US colleges faulted for narrow focus

The American college today is a ``troubled institution.'' So concludes the first comprehensive look ever taken at undergraduate education in the United States, including quality of course work, student and faculty attitudes, and the purpose of community in higher education.

While American colleges are doing a good job preparing students for narrowly defined careers, says Ernest Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and author of the report, they are failing to give students a coherent ``larger view'' - a way to think about and understand deeper ethical, historical, and civic issues. In a complex world, the nation's economic and social health is closely related to colleges' ability to spark student inquiry in these directions, the study says.

``Technical knowledge, yes, that's fine,'' Dr. Boyer remarked in an interview. ``But what about the ability to integrate and apply knowledge wisely? That's the mark of an educated person. That's the urgent imperative of our time. But it's something most colleges aren't teaching. ...''

The report suggests colleges redefine their goals and restructure their approaches to learning around an ``integrated'' general education curriculum that would tie basic subjects such as English, history, and science into a set of core themes including ``work,'' ``heritage,'' ``identity,'' and ``language.'' General education would complement a specialized major and be required through four years of college, instead of two.

``We want students to begin to see connections between disciplines, and between college and the outside world,'' says Boyer.

The three-year, 242-page study titled ``College - The Undergraduate Experience in America,'' closely examined 30 schools of different size, type, and location - and has, for a year, been the cause of considerable speculation. ``It was supposed to make a big splash, but it's made an even bigger splash than expected,'' says Robert Atwell, president of the American Council on Education.

Following some 13,000 interviews with faculty, undergraduates, administrators, and high school students, Boyer and staff identified several major tension points that are ``sapping the vitality'' of undergraduate colleges: a poor system of student transition from high school to college; college faculty torn between research and teaching; a separation between academic and social life on campus causing a lack of community and alienation between students, faculty, and administrators; and a gap between the college and the larger world.

In finding that only about 50 of the nations 2,100 baccalaureate-granting colleges used standardized achievement scores as a critical measure for admission, the report suggests that SAT and ACT requirements be dropped.

The 83 major recommendations contained in the report include: a deemphasis on college athletics, more voluntary service on campus, a senior thesis, and specific course work on what a college education should be and do.

The study also found that, while life in college dormitories has improved somewhat, it is still marked by much alcohol and drug abuse. The report reproached college administrators and faculty who - through lack of contact with students - have failed to confront the problem.

Though calling colleges troubled, Boyer, a former US commissioner of education, also concluded, ``Our system of higher education with its openness, diversity, and scholarly achievement is the envy of the world.'' Further, Boyer found in campus after campus a recognition of the problems the study describes. Faced with the bleakness of ``careerism'' among students and the overspecialization of learning, Boyer found many college presidents and faculty who say, ``The time is ripe for a change.''

Last month Education Secretary William J. Bennett sharply criticized the quality of undergraduate colleges, telling a hostile audience at Harvard University that college officials were to blame for allowing a scattershot, elective curricula with no basics, and for encouraging a ``pious, self-congratulatory attitude among faculty.''

Boyer agrees with Secretary Bennett that undergraduate education has lost coherence. But college officials are not to blame, he says - the problems with the elective system go back 80 years.

College conditions today must be understood in context, Boyer adds. Colleges have traditionally reflected American social trends. In the 1940s and '50s, colleges offered a rigid curriculum and sense of community. The '60s shifted radically toward open curricula and individual search for meaning and relevance. The '70s were for colleges a ``valley of depression,'' Boyer says.

If colleges are to succeed in the future, Boyer says, individualism and community must reach a new synthesis. College faculty outreach to students will be the most important catalyst in bringing this about, Boyer says.

Already, he is hopeful: ``I see stirrings on campus of something more interesting and authentic than anytime since the 1950s.''

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