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Transformation of Higher Ed: Great Books and American Diversity

The (Continual) Transformation of Higher Ed
Transformation of Higher Ed: Great Books and American Diversity
By Clay Shirky • Issue #11 • View online

The culture wars, the struggle between competing social norms and institutional behaviors, are coming for the college curriculum again. Because the American educational system was originally copied from the British one, our colleges have historically provisioned American elites with British prejudices. The ideal graduate acquired the outlook of an Englishman with a taste for French culture and a reverence for classical literature, even if their actual engagement with those works was minimal. As a result, proposals to return the curriculum to traditional norms are often reactions to American education becoming less Anglocentric.
You can see this reaction in the many proposals in state legislatures banning critical race theory, or the founding of new colleges like the University of Austin or Ralston College, who advertise their traditional humanities curriculum as a rebuke to their competitors: “It is no secret that the integrity of higher education, in the United States and elsewhere, has become questionable” is a considerably more pugilistic sentiment than you find in most admissions brochures.
When the University of Austin, the new anti-woke university, unveiled its plans in the fall of 2021, they included this description of their course of study:
UATX is developing the first curricular model that synthesizes a rigorous liberal education with an education that prepares the next generation of leaders to renew the promise of American society. […] In the first two years of the undergraduate curriculum, undergraduates will engage with the deepest questions and intellectual contests reflected in the greatest texts of civilization. 
You will never guess where the deepest questions were asked and the greatest texts written, and since you won’t be able to guess, I’ll just tell you: It was Europe!
This kind of talk relies on the nearly wholesale elision of greatness with the European tradition, as filtered through a British lens. Not coincidentally, the founding president of UATX, Panos Kanelos, was previously president of St. John’s College, the school best known for organizing a full four-year degree around a Great Books reading list. 
Implicit in the UATX announcement is the assumption that whatever all students are required to study, the core curriculum, represents a college’s intellectual statement of purpose, committing faculty and students to a shared sense of what should be taught and learned. For the reform-minded, the curriculum also offers the tantalizing possibility of a single site of improvement. Conservative reactions to American higher education regard the curriculum as both the source of the trouble and the site of the solution. 
Like many widespread beliefs about academia, faith in the organizing power of a school’s core curriculum is overblown. Colleges exhibit conceptual fealty to the idea of Big-C curriculum; faculty, when polled, agree nearly unanimously that there is a core set of things every student should know. That is the only thing we agree on. The actual contents of any such list are famously impossible to pin down. Is it more important to study Aeschylus or Angelou? Thermodynamics or climate change? Aristotle or Foucault? Calculus or statistics? You may have an answer to each of those questions and fifty others, as I also do, but our answers will not agree, while any attempt to include all options runs into limits of time. And then what?
Then we argue, and the arguments end in compromise based on the relative leverage of the various campus constituencies. If the English department is strong, English courses will be required; if weak, electives. If a school is organized around research, students will choose their major early; if it is organized around teaching, they may have two years of “general education”, of which there is of course no such thing. Georgia Tech requires a course in computing; Bard does not. Bard requires a course in Meaning, Being, and Value; Georgia Tech does not. And so on.
In the same way a pizza is a pie chart of how much pizza is left, the curriculum is a record of who won the argument about what goes in the curriculum. This arguing mostly creates a little-c curriculum, which is not a master plan, though we faculty often talk to students as if it is. (That makes our lives easier, as well as being self-flattering, two decent predictors of academic behavior.) 
Over the decades, invidious debates led to a widely adopted truce, in the form of distribution requirements. So long as a student takes some science class and some humanities class, the faculty as a whole is spared from having to weigh the virtues of sociology versus biology, or history versus philosophy. Required courses vary college to college not because a thousand flowers are blooming, but because no two schools have identical balances of power. The curriculum is a compromise, not a core.
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One driver of curricular compromise has been growing student diversity – the more kinds of students a school has, the less tolerant they will be of cultural narrowness in books read and views represented. Diversity has in turn tended to be driven by financial duress. Over the arc of American history, colleges started to become non-sectarian when not enough students of their chosen religion applied to pay the bills, coeducational when not enough men applied, diverse when not enough whites applied, and international when not enough citizens applied. 
Admission does not necessarily mean representation, however, at least not at first. During the post-war explosion in enrollment, minorities were admitted into Anglocentric courses of study. Faculty train our replacements, so diversification of the student body should have driven a subsequent diversification of faculty ranks. That change was slowed, however, because mandatory retirement for faculty was abolished in 1993. Prior to that year, most professors had to retire at 70. After the limit was uncapped, many stayed on; one study measured a 14-fold increase in professors over the age of 70, increasing their numbers from 1 in 100 to around 1 in 7. 
The persistence of older faculty kept our institutions whiter longer than they would otherwise have been; as the students at the base of the academic pyramid diversified, the faculty at the apex didn’t. Instead, the upper ranks of faculty aged in place, becoming a white gerontocracy. As the study finding the 14-fold increase noted, “schools with the highest proportion of faculty over 70, and thus most impacted by uncapping, also exhibit the slowest integration of female and minority faculty members.” 
