College Is Dumb

What do college kids learn about these days?  It is a question about which conservatives have fretted for a long time.

Most recently, the Heritage Foundation warns that too many students, especially at America’s elite universities, are filling their heads with the mental junk food of Lady Gaga and zombie thrillers.  Worst of all, according to Mary Clare Reim on Heritage’s education blog, elite schools don’t seem to do much to encourage more substantial mental work.  For hefty tuition fees, Ivy League schools seem happy to have pampered youth meander lazily through fluff classes such as

“The Fame Monster: The Cultural Politics of Lady Gaga”; “Blame It on the Bossa Nova: The Historical Transnational Phenomenon”; “The Sociology of the Living Dead: Zombie Films”; “Fairytales: Russia and the World.”

Students are given the freedom, Reim laments, to fill their college years with nothing but such interesting but ultimately impractical mental games.

Reim cites a recent study from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA).  The ACTA graded schools on how much core curriculum they require for their students.  By this measure, Harvard, Yale, and Stanford all get Ds.  Baylor and Colorado Christian University, on the other hand, move to the head of this class.

Reim’s worries place her in a storied tradition of nervousness among American conservative thinkers.  Since at least the 1920s, conservatives have worried that college students are being sold an intellectual bill of goods.  Classes are watered down, or worse, pernicious ideas are snuck in as the latest academic fad.

In the 1920s, for instance, William Jennings Bryan warned that elite schools such as Wellesley, Yale, and the University of Wisconsin filled the heads of students with pernicious nonsense.  In a dispute with Wisconsin’s president in 1921, Bryan snarkily suggested that Wisconsin should post the following warning sign:

Our class rooms furnish an arena in which a brutish doctrine tears to pieces the religious faith of young men and young women; parents of the children are cordially invited to witness the spectacle.

In 1935, one American Legion writer warned that “colleges all over the land” had been taken over by left-leaning numbskulls.

In 1950, one anonymous letter-writer wrote in to the Pasadena Independent to offer an explanation of why so many classes were so stupid.  If young people didn’t learn basic facts and skills, they would become easy prey for what this conservative writer called “propaganda leaders.”

In other words, keeping young people dumb was more than just laziness or faddishness.  Among conspiracy-minded activists, dumbing down colleges could work to prepare America for failure.

More recently, too, conservative intellectuals often assume that the content of higher education—especially at the most elite schools—ranges from sex-soaked to subversive.  Peter Collier, for example, in a recent article in the Weekly Standard, warned that left-wing ideas had taken over at Teachers College, Columbia University, beginning in the 1980s.  Under the name of “critical pedagogy,” Collier wrote, academics had “slowly infiltrated leftist ideas into every aspect of classroom teaching.”

Given the possible intellectual threat posed by socialism and blundering leftism, it seems conservative intellectuals might be happy to see courses that are merely stupid.

 

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3 Comments

  1. I’ve just recently started reading your blog and wanted to tell you I enjoy it very much.

    From above: “Since at least the 1920s, conservatives have worried that college students are being sold an intellectual bill of goods.”

    You could turn this into a nice little algorithm and just re-use for eternity: “Since at least [x], conservatives have worried that [y] are being [z].”

    Where x = sometime in the past;
    y = some group of perceived innocents; and
    z = past participle + bad thing

    Reply
    • Ha! It works for other groups too besides conservatives.
      For example, since at least 1950, animal-rights activists have worried that puppies are being euthanized cruelly.

      Reply
  2. Dang it! Since at least this morning, I have worried that bloggers are picking on me indiscriminately.

    Reply

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