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Does Cornell Make You Dumber?

It's the second year of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute's report card on college students' civic aptitude, and things aren't looking great for our elite colleges. The report, "Failing Our Students, Failing America," ranks colleges and universities based on the mean score of a 60-question test given to random students on campus.

Cornell doesn't fare well. In fact, out of 50 colleges and universities profiled, Cornell is ranked dead last in the "value added" category, meaning that the average senior gets a score that's about 5% lower than the average freshman. Students are actually losing the civics knowledge they came in with, which they probably learned in high school.

I didn't learn much about civics at Cornell; most of my education about the topics covered by the survey -- America's history, government, international relations, and economy -- came in addition to or despite my formal education. I suspect that institutions with core curricula, like Columbia and Chicago, and small colleges like St. John's and Hillsdale, which are humanities-focused or Great Books-centered, produce students who are more knowledgeable about political philosophy, history, and the political process. Still, college-educated people tend to vote, volunteer and participate in society in more beneficial ways than others.

This report is clearly intended as a call for greater "accountability" and mandatory core courses. Or maybe this just means more people should major in government and history.

The findings seem relevant, now that on the 20th anniversary of former Cornell professor Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, the book's renewed call for a Western canon (and a related push for increased relevance for the humanities) is being celebrated, reviled and debated.

So why isn't there a single set of knowledge and skills that students can all demonstrate once they come out of college? Says Tony Judt in the Times Book Review piece:

"Itís much more like a supermarket -- kids can take pretty much any courses they like: Jewish kids take Jewish studies, gay students gay studies, black students African-American studies. You no longer have a university, but a series of identity constituencies all studying themselves."

Andy Guess | Posted on September 18, 2007 (#)

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