But even slow change is change. Every year for the foreseeable future, the entering class of college students will be more diverse than the previous year. At the same time, faculty retirements mean whites are declining among tenure and tenure-track faculty, the only ethnic group to do so last decade. That decline, while late and still slow, is nevertheless monotonic: alongside growing student diversity, the proportion of white faculty will decline every year.
The current demographic shift in American higher education is creating renewed pressure to re-think the curriculum from the inside, as the range of interests and outlooks increases among students and faculty. At the same time, the broader political shift of whiteness, from a default category to a specific racial identity, is creating renewed pressure from outside the academy to return to Anglocentric acculturation and resistance to multiculturalism.
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The clearest current example of the tension between a desire for diversity and a commitment to Anglocentrism – between inside and outside pressures – is going on at St. John’s College, bastion of the Great Books.
St. John’s, with campuses in Annapolis and Santa Fe, was founded in 1696, but in keeping with academic change being driven by financial troubles, only adopted a Great Books curriculum in 1937, after an enrollment crisis and the revocation of their accreditation; the Great Books idea was was a recruitment tool, adopted as an alternative to shutting the college down. (Innovation in higher ed: desperation plus chutzpah.) 
St. John’s curriculum was developed by professors who decamped from the University of Chicago, which previously poached their Great Books faculty from Columbia. Developed in the 1920s, the Columbia program was driven by institutional concerns about the increasing enrollment by children of Eastern European immigrants, especially Jews.
Columbia’s response was to strengthen the link between elite culture and British outlook by requiring students to read “great Anglo-Saxon writers.” St. John’s took this idea and arranged their entire 4-year curriculum around a chronological Great Books program. 
Unsurprisingly, this program keeps the school less diverse, and less welcoming to non-white students, than it aspires to be. Among American students at St. John’s, around 80% are white, as against a national collegiate average of just over half, and retention of minority students is poor, meaning in any given year, the senior class is whiter than the freshman class.
In response, St. John’s convened a group of instructors, students, and alumni as the Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion, to study the aspects of the school that make it hard to recruit and retain minority students. The committee’s report included two findings that go a long way towards an explanation:
First, “White respondents see the college as less racist than those who are members of racial or ethnic minorities (BIPOC)”, a pattern that “repeats across groups (older alumni, more recent alumni, current students, tutors, and staff).”
And second, minority students “considered leaving the college, transferring to another college, and not recommending St. John’s at a much higher percentage than white and international respondents.”
None of this is surprising, given that the curriculum was designed to attract American men who aspired to acquire a European outlook. The racial dimension was explicit in the beginning—St. John’s had a “whites only” admissions policy for the first decade of their Great Books program. After they opened to minorities in the late 1940s, then to women in the early 1950s, they became more diverse, but were still dedicated to the canon. 
Gradually growing diversity made the narrowness of the original program untenable. Over the years, the school has tinkered with the 20th century reading list, adding Du Bois, Baldwin, and Morrison to the last year of the program, though many of these writers appear as electives, not requirements. Per the diversity report, these changes have not been enough to satisfy the St. John’s student body. Deeper change will probably be necessary to improve recruitment and retention of minority students.
A commitment to expand the kinds of students a school admits eventually expands the kinds of things they want to study. On the other hand, a commitment to restrict the kinds of things students study eventually creates a narrowness in the kind of students a school admits. This tension is what makes St. John’s the most cross-pressured institution in America right now, as they try to welcome non-white students while retaining an overwhelmingly white course of study. The goal, as their Diversity and Inclusion committee described it, is to “ensure that the college is a welcoming place for all, while preserving the uniqueness of St. John’s College.” This will fail; the interesting question is how. 
By the end of the decade St. Johns will be either considerably more liberal or considerably more conservative than it is today, in response to pressures that will be repeated in colleges all over the country, even ones less overtly committed to a culturally inflexible curriculum.
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American culture wars erupt when the majority feels threatened by diversity; in this, the current struggles over the curriculum are similar to the ones that erupted in the late 1980s, when Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, a denunciation of moral relativism on college campuses, became a surprise bestseller. 
That agida fizzled in the early 1990s, both because the end of forced faculty retirement muted the demographic change, and because in the 1990s, Republicans still had faith that higher education was mostly good for society. Neither modulating force is in effect today. This makes the conservative actions around higher education harsher and more interventionist, as with legislated bans on teaching critical race theory, or weakening of tenure protections
It also accounts for the ways that new conservative institutions like UATX and Ralston present their old-school reading lists as a rebuke to existing schools. (Stephen Pinker and Robert Zimmer, originally advisors to UATX, resigned over the ferocity of the school’s attacks on existing institutions.) This new generation of Great Books 2.0 institutions may attract enough students to be economically viable, but they will not attract nearly enough to reshape American higher education. 
Tradition can withstand everything except indifference, and colleges everything except rejection. The current conservative obsession with curriculum comes too late to rework the system. Once colleges began diversifying admissions after WWII, the norm of a culturally coherent curriculum was doomed, though as with many changes in higher education, cause and effect were separated by decades. The diversity that erodes tradition has been baked into the demographics of American youth for decades, leaving no substantial market for tradition other than sports rivalries among the mass of American college students.  
So long as colleges compete for enrollment, student preference for many options and few required courses forces schools to adapt, which is only to say that the relationship between a school and its students is like the relationship between a river and its water. In the short run, the river tells the water where to go. In the long run, the water tells the river where to go.
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