Do elite colleges provide freshmen with a comprehensive understanding of the liberal arts? Seeking an answer to that question, the Independent Women’s Forum — a Washington think tank that supports “the principles of political freedom, economic liberty, and personal responsibility among women” — recently examined the U.S. News & World Report top 10 undergraduate liberal arts colleges and combed through their freshman offerings in three fields: English, history and political science. The following are excerpts of an IWF special report, “Death of the Liberal Arts?”
Once upon a time, young men and women enrolled in liberal arts colleges or universities with the expectation of gaining a broad overview of history, literature and the best?that had been thought, written and done by luminaries across the millennia. They would emerge four years later with a broad liberal arts education that would qualify them to join “the fellowship of educated men and women” and to participate in the public debate as informed citizens.
Somehow, in recent decades, the respect for the liberal arts curriculum as preparation for life has been lost. At some of the top liberal arts colleges in the country — as defined in the influential college guide put out by U.S. News & World Report magazine — it is sometimes impossible to gain a solid grounding in what are still the fundamentals.
The U.S. News ranking of colleges is one of the most popular guides available. Parents and high school seniors scrutinize it to find the right college.
Williams, Amherst and Swarthmore are listed as the best liberal arts undergraduate colleges in this fall’s U.S. News & World Report college guide. Yet freshmen at these colleges are unlikely to find courses that provide a fundamentally sound liberal arts education that equips them for further study and for life. A freshman at some of these prestigious institutions can attend classes all year without being introduced to the underpinnings of philosophy, history or English literature.
This harsh judgment comes from taking an in-depth look at the curricula at these three colleges and seven others singled out as the country’s top 10 undergraduate liberal arts institutions by U.S. News & World Report. We investigated to see whether these colleges require freshmen to take — or even offer — courses that give a broad overview of the liberal arts fields of English, history and political science.
The answer is that many colleges do not. Basic introductory courses have been replaced by trendy offerings that all too often go out of their way to denigrate the achievements of Western civilization, while exaggerating (or even inventing) contributions by politically correct entities.
Freshmen no longer have sufficient opportunity to take the kinds of introductory courses that in past decades provided them with basic knowledge of the given field or a jumping-off point for further study. At a minimum, the comprehensive introductory courses that freshmen used to be required to take helped them decide whether to major in that particular field. In a sense, comprehensive understanding of a liberal arts discipline was what liberal arts colleges promised to give students in exchange for tuition.
Today, instead of an introductory course on American history or the novel, a freshman is more likely to be pitched headlong into the latest politically correct trend with such courses as “Illicit Desires in Literature” or an “American Renaissance” course dealing with “gendered domesticity.”
- A freshman at Bowdoin cannot take a course in Shakespeare.
- A freshman at Amherst isn’t offered a single overview of European or American history.
- A freshman at Williams will find that what few courses review U.S. or European history focus on “race, ethnicity and gender,” rather than the given period’s main developments.
- A freshman at Wellesley will find that the few broad English courses offered to freshmen focus on gender and not the books’ themes and styles.
Moreover, graduation requirements at most of these top-ranked schools focus heavily on “non-Western Civilization” courses to the exclusion of “Western Civilization” courses. At least one college requires that students focus as much course work on the writings of the last 100 years as they do on all past centuries combined. If Ralph Waldo Emerson were alive, he might disparage these schools for trapping their students in what he called “the world of any moment” instead of offering them a comprehensive liberal arts education — and what’s more, they and their parents will be about $120,000 poorer for the experience.
It would be useful to high school students and their parents to study the course offerings and ask whether they will provide a solid liberal arts education before making a final decision on where to go to college. That’s one important way to judge whether the education a school gives is worth the tens of thousands of dollars the school will demand in tuition and other costs.
A top-10 ranking by U.S. News & World Report does not guarantee a student will receive a sound liberal arts education. Six of the top 10 schools have strayed from tradition to offer politically correct fare that provides their students with far less than a solid grounding in a given field. Students are likely to get a spotty education as faculty waste the students’ time with fashionable examinations of pet social and environmental issues.
“Liberal arts” has been defined disappointingly downward. Tuition has soared over the same period. This isn’t merely ironic — it’s highway robbery.