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PC Is Not the Problem : Higher education curriculum flap targets wrong enemy

November 01, 1992

Railing in recent years against "political correctness," critics of academe have charged that the core humanities curriculum has been distorted by the multiplication of courses tailored to minority agendas. But how much distortion has actually taken place? Skeptics have long charged that the evidence was more anecdotal than otherwise. Fortunately, a report written by Clifford Adelman and released last week by the U.S. Department of Education goes well beyond the anecdotal. Its news is bad, but the right kind of bad.

To get beyond the anecdotal, Adelman undertook a study of transcripts as opposed to course catalogues; that is, not courses offered but courses actually taken. He looked not just at trend- and standard-setting top universities but at a broad cross section.

What he found, the bad news, is that the careerism of the American undergraduate rules out all but a cursive effort at cultural knowledge. Almost 70% of total academic time spent by a 12-year sample of bachelor's degree recipients "did not have, as its primary objective, encounter with explicitly cultural information," he said. "One can always argue that cultural information is implicit in virtually every course taught in a college, from macroeconomics to interior decorating to animal behavior to forest management. Learning how to operate a television camera or to treat athletic injuries or to use an air brush in graphic design or to compute tax liabilities may convey, in each case, some cultural information. The presence of that information in the execution of those tasks, however, is highly problematic."

So problematic indeed that Adelman titles his report "Tourists in Our Own Land: Cultural Literacies and the College Curriculum." The body of material that must be mastered for a profession seems primary to students facing the worse economic prospects that most people can remember. But the nation as a whole requires citizens educated for more than putting bread on the table. There is no substitute for broad humanistic education in providing students with what they need to understand their own place in the life of their country and their country's in the life of the world.

Careerism, as a perennial problem in higher education, has little or nothing to do with political correctness, but that is precisely the point. If American students know nothing of American history and literature, it isn't because they've been spending their time on the Tibetan Book of the Dead or comparative body painting. Non-Western and minority cultures are rarely studied, Adelman reports, outside the top 3% of colleges and universities. Students are simply preoccupied with what they think will help them get a job--at the expense, sadly, of what helps us have a culture.

Lynne V. Cheney, head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and other campaigners against political correctness are wrong, Adelman says, "to find the most outlandish examples of what courses a student could take in order to fulfill various graduation requirements, and then to extract the more extreme, jargonistic, or convoluted portions" of those courses to suggest that such courses have overtaken those offered in the traditional curriculum.

The crusade against political correctness--in its obsession with a few real abuses at a few, usually elite institutions--has largely missed the nature of the cultural poverty that afflicts much of American higher education. Adelman has performed a signal feat of intelligence in what he calls the "culture wars" by tracking down the real enemy.

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