The University and the Collapse of Teaching Standards

BookEducationby Avi Davis   8/13/14
Picture this: An attractive young woman at a job interview — well tailored, with an engaging smile and an extensive resume. She has graduated summa cum laude from Vassar, has earned four degrees — one of them a law degree from Boalt Law School. At her interview she is asked a question about the founding of the United States: “Can you tell me when the United States was founded?” The young woman looks a little puzzled and after a few reflective moments responds: “1940?”

Okay, the interviewer thinks, some people are just not good with dates. “Can you perhaps tell me then, the name of our first President?” Another moment of stunned silence followed by a sheepish response: “Jimmy Carter?”

It is tempting to characterize this woman’s disgraceful paucity of knowledge about her country’s origins as an outlier, unrepresentative of her generation. But that would be to gloss over a yawning gulf between our current crop of graduates and the educated Americans who preceded her. For today it is not only common for students to graduate college without the slightest knowledge of the foundations of the American republic, but also without the ability to spell correctly, write cogent sentences, perform basic mathematical equations or speak one sentence of the English language without the word “like” included.

What has happened to our educational system that students are able to graduate so bereft of basic knowledge and so ill-equipped to handle simple functions of communication?

The answer is not complicated: our educational system has become corrupted – by money, by an overemphasis on college sports teams and by a political orthodoxy which elevates ideological purity above academic achievement. These elements have combined to eviscerate our educational system of academic integrity, leaving many of its institutions as little more than hollow academic shells, with nothing to pass on to its graduates other than colorful bits of embossed paper signed by the Chancellor and a debt that could have them writing checks on their college loans right through to their mid-40s.

The University of California, one of the largest and wealthiest higher educational systems in the World, is a powerful example of how things could have gone so dramatically wrong.

In its exhaustive and masterful report A Crisis of Competence: The Corrupting Effect of Political Activism in the University of California, the California Association of Scholars details in over 90 pages the failure to address the collapse of academic standards and excellence and lays the blame squarely at the feet of political activism in the classroom.

In its findings we discover that the requirements for coursework in American history and institutions have been dropped; that writing courses are geared toward tendentious political arguments and that faculty teach what to think, rather than how to think – demanding the expression of correct attitudes and beliefs by students more than independent reading and thought.

A second report, What Does Bowdoin Teach?: How a Contemporary Liberal Arts College Shapes Students issued only a year later by the National Association of Scholars, and whose summary is included in this Source Book, focused on the curricula and teaching practices of a single liberal arts college on the East Coast – Bowdoin College. In it the NAS took to task the College’s then President Barry Miles’ claim that Bowdoin was a model liberal arts college continuing the fine tradition of openness and tolerance that had sustained the college for two centuries and which he believed is prevalent in most liberal arts colleges today.

What it found instead was that the university had become a purveyor of “progressive enlightenment” replacing traditional emphases in the humanities on the classics and civic responsibility with courses on gender studies, identity politics and environmental causes.

Both reports conclude that the one thing many liberal arts colleges have in common today is that they teach not openness and tolerance but conformity. In the process, vital information and knowledge necessary to train our students to become valuable members of society are excised from the curriculum or are ignored entirely.

How are we to address this depressing state of affairs, particularly when the media pays the issue scant attention and our government itself seems complicit in shutting down open debate on the subject?

One approach might be to demand that the guardians of the University – the trustees and regents, actually fulfill their own mandate by enforcing rules and regulations of academic freedom which forbid the enforcement of ideological conformity.

In the State of Colorado that is precisely what happened. Three Colorado University regents Dr. James Geddes, Tom Lucero and Susan Starkey, two of whom will be participating in the Failing Grades Conference, stood up for academic freedom and against ideological purity by insisting upon the formation of an investigative committee to determine how skewed to the left had become teaching in the Colorado University system. The result was an on-going process of revamping rules and exposing deficits in academic freedom on the campus.

A similar undertaking was launched in the U.K. in the 1990s, even if the attempt to enforce high teaching standards with a plurality of views, had only very mixed results. But the fact that the government felt impelled by an urgent need to address the collapse of teaching standards on British campuses revealed a spark of awareness that is rarely evident in the West.

Another answer is to smash the monopoly of brick and mortar universities over higher education by allowing on-line universities to compete in the marketplace. As the tuition costs at brick and mortar colleges has continued to soar, and on-line technology has continued to develop, entrepreneurs have increasingly grasped the enormous opportunities available to provide students with alternative channels in higher education, leading to a multiplicity of on-line portals and distance learning schools.

Today, the guide to online colleges, lists over 500 on-line colleges and universities that are accredited by one of the Department of Education’s 14 approved accrediting agencies.


The above table provides a list of the top on-line institutions, their average annual tuition fees and their recommend rates.

