"Declining by Degrees"
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From "CAVEAT LECTOR: UNEXAMINED ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT QUALITY IN HIGHER EDUCATION"
by Jay Mathews
The University requirements for graduation transcend the boundaries of specialization and provide all students with a common language and common skills.
This is the opening sentence of Princeton University's statement of its core requirements, the standard term for universities' efforts to give their students a rich dose of the major subjects of human inquiry. Clearly, the University is affirming its commitment to tradition.
Princeton's statement continues in the same vein: "It is as important for a students to engage in disciplined reflection on human conduct, character, and ways of life or to develop critical skills through the study of the history, aesthetics, and theory of literature and the arts as it is for a student . . . to understand the rigors of quantitative reasoning and to develop a basic knowledge of the capabilities and limitations of scientific inquiry and technological development."
It sounds good. An applicant skimming the Princeton course catalogue would have gotten the impression that the university's undergraduate program was designed to give her the very best and broadest of courses. Who would doubt that the university that prepared novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, Secretary of State George P. Schultz, and Senator Bill Bradley meant what it said?
Sadly, one would be wise to question Princeton�and probably every other institution of higher education�when it comes to statements about educational goals and outcomes. K-12 education is watched as carefully as a third grader crossing the street, but higher education's claims go largely unexamined. In most instances where independent assessments of college learning might serve the public, particularly when applicants are trying to find the right school, institutions of higher learning resist being measured by quantitative results. Until that changes, let the reader beware.
When Barry Latzer, senior consultant for the Washington-based American Council of Trustees and Alumni, inspected the actual core requirements at Princeton, he discovered a gap between the words and the reality. The university did have composition and foreign language requirements that took those two subjects seriously, but when Latzer looked at other areas the university's own statement said were vital, such as literature, government and history, mathematics, sciences, and economics, he was disappointed.
Princeton had no required literature course that did not focus on exotica or just a single author. It did not require a comprehensive course in American history or government. It did not require a college-level math course. Nor did it require a course in sciences such as astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology, or physics. Economics? Forget about it.
Jay Mathews in an education reporter and columnist for the Washington Post. He has written several books, including his new college admissions guide, Harvard Schmarvard which explains why famous schools may not be as good as people think they are.
MEET ADRIANA, JASON, MATT & BRITNEY