College Humanities Training Impoverished,Study Says

By Pamela Winston — December 05, 1984 5 min read

Washington--Charging that American students today are graduating from colleges and universities “lacking even the most rudimentary knowledge about the history, literature, art, and philosophical foundations of their nation and civilization,” William J. Bennett, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, last week issued a report criticizing the condition of humanities education in American higher education.

The 42-page report, titled “To Reclaim a Legacy,” blames undergraduate-level faculty members and administrators, as well as graduate schools, for the decline in humanities education. And it argues that the devaluation process affected the nation’s secondary schools.

“It is not surprising,” the report states, “that once colleges and universities decided the curriculum did not have to represent a vision of an educated person, the secondary schools (and their students) took the cue and reached the same conclusion.”

Mr. Bennett, who is considered a leading candidate to replace Terrel H. Bell as secretary of education, wrote the report after three days of meetings last spring and summer with the “Study Group on the State of Learning in the Humanities,” a panel he apppointed and convened last March. The 31 teachers, administrators, scholars, and experts on higher education included John R. Silber, president of Boston University, who is also cited as a possible successor to Secretary Bell.

Not an ‘Educational Luxury’

The report suggests that college entrance requirements are, in effect, the graduation requirements for college-bound high-school students and that “with exit requirements relaxed, college-bound students no longer perceive a need to take electives in English and history, let alone foreign languages.”

“Instead,” Mr. Bennett writes, “they choose courses thought to offer immediate vocational payoff.”

The humanities are not an “educational luxury,” the report says, because they “tell us how men and women of our own and other civilizations have grappled with life’s enduring, fundamental questions ... [and] can contribute to an informed sense of community by enabling us to learn about and become participants in a common culture, shareholders in our civilization.”

Course Credits Down

Citing research conducted for the National Commission on Excellence in Education, the report states: “From 1969 to 1981, the humanities have declined as a percentage of total high-school credits taken, a decline parallel to that in the colleges. Credits in Western civilization are down 50 percent, in U.S. history down 20 percent, and in U.S. government down 70 percent.”

The inadequate preparation in high schools perpetuates the problem at the college level, according to the report. “When high-school graduates enter college, they are poorly prepared in basic knowledge of the humanities as well as in such essential skills as reading and writing,” Mr. Bennett writes. “The remedial courses needed by these students cut into the college curriculum, effectively reducing the amount of actual college-level course work they can take.”

Colleges Must Lead

Asserting that institutions of higher education must take the initiative in curricular reform, the report continues: “The humanities must be put back into the high-school curriculum, but this is unlikely to happen unless they are first restored in the colleges. If colleges take the lead in reinstating humanities course requirements, the high schools will surely respond.”

The problem in higher education has been growing for the last two decades, Mr. Bennett writes. “The past 20 years have seen a steady erosion in the place of the humanities in the undergraduate curriculum and in the coherence of the curriculum generally. ... Intellectual authority came to be replaced by intellectual relativism as the guiding principle of the curriculum.”

The report offers several recommendations for curricular reform in colleges and universities. "[It] must begin with the president,” the document says. “A president should be the chief academic officer of the institution, not just the chief administrative, recruitment or fund-raising officer.” He or she must “insist on certain priorities,” although the curriculum cannot be reformed without the support of the faculty.

“Colleges and universities must reward excellent teaching in hiring, promotion, and tenure decisions,” the report recommends. “Faculties must put aside narrow departmentalism and instead work with administrators to shape a challenging curriculum with a core of common studies.”

Two members of the study group, Diane Ravitch, adjunct professor of history and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and Chester E. Finn Jr., professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University, have strongly championed the revival of the humanities in secondary schools.

The group also included:

William Arrowsmith, professor of classics, Emory University; William M. Banks, professor of Afro-American studies, University of California, Berkeley; Robert M. Berdahl, dean of arts and sciences, University of Oregon; Wayne C. Booth, professor of English, University of Chicago; Mark H. Curtis, president, Association of American Colleges; Roland Dille, president, Moorhead State University; Mary Maples Dunn, dean of undergraduates, Bryn Mawr College; Frances D. Fergusson, vice-president for academic affairs, Bucknell University; Samuel R. Gammon, executive director, American Historical Association; and Hanna H. Gray, president, University of Chicago.

Also, Karl Haigler, principal of the upper school, Heathwood Hall Episcopal School; Janice H. Harris, associate dean, University of Wyoming; Beverly Harris-Schenz, assistant dean of the college of arts and sciences, University of Pittsburgh; Paul Oskar Kristeller, professor emeritus of philosophy, Columbia University; Robert M. Longsworth, dean of arts and sciences, Oberlin College; Sister Candida Lund, O.P., chancellor, Rosary College; Jon N. Moline, professor of philosophy, University of Wisconsin-Madison; Ciriaco Moron-Arroyo, professor of Spanish and comparative literature, Cornell University; Phillip M. Phibbs, president, University of Puget Sound; Noel B. Reynolds, associate academic vice-president, Brigham Young University; David Riesman, professor of sociology, Harvard University; Frederick Rudolph, professor of history, Williams College; David Savage, education writer The Los Angeles Times, John E. Sawyer, president, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; Linda Spoerl, professor of English, Highline Community College; David H. Stewart, professor of English, Texas A&M University; Donald M. Stewart, president, Spelman College; and Ewa Thompson, professor of Russian literature, Rice University.

A version of this article appeared in the December 05, 1984 edition of Education Week as College Humanities Training Impoverished,Study Says