Panelists Examine Tainted Teaching · 24 November 2003

English, history, math, and science instruction on campuses faulted

By Jon Sanders--Carolina Journal, 11/25

RALEIGH - On Saturday, Nov. 1, more than 100 academics and scholars gathered in Raleigh to discuss "What Has Become of Standards in Higher Education?"

The conference was the annual higher education conference conducted by the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. It took place at the Jane S. McKimmon Center of North Carolina State University. Three of its sessions discussed how teaching three disciplines within colleges and universities had changed.

Teaching history, math and science

The first session, "What Has Happened to the Teaching of History?", featured Thomas Reeves, emeritus professor of history of the University of Wisconsin at Parkside, and UNC-Chapel Hill history professor Roger Lotchin.

Reeves told how history today is "seen almost exclusively through the lenses of race, color, and sex." The study and teaching of history now is based upon "emphasizing grievance and pity," Reeves said, and dissent from this approach provokes suppression. "I've seen it; I've felt it," he said.

Reeves also blamed open admissions and the "anti-intellectual smog that hovers over all American university campuses" for rendering serious education impossible.

To remedy these problems, Reeves suggested restricting college attendance to those who can handle the work of a real college education and in fact desire it, bringing back the requirements for a broad education on campus (only two percent of colleges require students to take any history), ending the blacklisting of conservative professors and the punishing of conservative students, rewarding demanding professors, and investing money and time in discussing the intrinsic value of education.

Lotchin opened his remarks by describing great feats of social interaction and innovation that occurred on the U.S. homefront during World War II. He cited many instances of how the nation worked together despite regional differences, ethnicity, disability, educational differences, and many other social differences.

But historians don't discuss the miracles of production nor the emergence of a more comprehensive American nationality that came about during the war, Lotchin said. Instead, "homefront history is becoming increasingly about minorities." The present body of historical literature about the homefront is inadequate, Lotchin said, except for African-Americans, gender issues, and the Japanese internment.

The second session, "What Has Happened to the Teaching of Mathematics and Science?", featured John Wegner, editor of Science Insights, and John Hubisz, visiting physics professor at N.C. State and former president of the American Association of Physics Teachers.

Hubisz told how logic, once a staple of education, has disappeared from curricula. The 1960s gave birth to "informal geometry - an oxymoron if ever there were one," Hubisz said, but up until the 1950s, students took a battery of mathematics, progressing from geometry, analytical geometry, philosophy of mathematics, and so forth. Students took "college" mathematics to prepare them for college, but now, Hubisz said, such courses earn them college credit.

Hubisz asked the audience if they remembered the old expectation that every student should spend three hours outside of class for every hour in class. "Students here argue that such an expectation is ridiculous," Hubisz said. They have jobs and other interests besides studying, and this attitude "strongly affects what goes on in universities." As a consequence, concerning the teaching of physics, at most American colleges more than 50 percent of physics graduates are foreign students.

Hubisz said that physicists recognized this problem years ago, but they made the mistake of allowing teachers education to prepare teachers to teach physics. Now physics associations work to improve physics teaching in K-12 and conduct research on physics education.

Our students aren't dumb, Hubisz said, but "higher education has too much become lower education."
Wenger discussed how political radicals are attacking the idea of science, using the example of "difference feminists" attacking a "masculine bias" in science. Wegner said they approach "the discovery of truth as a gendered affair."

Their arguments, however, are self-defeating, Wenger said, and some are risible. For example, Wenger quoted feminists' argument against the teaching of egg fertilization. They criticize what they see as the egg being portrayed as "passive" and the sperm "active," on the basis that students might extrapolate from it that "women should be silent."

Wenger said feminists fail to show why good science done by women owed not to their own abilities as scientists but to their gender or "female perspective".

Teaching English

The third session, "What Has Happened to the Teaching of English?", featured Paul Cantor, professor of English at the University of Virginia, and Thomas Bertonneau, visiting professor of English at the State University of New York at Oswego.

Cantor cited two major shifts in pedagogy that were most pronounced in English departments, where they are the least checked, than in other disciplines. In the sciences, after all, there are still necessarily "right answers." One of those shifts in the attack on lecturing as a mode of teaching, Cantor said. Cantor noted that many English professors pride themselves on the fact that they no longer lecture, but instead "facilitate discussions" in the classroom. This approach allows teachers "to walk in class unprepared," Cantor said.

Another pedagogical shift is the reliance on the group project. Cantor said he can see an educational function to the activity, but that it is employed extensively and as "a kind of socialism of education." Group-project advocates dislike individualism and don't like competition among students, Cantor said. Ironically, he said, students often complain that professors don't lecture enough and that "they didn't come to college to hear other confused 18-year-olds discuss the material."

These changes are very much ideologically based, Cantor said, and in tune with the new thinking on the curriculum - decentering. No longer is it the subject matter that's decentered, but even the teaching itself. He cited one example of a "facilitator" not correcting a student's idea that John Milton wrote in the 19th century, so during the 40-minute class period the teacher as facilitator allowed Paradise Lost to seem a literary reaction to the French Revolution.

Bertonneau gave a presentation steeped in classical allusions to argue the link between Eros and Education - that youthful attraction can lead to higher learning. But this requires educators to have the wisdom to perceive students' awakening Eros and harness the accompanying energies towards instruction.

Bertonneau decried the absences students face in their instruction, given this link between Eros and Education. Instead of refocusing their fledgling passions to aesthetic loveliness and thus inculcating a passion for higher ideals, educators today give them "sex education" that is explicit, sexual harassment training, and also lectures teaching that poems, movies, and the other arts serve as social code for expressing racism, sexism, and the like. Rather than learning a vocabulary of the soul, they are given a perniciously secular education from kindergarten through college, obsessed with a "cult of ugliness."

"The education price in the humanities" of this lack, Bertonneau said, "is a crisis of the soul, of a debilitative and moribund Eros." Bertonneau said education reformers must "learn how to put the loins and the brains back together."

Sanders is an assistant editor at Carolina Journal.