It is without doubt that the United States has the most extensive and inclusive system of post-secondary education in the world, with more than 13 million students attending some "institution of higher learning" in 1989. It also is equally without doubt that higher education has some very serious problems.
Costs are ballooning. Campus incidents of racial hostility and violence against women are increasing. And there is evidence that despite four or more years of study and the accumulation of hundreds of credit hours, students are not learning very much: A recent Gallup Poll informs us that a large proportion of college seniors are wholly ignorant of history and literature, while another survey indicates that college students are indifferent to public affairs and generally uninformed about current events.
Since Allan Bloom's "The Closing of the American Mind" achieved the distinction of becoming the most talked-about and best-selling unread book of 1987, a spate of volumes has appeared, attempting to diagnose what ails American higher education. "Education Without Compromise: From Chaos to Coherence in Higher Education" by William Schaefer, a professor of English at UCLA, is among the latest of these offerings.
Schaefer writes from the perspective of one who has spent nearly his entire adult life, more than 40 years, in various aspects of higher education: as a student at seven universities, professor at four, a department chairman, executive director of the Modern Language Assn.--the largest professional organization in the humanities--and as a high-level academic administrator. There are a few interesting and useful insights in the book--for example, Schaefer's analysis of the distribution of power and the role of departments in the university, but for the most part the book does not live up to the promise of its subtitle.
The focus of the book is the large "full-service university" with its combination of general-education courses, specialized majors, research activity and graduate schools. Schaefer's principal concern is with the curriculum, which he believes has become chaotic, lacking both coherence and meaning.
Schaefer identifies four major problems which contribute to this sad condition: the knowledge explosion, a professoriate made up of people who view themselves primarily as specialized researchers and scholars and only secondarily as teachers, an increasingly diverse student population, and the lack of agreement on the desired outcome of general education.
These are not especially original observations, but at least Schaefer states them succinctly, as he does his prescriptions for reforming the curriculum, which can be summarized as follows:
--Make sure students have the analytical skills necessary for higher learning, in particular that they be able to communicate effectively in English and have mastered a foreign language.
--Purge the curriculum of training--"teaching to do"--especially as it relates to preparation for work life--vocational and professional education.
--Get back to teaching "knowledge," the "stuff of education as opposed to vocational training--history and anthropology, psychology and biology, all the 'ologies' involved in the sciences and social sciences, and, to be sure, the study of art, music, theater, dance, literature, religion, philosophy. These are the subjects that comprise a liberal education, that informs a civilized society, that leads to understanding and, one may hope, eventually to wisdom."
In his ideal university, Schaefer would accomplish this by replacing the Baskin Robbins education students now receive with a diet of vanilla, chocolate and strawberry: All students would be required during their first two years to take the same "Fordist" assembly-line program of lecture-course sequences in science and technology, the arts and the humanities, and social science. The content of these would consist of the "best that is known and written" as determined by consensus of the university's most distinguished professors.
Schaefer's proposals seem not to be informed at all by anything but his personal convictions. His index includes no listing of "democracy"--the word occurs no more than four or five times throughout the text--and there is absolutely no discussion of the university's responsibility for citizenship preparation.
Schaefer refers to his proposal as revolutionary, but reactionary is far more appropriate, as is his entire conception of the education process. Put simply, he views students as receptacles into which wise professors pour vintage knowledge, like fine wine into a bottle. His proposal is valid, Schaefer says, "not because one can or need do anything with the knowledge but because it is important in and by itself, because knowledge is better than ignorance, light is better than darkness."