Editorial: Conservative Pope Center opposes personal freedom

Nov. 01, 2013 @ 01:43 PM

The only unexpected thing about a recent report from a conservative Raleigh think tank criticizing the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is that it advocates a top-down, government-knows-best approach to higher education.

The report from the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, innocuously titled “General Education at UNC-Chapel Hill,” accuses the university of having a general-education curriculum – essentially, the courses students take that do not directly relate to their chosen major – that is “incoherent … unstructured and unwieldy.” The reason the report says this should be of concern is that it makes it far too easy for students to fail to gain a proper grounding in “citizenship, ethics and culture.”

The premise rests on the more than 4,700 courses at the university that can count toward general education requirements, and many of the courses the report cites do have titles seemingly drawn from parody skits. For instance: Jewish Studies 486 is titled “Shalom Y’all: The Jewish Experience in the American South.”

Let it first be acknowledged that finding course names to make fun of at a major college is like shooting fish in a barrel. The truly surprising thing would be a course catalog that had nothing eye-catching in it.

Part of that is, as the report says, because faculty have their own pet projects and specialty areas of research.

But a larger reason is that the college experience today has become yet another expression of our consumer-oriented culture. A course with an eye-catching title gets more “butts in the seats,” as our governor likes to put it. And if enough students do not sign up for a course, that course will be canceled. On the other hand, if students who sign up for such a course find that it truly is a waste of time, there are ample venues – official and unofficial, many online, independent and immune from faculty interference – for them to spread the word so that others are not similarly lured.

That’s called supply and demand, with a bit of marketing tossed in. That’s how the college world works now and has been for years.

So what’s the Pope Center’s proposed alternative? A tightly focused set of 13 courses that all students would be required to take. Period, no exceptions.

In other words, “We don’t care that you are paying for this education and what you might be interested in. We know what you need, and you’ll be better off.”

And here we thought conservatives favored freedom, personal choice and letting people live with the consequences of their own decisions.

“Certainly, it would be nice to include many other topics,” the report says in a dismissively authoritarian tone. “But the need for efficiency means that many staples of existing general education programs, such as foreign languages, or art appreciation, must be excluded. While desirable, they cannot truly be called essential for an understanding of the world.”

Foreign languages are not essential for an understanding of the world, the great majority of which does not speak English as its primary language? What a novel concept.

But that is just another weakness in this report.

Yet another is the belief that 18- and 19-year-olds arrive at college as virtual blank slates in critical need of instruction in the basics of how our society works.

Perhaps some do, but that would be an indictment of their K-12 education, not of UNC-Chapel Hill.