"No College Student Left Behind"?

People surround a bus after it was covered by a landslide killing ten people on September 4, 2010 on the Interamericana road, Tecpan municipality, Chimaltenango, Guatemala.
Keneth de la Cruz/AFP/Getty Images
This column was written by Peter Wood.

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings will kill off one of the most promising reforms in higher education of the last half century during the coming days. The funeral, I expect, will be sparsely attended; but I'll be among the mourners.

In 1987 Allan Bloom's book "The Closing of the American Mind" aroused national furor by describing — convincingly to millions of readers — what had gone wrong with American colleges and universities. Bloom depicted the university as awash in cultural relativism, emotionally shallow, robustly strong in the natural sciences but intellectually anemic in every other discipline, and careless about the core tradition of philosophical search for truth.

Other writers caught fire from the sparks of "The Closing of the American Mind" and for nearly a decade traditionalist-minded academics extended Bloom's critique. Some also took practical initiatives. The late 1980s saw the birth of the National Association of Scholars. In the 1990s, breakaway groups created scholarly alternatives to the politically correct American Historical Association and the Modern Language Association. And in this ferment, the American Academy of Liberal Education (AALE) was also founded.

AALE was intended as a practical response to a practical problem. The problem was (and is) that colleges and universities cannot operate in the United States without accreditation but accreditation was then entirely in the hands of the bland technocrats that Bloom identified as the hapless enablers of the university's new elite. Bloom never concerned himself with something as mundane as accreditation, but in practical reality, accreditation counts for a lot. And accreditation itself had succumbed to relativism.

How? The primary rule for all of the major accreditors in the U.S. is that a college or university lives up to its "mission." If a college's mission is to prepare students to get into law school, the accreditor will be satisfied to see that pre-law courses and advising lead in this direction; that the library has law books; and that a healthy percentage of graduates do in fact get into law school. If a college's mission is to prepare students for the ancient and honorable trade of acupuncture, then the curriculum should identify the puncture points and the faculty should know their chi.

We can stand back and look at this system with a certain degree of approbation. Americans want to learn a great variety of things and it is certainly fitting that we have a flexible system for identifying those colleges that come up to snuff in actually performing whatever it is they say they do. Our country's accreditation system works pretty well in this regard.

It does, however, have a disturbing loophole. Accreditation has no good answer to the Bloomian complaint that no one is minding the real store. College deans, provosts and presidents have long since shrugged off the responsibility for guaranteeing that the curriculum teaches students the hard skill of discerning the gleam of truth in the forest of falsehood. College faculties find it awkward to pronounce some subjects as more foundational than others, and harder still to reject a subject as too trivial for higher education. Colleges still have a certain rhetorical stake in mentioning Shakespeare or citing Plato, but are loath to make graduation depend on actual knowledge of any particular books.

Higher education earns its claim to being higher and not just "later" by living up to an implicit promise that it will teach students to think with greater clarity and precision, and that it will foster those skills in the pursuit of knowledge that is more encompassing, richer, and better than the knowledge to be had by entering a trade or reading the almanac. This is a way of thinking about higher education that has faded in the American mind. Or, as Bloom would have, this is what we lost when the American mind closed.