Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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The Spellings Commission again

When a card-carrying member of the academic establishment goes after the Spellings Commission Report, the contrarian in me is tempted to defend it.

But he’s right:

Last fall the federal Commission on the Future of Higher Education—the so-called “Spellings Commission”—released its report, meant to be a bold outline for how higher education in America should be reformed to meet the needs of students and the nation in the 21st century. Instead, it is in its major thrusts in my view a national embarrassment.


The medicines proposed for curing the problems will in most cases only make things worse. I focus here on the Commission’s total failure to provide any guidance on what a high-quality, 21st century higher education should in fact be. There are only brief suggestions in the report that reading, writing, critical thinking, problem-solving, mathematical and scientific literacy should be important learning outcomes from higher education. In contrast, much more space is devoted to the need the Commission sees to reduce barriers students might encounter as they seek to transfer credits from one institution to another or from for-profit institutions to traditional colleges and universities even as institutions are criticized for rates of retention to graduation that are too low. The vision of higher education suggested in the report is a cafeteria, “grab and go” system about as far removed from intentional, serious, dedicated, and demanding study as one can get. And in the entire document, the word “faculty” is used only once, in an aside, as if the future strength and vitality of the nation’s professoriate were somehow irrelevant to creating and sustaining excellent higher education in the 21st century.

I doubt he’d want to see an updated, higher education version of "A Nation at Risk,", but he’s surely correct that the Spellings Commission ultimately has little to say about what’s most important in American higher education--its intellectual and cultural content.

Update: Here, by way of contrast, is a Bush appointee who has a clue about higher education, and education generally.

Discussions - 3 Comments

Good WSJ article on Bruce Cole of NEH. He seems to be a very sound appointment who is doing much-needed things, and Bush definitely deserves some credit here.

Is this really the strongest point that you and President Sullivan can make?

I'm a card-carrying Russell Kirk conservative professor at a large midwest university. It is beyond me why those who claim to be defenders of high quality liberal arts feel so threatened by Spellings emphasis on accountability.

Sullivan is completely wrong and irrational when he claims that Spellings is "engaged in an attempt to replace the national system of voluntary peer-reviewed accreditation where performance is measured against each college or university’s mission, goals and objectives, with a one-size fits all federal government-constructed form of accreditation".

All that Spellings wants is accrediting agencies to help their institutions track student performance for standards established by the institution and the accreditor. That's it. What is so damning about that?

It shames me to say that the embarrassing track record of agencies like the American Academy of Liberal Educators (AALE) - the hailed savior of conservative liberal arts schools - is deserving of Spellings concern and increased DoE attention. Good schools like Thomas More and Thomas Aquinas stand to lose big because AALE sloppily accredits jokes like American University of Hawaii, an institution closed by the State of Hawaii for being a "diploma mill".

Let's get our act together and stop the victimhood because standards exist. The quality of the average college graduate's education is poor. The idea that standards hurt quality in education is simply bunk.


Though I doubt you'll be back to read my response, since I'm betting you're a hit-and-run critic of the AALE (do you have friends at an institution, like Ave Maria College, that had trouble with it?), let me call your attention to this piece that I wrote a few months ago. I realize that the debate is moving glacially away from the DoE's maximalist position, but to the extent that national norming remains a part of the picture, what's going to matter is what's measurable, and what's measurable is, in the liberal arts, is, pardon the expression, trivial in the trivial sense of the word.

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