany I could probably hold a conversation with two year olds. Years later, I took a semester of French, and I could probably hold up my end in a conversation French two year olds. It’s wonderful to be so sophisticated!

    Also I had an economics course along the way, a business school major I respected suggested I take it. I didn’t get Paul Samuelson as a teacher — Nobel awards for economics didn’t exist back then, so even Paul Samuelson wasn’t Paul Samuelson yet if you understand me. i took the course from a fellow named Robert Solow, who also did reasonably well in economics for a a fellow not named Samuelson.

    And later on in life, I took a whole bunch of anthropology and archaeology courses.

    You get the idea? I had a skimpy sad-sack s****y education according to the people who ran that survey. I don’t know nothing about the humanities. I never learned the slightest about putting sentences together. I’ll never contribute usefully to the American economy. I’m doomed!

    And that’s all bull-puckey. Put a bunch of bright kids into a university with a broad variety of courses and a decent set of scholar-academics and you will get a bunch of distinguished graduates who will more more than make their way into the world. You will have to bust your butt to ensure they tale nothing but lackluster classes that leave them as dumb as they were in high school!

    Don’t chide universities for their failure at teaching elementary economics. Given them money to hire scholars who are specialists in Adam Smith’s philosophy, and you will have students leaning against the walls scribbling notes in such courses because there aren’t enough seats.

    Ask for more. Provide more. And you will get more.

    ** Hat’s off here. Diane Wilson’s comments inspired these comments. Seems worth saying. **

  • wodun

    I went to an average state college. The education was fairly well rounded in that we had to take classes from all the different disciplines but the problem is that just a class or two doesn’t give you the in depth knowledge you need. I found the same problem when you got into your major. We pretty much had two years of jumping through hoops and two years of study in your chosen major. Here again, one year in your major was introductory and the other more specialized but did not drill down enough.

    Even in graduate school, I just felt they weren’t teaching enough. It wasn’t because I wasn’t putting in the effort or that I wasn’t learning anything, they just weren’t teaching all of the things students needed to know.

    It used to be really hard to indulge your curiosity without being in college but now there are a lot of opportunities to supplement your education with online courses. Aside from learning about things that interest you, it is also important to supplement your core education because your school might not be teaching everything you should know.

    The advantage to brick and mortar school is the enforced discipline and chance for face to face interactions. Online you get to indulge all of your intellectual curiosities in a structured, if less demanding, setting.

    Our local library provides access to Lynda.com and gale courses but you can also audit many classes at coursera too. There are a lot of other options too. I think MIT even has a free four year equivalent programming course or something like that.

  • Edward

    wodun wrote: “the problem is that just a class or two doesn’t give you the in depth knowledge you need. I found the same problem when you got into your major.

    I think that too many people do not understand the actual education that we get in school. We see the various classes and lessons as being the education, but we will never learn all that we need to know from any amount of school.

    High school should give us a little knowledge of almost everything as a foundation to build upon. By the time we leave high school, we should have learned how to think. We will be doing plenty of that throughout the rest of our lives. That is what high school math is for. We are supposed to learn to logically prove things, because too many people will try to BS us with Piltdown Men and climate scares. It is too bad that no one tells us this, because we all miss it while we are in school.

    College should give us a framework of knowledge to build our careers on, which is why we specialize in a major area of study. By the time we leave college, we should have learned how to learn and do research to answer questions. That is the value of a college education, and we will be doing plenty of that throughout the rest of our lives. No education can give us all that we need to know in the job that we take right out of college and definitely not in the more advanced jobs as we move up the corporate ladder. Each job is specific, and the college education is broad, despite the major area of study. We will have to learn on the job how to do our jobs. It is for this reason that every job has “on the job training.” Anyone who can’t or won’t ask questions and research the answers has wasted his time and money on college.

    Graduate school starts us on the road to creativity, not just regurgitation of our lessons. By the time we leave graduate school, we should have learned how to combine two different ideas. If we are going to get anywhere then we will have to do plenty of that throughout the rest of our lives. It is the fundamental way to advance ourselves, our technologies, and our civilization. If we are stuck with only the old ideas, we won’t get anywhere new.

    By the time we receive our PhD, we should have learned how to innovate new ideas. If we are going to make new advancements then we will have to do plenty of that throughout the rest of our lives. This is not the level where we combine technologies to make an iPhone; this is the level where we invent the laser. No one gets a Swedish Nobel Prize or a Fields Medal for reciting their ABCs (Norway’s Nobel Peace Prize is the exception; you don’t even have to do that much).

    For us to prosper from real achievements, some people have to make those real achievements.

    At each level, we need to remain fairly well rounded in order to avoid being smart ignoramuses. At each level, we need to have learned basic skills, otherwise we will not have the skills to do jobs or to think, learn, combine, or innovate.

    Remarkably, not everyone who makes real achievements has graduated college.

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