EDITORIAL: The academic recession: Big bucks, little knowledge

The big and expensive universities are turning out know-nothings

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College commencement season used to be the time for young men and women to step confidently into the world on their own. A new survey by the employment website AfterCollege finds that 83 percent of this season’s new graduates have no jobs lined up, despite their expensive diplomas in hand.

The ailing economy is partly to blame, but colleges and universities are failing to do little more than saddle their graduates with crippling debt. Many academic institutions no longer teach the skills, like writing a coherent sentence or correctly adding fractions, to prepare the young to be effective members of society. The traditional liberal arts education that once provided a bedrock of knowledge has been discarded for academic fads, many of them as useless as a Ph.D. in gender studies.

The graduates have learned to be in touch with their feelings, to show superior sensitivity and to be masters of appreciation of diversity, but none of these attributes, learned at such great expense, does much to build a successful society. This came through in a 2012 poll of young Americans that found that just 52 percent of respondents could identify the freedoms protected by the First Amendment, fewer than half knew that George Washington commanded troops at Yorktown, barely a third knew the length of congressional terms and fewer than 20 percent could correctly name James Madison as the father of the Constitution. However, for whatever consolation this may be to Mom and Dad, who paid for it, more than 96 percent of respondents correctly identified Lady Gaga.

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a Washington-based organization focused on encouraging high academic standards in higher education, researched whether major colleges and universities across America require students to take core courses in seven key subjects: English composition, literature, foreign language, U.S. government or history, economics, mathematics and science.

Among the more than 1,000 colleges and universities included in the council’s study, only 22 schools earned an “A” grade for requiring students to complete each of the core subjects. Only one of these schools, the University of Georgia, is a flagship public university. Most of the top performing colleges are either military service academies, such as the Air Force Academy and the Coast Guard Academy, or religiously affiliated schools, such as Baylor and Pepperdine.

The most prestigious (and expensive) colleges in America fared the worst at equipping their students with broad knowledge needed to succeed. Harvard and Yale earned a D. Brown scored an F, requiring classes in none of the seven core liberal arts subjects to graduate.

Well-regarded state schools such as the University of California at Berkeley, the state universities of Michigan, Virginia and Wisconsin, scored on the bottom rung. At Berkeley, for example, a student can graduate without cracking open a great novel, speaking even a few words of a foreign language, understanding statistics or knowing anything that happened more than a week ago.

Unless something unexpected changes, America will be populated by college graduates who can’t handle a family budget, express themselves clearly or understand what American democracy is about. Good citizenship requires more than the ability to hold a job. It means being informed and well-rounded as a person. American universities have become big businesses turning out graduates who are neither.

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