Substance versus style

Hoover Fellow Peter Berkowitz has a scathingly accurate analysis of higher education in today’s Wall Street Journal op-ed page. Though Berkowitz dubiously frames his piece in the context of Climgate, his points about the American undergraduate learning experience are well taken. Without a rigorous core curriculum (i.e. not IHUM, but a UChicago-style core), Berkowitz argues that many undergraduates learn too little concrete information in the realm of humanities and social sciences:

The real reasons for releasing students from rigorous departmental requirements and fixed core courses are quite different. One is that professors prefer to teach boutique classes focusing on their narrow areas of specialization. In addition, they believe that dropping requirements will lure more students to their departments, which translates into more faculty slots for like-minded colleagues. By far, though, the most important reason is that faculty generally reject the common sense idea that there is a basic body of knowledge that all students should learn. This is consistent with the popular campus dogma that all morals and cultures are relative and that objective knowledge is impossible.

The deplorable but predictable result is that professors constantly call upon students to engage in discussions and write papers in the absence of fundamental background knowledge. Good students quickly absorb the curriculum’s unwritten lesson—cutting corners and vigorously pressing strong but unsubstantiated opinions is the path to intellectual achievement.

As an alumni of the Stanford History Department – a department that, overall, I enjoyed quite a bit and respect even more – I can relate to Berkowitz’s points. Students in History courses often didn’t even do the bare minimum reading, instead pleasing the professor by taking loud and clear stands on random (sometimes unrelated) issues. It seemed that the mere presence of a conversation was taken as a sign of learning.  The substantive quality of the conversation was never judged.

In the absence of substantive knowledge, professors and students relied on bluster and din disguised as “critical thinking.”

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