March 2012 Archives

Is College the Antidote to Indoctrination?

      Rick Santorum's recent criticism of colleges as elitist institutions that indoctrinate young people struck a resonant chord among evangelicals and among self-identified "conservative" voters who believe colleges and universities are bastions of the godless socialism whose faculties relentlessly promote that agenda. Santorum further claimed that "62 percent of kids who enter college with some kind of faith commitment leave without it." Does the evidence support Santorum's claims?



                         Courtesy of the New Yorker

        In a recent article by Calvin University Professor Jonathan P. Hill in The Chronicle of Higher Education [ "Parsing Santorum's Statistic on God and College: Looks as if It's Wrong"] examines the recent data by social scientists who have  examined religious commitment and higher education in recent years. Hill observes that the data "mostly contradicts the picture that Santorum paints." Hill further notes that "Studies using comparable data from recent cohorts of young people (for example, the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997, the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, and the National Study of Youth and Religion) have found virtually no overall differences on most measures of identity, practice, and belief between those who head off to college and those who do not. The one exception to this is the consistent finding that college graduates attend religious services more frequently than those who do not graduate from college."

        Aside from them the data that shows Santorum's claims are not supported by real world evidence, his criticisms raise more fundamental questions that need to be asked. What is the purpose of higher education?  Should universities prepare young men and women for careers, or should it give them the tools that enable them to think for themselves? Should colleges be servants of the status-quo?  Should a higher education expose young men and women to ideas that challenge their world views? 

      C.P. Snow was not the first intellectual to bemoan the emergence of "Two Cultures"- the chasm between those who studied the humanities and those who pursued studies in science and engineering. The notorious curmudgeon and former president of Boston University, John Silber, consistently criticized the value of "shop" degrees  and urged undergraduates to pursue a broad liberal arts education. Silber further observed that college curricula were being "dumbed-down." He once remarked that the high school education that mother received in Texas in the early part of the twentieth century was more rigorous than the undergraduate curriculum at Boston University during his tenure as president of that university.

    The U.S. Department of Education reports that between 1989 and 1999, the number of students enrolled in degree-granting post secondary institutions increased by 9 percent. During the next ten ears, from 1999-2009, enrollment increased 38 percent from 14.8 million to 20.4 million. Over and above enrollment in accredited 2-year colleges, 4-year colleges, and universities, an additional 472,000 students attended non-degree-granting, Title IV eligible post secondary institutions in fall 2008. 

    Over and above the data Professor Hill cites that shows little evidence of indoctrination, there is evidence that suggests that today's college students, despite their increased numbers, are not as broadly or as well-educated as their predecessors, including in the critical in the area of citizenship education. In a 2005 report by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 14,000 freshman and seniors at fifty colleges and universities were administered 60 multiple-choice questions which were intended to measure their knowledge of American history and government, world affairs, and the market economy. The first of its major findings was that "America's colleges and universities fail to increase knowledge about America's history and institutions." 

    The report noted a trivial difference between college seniors and their freshman counterparts regarding knowledge of America's heritage. "Seniors scored just 1.5 percent higher on average than freshman, and, at many schools, seniors know less than freshman about America's history, government, foreign affairs, and economy. Overall, college seniors failed the civic literacy exam, with an average score of 53.2 percent, or F, on a traditional grading scale."

    Hence, not surprisingly, Santorum may have misdiagnosed the malady. It's not that college students are being indoctrinated; to the contrary, the evidence suggests that they are not learning enough, and that they are unable to defend their own ideas and beliefs with the kind of knowledge and logic that a liberal arts education implies.

    The Marxist philosopher and social critic, Herbert Marcuse warned that "An economic system that encourages its young men and women to tailor their educations to the needs of the marketplace, irrespective of their hopes and ambitions, is an economic system that should be roundly condemned. A nation that discourages the study of art, music and the Humanities is a nation that will inevitably find itself populated by unthinking dolts and automatons."

     Santorum's fears about indoctrination are nonsensical. Colleges and universities are not indoctrinating young men and women. Rather, it appears that, because a number of colleges and universities today have less rigorous and less comprehensive courses of study, they are failing in their core mission of educate our youth. If this trend is not reversed, the seeds of the GOP's anti-intellectualism will continue to fall on fertile ground among those who fear change in all of its manifestations and those who stubbornly cling to the chains that bind them.

     The real danger is that Santorum's criticism of education at all levels, if it were to be translated into public policy, would have a chilling effect upon the intellectual curiosity of young people and their willingness to explore the world of ideas. Marcuse's warning then will become self-fulfilling prophecy.  

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