Transformative Legislation for Higher Education

Published November 13, 2023

National Review Online

American higher education has traveled far down a dangerous path. Decades ago, our colleges and universities repudiated the study of the Western tradition. Yet it was the West that birthed the academy’s highest aspiration — the free search for truth. In abandoning the West, our educational institutions made it impossible to comprehend the structure and rationale of our system of government, as well as the nature and meaning of our most central cultural traditions, including liberal education itself. Since that repudiation of the West, free speech on campus has been under assault. And since 2020, the illiberal spirits that choked off freedom on campus for decades have poured into the bloodstream of society at large, turning us against one another and ourselves.

It has seemed next to impossible to remedy this situation. Insulated from outside influence by academic freedom, illiberal academics abused the tenure system to entrench a political and intellectual monopoly. Protections designed to nurture a marketplace of ideas have been converted into bulwarks of orthodoxy. How can we break this monopoly without destroying the very principles of freedom that we hope to restore?

There is a way. The General Education Act (GEA) model legislation I co-authored with Jenna Robinson, the president of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, and David Randall, the director of research at the National Association of Scholars, will transform public higher education in any state that draws upon its method. (The GEA will be presented by its authors this Thursday, November 16, at 2 p.m. here and has been debuted and discussed by Peter Berkowitz here.

The GEA’s method is not to forbid the teaching of certain ideas — an approach that in the realm of higher education is legally, politically, and intellectually untenable. It is, rather, to mandate mastery of essential knowledge — above all, to restore the history and great works of America and the West to the place of honor they once enjoyed at our colleges and universities. The power to mandate graduation requirements — often called “general education” — is a power that state legislators have yet rarely used. If deployed energetically and wisely, that power can remake public higher education in the United States.

The model GEA does three big things. First, it establishes a robust set of course requirements that all students must take to graduate, while putting American history, civics, and the story of Western civilization at the center of that program. Although the West enjoys pride of place, one requirement will give students significant exposure to the history and great works of non-Western civilizations as well. Second, the GEA establishes an independent School of General Education within the university and grants it sole control over most of the new required courses. The GEA then authorizes the new and independent dean of the School of General Education to hire large numbers of faculty members expert in, and committed to, traditional general education. Third, the GEA instructs the university board of trustees to reduce existing faculty to an extent that equals the number of new hires in the School of General Education, authorizing trustees to wholly, or partially, discontinue existing departments and programs, and to dismiss even tenured faculty if necessary. In short, this is a transformative plan.

Let’s explore all three pillars of the GEA, after which we’ll discuss the power of state legislatures to mandate general education requirements.

The decline of America’s colleges and universities began, not only with the repudiation of required courses in American history, civics, and Great Books–based surveys of Western civilization, but also with the elimination of any sort of required common coursework in the first two years. What remains is general education in name only. The range of courses that fulfill requirements in various mandated categories of knowledge is now so broad, and the course topics so narrowly focused on professors’ specialized research interests, that education in shared fundamentals has effectively disappeared from our universities.

The GEA reverses all that with a 42 credit-hour program of courses largely shared by every student. The topics are geared toward preparation for citizenship, and toward thoughtful examination of the fundamental moral and philosophical alternatives embodied in the greatest works of literature and philosophy. Science majors, who often face requirements geared to specialized career paths, are given somewhat more flexibility. And humanists may choose, at points, between courses in the founding ideas of Western liberal democracy, Western art, or Western economics. Every student, however, will take survey courses in subjects such as Western history, Western humanities, American history, and American civics, as well as a survey course that covers at least four non-Western culture areas.

Here, for example, is the model legislative text’s provision on the first semester of the required survey course in Western Humanities:

Western Humanities I 1000 B.C.—1450, which shall explore substantial selections from works of first-rank literary quality and enduring literary and philosophical influence, often called Great Books, with readings by figures such as Plato, Augustine, Dante, and the troubadours that include the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, Homeric epic, Greek philosophy, Greek tragedy, and medieval literature, and which includes a one semester credit hour component of English composition, which shall aim to instruct students to produce correct and lucid academic writing on the works taught in this course.

Although a Great Books focus is mandated here, most of the specific works listed are provided as examples (introduced by “such as”). This allows for variety. What’s mandated are areas of coverage such as “Greek philosophy” and “Greek tragedy.” This leaves room for Plato or Aristotle, Sophocles, Euripides, or Aeschylus, etc. The exception is the Bible, Old Testament and New. The Bible is so central to the Western tradition that we felt comfortable mandating a specific work in this case.

The central theme of the required courses is Western liberal democracy, as expressed in the following provision of the model bill:

General education courses in the humanities and social sciences, where appropriate, shall explore and highlight the theme of Western liberty and republican self-government, its historical sources, strengths and weaknesses, 20th century challenges from communism and fascism, contrasts with non-Western systems of government, its distinctive features in the United States, and its spread beyond the West.

With good reason, informed observers will doubt that contemporary university faculty are either willing or able to teach courses along these lines. That is why the GEA creates a new and independent School of General Education within the university, empowering its dean both to hire a substantial number of new faculty members and to supervise the design of the new required courses. Since the courses controlled by the School of General Education must reach every student, quite a few new faculty will need to be hired. Existing faculty are eligible for joint appointment in the School of General Education, but such appointments are temporary and at the sole discretion of the school’s dean.

Hiring a substantial number of new faculty with the expertise and inclination to support a program of traditional general education will put the university under unsustainable financial stress unless it dismisses an equivalent number of existing faculty. This could require the closure of entire programs or departments, and the dismissal of even tenured faculty.

