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Who Is Wrecking Our Universities?


Falling levels of literacy and communications skills in our universities may not be due to shuffling of government priorities, as some liberal arts professors lament, but to the professors and the institutions themselves.


Hymie Rubenstein

 Author Notes

Professor of anthropology at the University of Manitoba

 Essay - 2/28/2000

"When I look at our universities, I see vigorous support for the sciences, half-hearted support for the humanities, and not much at all for Greek and Latin," laments University of Toronto political scientist Clifford Orwin in a recent National Post editorial ("Guilty of the crime of thinking", February 16, 2000). At first glance, Professor Orwin seems to have a point. Since the origin of the university in the 13th century, the humanities have been at the centre of the academy’s mandate to create, preserve, and communicate knowledge and learning. Today, scholars like Professor Orwin feel under siege as the best and brightest of students - together with the financial resources that support them - are flocking to the applied sciences and management. If the venerable B.A. degree has not yet been laid to rest, it seems to be suffering a slow and painful death.

Professor Orwin claims that the devaluation of the humanities reflects society’s descent into Philistinism under Ontario Premier Mike Harris' common-sense politics and the new economy, our degeneration to a people who measure human creativity mainly by its contribution to the bottom line. My contention is that the real decline of the humanities is a direct, even deliberate, product of its debasement by its newest members - the social sciences of anthropology, geography, psychology, and sociology, and the dumbed down but politically correct pseudo-social sciences of ethnic, Native, homosexual, and women’s studies - and that this has led to its devaluation by students, employers, and Premier Harris.

This debasement is best seen in the pervasive and systemic levels of illiteracy in our universities. Every year at least one in five of my students produces term-paper prose like the following samples:

  • "Status is variable and is determined whomever interacts or o[b]serves an individual and the relationship they have.... Also their appears to be an evolutionary correlation between societal development and the subordination of women, this should be studied to uncover whether or not the low status women hold in modern society is something we’ve enculturated on ourselves."
  • "The two groups discussed here, the Cree and the Iroquois, which are two groups that are in different levels of evolution, with their society.... Men and women in foraging societies both have an ‘equal’ role in life, each with their duties and chores, moreover social aspects to live up too.... Men and women, although some are equal in band society, and very different indeed... Both men and women range out from camp during their subsistence work, they are equally affected by groups, moves in search of bush food, game and water."
  • "The word family has been synonymous with us since the beginnings of cultural systems. For example, the religion originates (first God figure) with the first families of Abraham, Jews, Muslims, and Christians. It is an important bond that many societies today can identify with, also along with the band societies as well."
  • "The formal ceremony is generally performed for an elected high chief, rites of passage (puberty rights, the becoming of a man, weddings, funerals), political competition or a highly respected visitor, such as the King’s representative.... It is a way to illustrate respect and social order an example of a formal ceremony used here will be for a visiting chief and this will be a synthesized version of what generally happens at a formal ceremony in Samoa."
  • Where does such writing come from and why is it tolerated, even celebrated, at Canadian universities? How can we accept Professor Orwin’s contention that, "... in a world dominated by a knowledge economy, a broad rather than a narrow training is needed, one that produces flexible minds rather than filling them with technical knowledge that is soon obsolete," if so many students demonstrate such poor expression skills?

    Poor writing begins in our troubled public schools where the teaching of spelling and composition are viewed with indifference if not contempt, a pedagogical position stemming from the pernicious whole-language ideology that has long infected our faculties of education. Grammar is a formal, rule-based system in which even exceptions to rules are rule-based; in too many public schools, student-centred instruction means that it doesn’t matter whether Johnny can spell or parse a sentence as long as he tries to make himself understood and has high self-esteem.

    Fearing a loss of potential customers, liberal arts faculties reject the idea of rigorous entrance examinations to weed out the illiterate casualties of our state-run schools. If, for example, we in the liberal arts dared raise our standards to those of the professional faculties, student numbers and revenues would decline precipitously. In short, we need large numbers of "warm bodies" to maintain our allowance and justify our existence.

    This message has not been lost to social science instructors, many of whom give passing grades or higher to hopelessly flawed writing arguing that:

  • it is inappropriate to give a failing grade to a 10-20 page paper regardless of its quality because "some time and effort must have been spent producing it";
  • form is secondary to content (even if the former is so garbled that the latter is incomprehensible); and
  • failed essays often bring annoying student appeals.
  • Such dumbing-down is exacerbated by the fact that there are no uniform standards for identifying and correcting poor writing because academic freedom has been so debased that individual professors are allowed to teach what they want, how they want, and to evaluate their students any way they see fit.

    The majority of liberal arts students are more than willing accomplices in this process because they have come to university not to absorb the wisdom of the ages or to explore the frontiers of human knowledge but to obtain the credentials they hope will give them an edge in the job market. Their only concern is to write well enough to earn a passing grade.

    Many of these students need never worry about their writing because in most social sciences they are evaluated in whole or in part using multiple-choice testing. This is a preferred mode of evaluation because it is cheap, because it increases enrolment and revenue, and because it maximizes the time that professors can spend pretending to do research.

    Up to the mid-1950s, most Canadian liberal arts students were required to take the same prescribed English courses in each year of their studies. Knowledge and learning were seen as cumulative and hierarchical (as they still are in the applied disciplines Professor Orwin denigrates) with advanced courses having intermediate prerequisites and with these, in turn, requiring a solid introductory background. Today, even where prerequisites are in place, these are routinely waived in the name of intellectual egalitarianism and freedom of choice. Again, the real reason is a fear of scaring off tuition-paying customers.

    Not every academic has sold out to mindless machine testing. Many English instructors, even including some who have become bewitched by post-modern "cultural studies," spend hundreds of hours every year correcting faulty student prose and argumentation in a valiant attempt to mould good expressive and logical skills. But English is no longer a required subject in most liberal arts faculties and few of its students have completed even a single literature course. There is good reason for this. Studying English literature requires reading many long books, thinking many deep thoughts, and writing many long essays, something too many Arts students avoid like the plague.

    Ironically, courses in both English and philosophy are required in the faculty of management at my university as they are elsewhere in Canada. This may mean either that reflective reading, good writing, logical thinking, and moral sensitivity are more important in business than they are in Arts or that my colleagues in management recognize that a well rounded higher education, even in the crass field of commerce and trade, requires a grounding in these areas.

    For Professor Orwin, a reminder of Pogo’s famous dictum: "We have seen the enemy and he is us." For potential employers, a warning: independently test the communication and allied skills of liberal arts job applicants because their B.A. is no guarantee of either literacy or learning.

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    Opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of the author, and are not necessarily shared by conservativeforum.org or the members of its Editorial Board.