Could it be that the preposterously priced American universities’ bachelors degree has so diminished in value that students, parents and employers are now desperately seeking viable alternatives? Responding to the challenge, inventive Americans, led by techno-entrepreneurs such as Peter Theil, Marc Anderssen, Sebastian Thrun, as well as the dean of American business thinking, Clayton Christiansen, together with a contingent of 20-something creative geniuses, are combining to rebuild our educational system in order to produce opportunities for education that offers thinking graduates skills highly valued by the real world. In the coming years, this development could provide one of the most significant challenges to the long term viability of traditional universities.

Unlike almost every other AFA international conference, Failing Grades; The Crisis in Teaching on Our University Campuses is not titled with a question but with a statement. This is so because it is our belief that there there is no longer any need to question whether teaching standards across the Western world have collapsed. They HAVE collapsed – and in the most dramatic way possible- with the proof provided by the reports included in this book and others’ alluded to in the text of the articles contained herein. The real purpose of this conference is therefore not to outline how or why it happened, but to insist on the absolute essentiality of high teaching standards for the future of Western civilization and to find the means by which those standards can be enforced and maintained.

If Western styled democracy is to survive; if the freedoms we have come to know and cherish are to be preserved – then we must produce citizens with an appreciation for the uniqueness of our civilization and the need to defend it against threats and challenges. This also requires that we have available to us educational institutions which are determined to transcend mediocrity, ideological purity and the demands of political correctness. Only pressure from the citizens most directly affected by the collapse of teaching standards can help facilitate this.

And that is where you come in.

AFA logoAvi Davis is the President of the American Freedom Alliance in Los Angeles, an organization which defends Western values and identifies threats to the future of Western civilization. • (1451 views)

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7 Responses to The University and the Collapse of Teaching Standards

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    I graduated from Purdue in 1973 without taking any course dealing with American history. (I minored in history, but took 5 courses dealing with various aspects of European history and another in modern Eastern Asia history — which is why I was interested a few years ago when a friend mentioned that the Young Marshal was still alive, and why I enjoy discussing the first president of the Chinese republic, the fascinating opportunist Yuan Shih-Kai.) This is a good indication that even 40 years ago, such ignorance was very easy to maintain if one chose.

    But the Purdue library had an excellent collection of historical works, including a variety of obscure books on the War of the Rebellion (many of which I now have). And as a first cousin 5 times removed of Abraham Lincoln, I obviously have a very natural interest in such topics. How many people made use of those resources I have no idea. Nor do I know how well such history is taught in high school (where it definitely should be).

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      I was frankly surprised that there was anyone inside the state of California who was challenging liberal orthodoxy as there was in those reports linked to.

  2. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    In my opinion, the collapse of our education system is the biggest single long term problem we face.

    Some thirty years ago, the Grace Commission reported something to the effect that if a foreign power had done to our education system what we had done to it ourselves, we would see it as tantamount to a declaration of war. And I can assure you, the situation has not improved since then.

    And even if we wanted to correct the problem starting tomorrow, it will be difficult to find the qualified teachers to fill the classrooms. Standards have been steadily dropping for almost forty years, thus a large number of those who graduated college do not have sufficient grasp of their subjects to teach properly.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Similarly, people have suggested that the Klan would have loved to do to blacks what public education has done to them.

  3. Cato says:

    I characterize my decades teaching at the university level as follows. In the 1970s I routinely expected cogent, logical essays to test questions. In the 1980s I reduced my expectations to cogent, logical paragraphs. In the 1990s, to cogent, logical sentences. In the 2000s, essay questions were dropped. While this is a bit overstated and obviously not valid for every individual … there are still able students around … the trend is nonetheless all too real.

  4. When I went back to college as an adult, I witnessed first hand how ill-prepared the young kids entering college are. I remember being in a supposedly freshman English class and the teacher was teaching dangling modifiers (something I learned in the 7th or 8th grade). I remember approaching the instructor after class and asking him why we were discussing something that should have been taught in grade school. He told me that the school had to lower the standards to meet the education level of the students entering college. He also punished me by giving me Cs on my papers no matter how well they were written (there would be no red marks written on my papers whereas the other students papers would be covered with them) in order to make me even with the students.

    While in graduate school, I had similar experiences. A young girl asked me one night had I completed the homework for our finance class. I told her that I had and began to try to explain to her how I got my answers to the problems. She told me to just give her the answers because she did not know how to work math problems. She told me that she never had to work math problems in school (not even in high school). I told her that her school system failed her. She responded by saying at least she made it into graduate school.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Robert Heinlein was discussing 30 years ago the frequency of students going to UC Berkeley needing what he called “bonehead English”. This is a long-term problem — and that didn’t even involve math or science. Public education fits the legal definition of fraud — taking money under false pretenses.

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