Academic freedom does not prevent this. On the contrary, department closures under these circumstances are consistent with the American Association of University Professors’ policy on “program discontinuance,” which permits the elimination of entire programs, and the dismissal of even tenured faculty, when that is occasioned by a fundamental change in the university’s “educational mission.”

There could be no more profound shift of educational mission than a return to traditional general education. In accordance with this, the GEA precedes its mandate for program discontinuance with the following formal declaration: “The adoption of a specific set of graduation requirements organized around the history, great works, and civic culture of the West as a whole, and the United States in particular, constitutes a long-term, fundamental shift in the educational mission and strategy” of the state’s public universities. The GEA then assigns the university’s trustees responsibility for deciding which programs and departments to reduce or eliminate.

How would this process work? Well, let’s say that a university’s programs in ethnic studies or gender studies have relatively few majors. Perhaps most students in these programs are minoring, or simply taking a single course. In that case, the new general education requirements will probably cause enrollment in these programs to drop precipitously. The board may also determine that, given the university’s new focus on traditional general education, including the mandatory course on non-Western cultures, ethnic studies and gender studies programs are either redundant or low-priority. The trustees may thus decide to discontinue these programs.

Traditional departments, such as English, may also be affected by the GEA. The new School of General Education will surely hire faculty to teach the newly required literature and humanities courses. Existing English faculty whom the dean finds particularly suited to teach the new required classes may receive joint appointments in the School of General Education. Others may not. Trustees may therefore decide to pare down the existing English faculty in light of the change in the university’s overall mission.

Rather than restricting reduction of existing faculty to the shuttering of entire departments, the General Education Act allows for “substantial curtailment” of a program or department. On the one hand, this provides greater scope and flexibility for faculty dismissals. On the other hand, this is a more restrictive way of handling faculty dismissal than the law passed in 2015 by Scott then the governor of Wisconsin

Walker’s law allowed for faculty dismissal in light of decisions on “program discontinuance, curtailment, modification, or redirection.” Critics complained at the time that vague terms such as “modification” could allow for targeted dismissals of a particular professor in retaliation for controversial public remarks or academic writings. The GEA’s use of “substantial curtailment” is more restrictive. It would not allow for targeted dismissal of a single controversial individual but would authorize only “substantial” reductions in a given program or department in light of the university’s overall change of mission.

But do state legislatures have the power to mandate the subject, and even, to a degree, the content of graduation requirements at public universities? They do. For decades, Texas has had a statutory American history graduation requirement at its public universities. South Carolina’s 2021 Reinforcing College Education on America’s Constitutional Heritage (REACH) Act establishes readings including the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, five instructor-selected essays from The Federalist Papers, the Emancipation Proclamation, and select documents foundational to the African-American freedom struggle as graduation requirements at South Carolina’s public universities.

In opposition to such laws, professors sometimes claim, on grounds of academic expertise, that only university faculty can establish graduation requirements. Yet the choice between a graduation requirement in critical theory or in Western civilization is primarily a matter of values, not expertise. Here the public rightly has a voice. Indeed, general education requirements at public universities are regularly submitted to boards of trustees for final approval. Those trustees are appointed by governors and legislatures and in some states popularly elected. So both the subject and the essential content of public university graduation requirements is properly within the authority of the public’s representatives. I made the case for this in an early 2023 piece defending legislatively mandated university graduation requirements in Florida. I will expand on that case in a report I hope to release early next year.

The primary purpose of the model General Education Act is to revive traditional general education, thereby returning preparation for citizenship and thoughtful consideration of core moral and philosophical issues to the central position they once enjoyed at our colleges and universities. A happy by-product of this change is likely to be a restoration of intellectual diversity at our colleges and universities.

Traditional general education is the property of no one political party or point of view. While many conservatives look to this tradition, thoughtful liberals such as Roosevelt Montás and Anthony Kronman practice it and advocate it as well. The School of General Education is likely to bring more conservatives and traditional liberals, including Montás and Kronman, onto campus. At the same time, faculty reductions notwithstanding, plenty of critical theory–oriented faculty are sure to remain on campus. The end result of the GEA is therefore likely to be the robust marketplace of ideas that tenure and academic freedom were supposed to nurture yet ended up destroying in the end.

Once tenure was turned into a weapon for reproducing only one point of view, and once political tests like “diversity statements” were widely adopted, the marketplace of ideas was shut down and replaced by a monolithic and impenetrable ideological fortress. Simultaneously, faculty hyper-specialization advanced to the point where individual courses taught students more and more about less and less. Despite claims to the contrary, college courses nowadays are designed to advance professorial research, not to expose students to fundamental issues and ideas, or prepare them for mature citizenship. In the absence of outside intervention, this status quo — which suits the interests of professors, rather than students — is locked into place. It is both the right and the duty of legislators to cut the Gordian knot.

Unlikely though it may seem, transformational reform of our system of public higher education is an achievable goal. The model General Education Act will get us there. Legislators need only the courage to take it up.

Stanley Kurtz is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Beyond his work with Education and American Ideals, Mr. Kurtz is a key contributor to American public debates on a wide range of issues from K–12 and higher education reform, to the challenges of democratization abroad, to urban-suburban policies, to the shaping of the American left’s agenda. Mr. Kurtz has written on these and other issues for various journals, particularly National Review Online (where he is a contributing editor).

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