Last of the Romans

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Andrew Crocker did not attend his commencement exercises at Michigan State University in East Lansing on May 2.  He was home dealing with family matters.  So he missed the awarding of two honorary doctorates.  Shirley Weis, a graduate of MSU’s College of Nursing, received a doctorate of science as the first woman and first nonphysician to serve as CAO of the Mayo Clinic.  Azim Primji, a graduate of Stanford’s Engineering School, turned his family business, West Indian Vegetable Products, into the international IT company Wipro Ltd., and works with MSU to promote education and technical training in India.  For this, he garnered a doctorate in humane letters.

Andrew Crocker’s graduation was noteworthy because he was MSU’s last classics major.  MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon did not address the suspension of the classics major explicitly, but her opening remarks were relevant: “During your time as undergraduates, Michigan State University has boldly recast its land grant mission to meet new challenges and opportunities and to innovate our future.”  This bold recasting entailed inter alia suspending classics, American studies, and retailing.  (The Department of Advertising and Public Relations still teaches retailing courses.)  Among targeted departments, geological science and the veterinary technology program were reprieved.  Do you see a pattern here?

“Boldly recast its land grant mission . . . to innovate our future” may not be idiomatic English, but it has a clear meaning: eviscerate the liberal arts, especially the arts of language (grammar, logic, and rhetoric), and treat the arts of mathematics (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music) as a gateway to jobs in STEM professions (science, technology, engineering, and math).  MSU is preparing students for jobs, not for citizenship.  According to historian Clinton Rossiter, colonial American education trained students “to think, communicate and lead” and to cultivate “reason, virtue, honor, and love of liberty,” the goals of liberal-arts education since classical antiquity.  MSU classics Prof. John Rauk told the Lansing State Journal’s Matthew Miller, “The university has a mission, I think, to preserve and transmit cultural heritage and values, and they’ve decided that people aren’t interested in that anymore.”  His colleague Prof. William Tyrrell, who retired this spring, was franker.  MSU, he said, was “giving up its commitment to what a university should be.”

Conservative icon Russell Kirk received his B.A. in history from Michigan State College of Agriculture and Applied Science (as it was called then) before World War II and taught there after the war.  In 1953 Kirk resigned in protest at the school’s low academic standards, obsession with high enrollment, and desertion of traditional liberal-arts education in favor of sports and technical training.  It seems a little late in the day to notice that MSU is sabotaging the core mission of universities when Russell Kirk noticed the trend and denounced it two generations ago.

With the moratorium on the classics degree, Mr. Miller noted, MSU “is the only Big Ten school without an active Classics major.”  Does that make Michigan State an outlier or a pioneer?  Administrators cut programs on the basis of what they like to call metrics.  In my experience metrics rarely reflect a concern with quality.  Many key cultural institutions, like consensual rule and science itself, were developed by people with traditional liberal-arts educations—indeed, classical educations.  Can those institutions prosper or even survive without liberally educated people to practice them?  Until we know the answer to this question, abolishing classics is a risky experiment.

It is not, however, being treated as an experiment.  As President Obama says, “The debate is settled.  Period.”  About seven percent of undergraduates major in humanities nowadays.  The liberal arts once provided the foundation for all majors and postgraduate training as well as citizenship and creativity.  Most graduates today lack that foundation.

Of course, we know the unspoken reasons for eliminating traditional humanities in favor of science, technology, and medicine: As William Butler Yeats expressed it, “Everybody knows or else should know” that the United States suffers from debilitating workforce shortages in STEM areas that will make it—or have made it—impossible for Americans to compete in the global marketplace.  In 2005 alone, three reports were published by reputable sources decrying the state of U.S. science education in the K-12 years.  They differed in style, but their voices formed an harmonious unity that resounded through the halls of academe and government.

In May 2005 the Council of Competitiveness issued the product of their National Innovation Initiative, entitled Innovate America.  In July the Business Roundtable, whose members are CEOs of large U.S. companies, published Tapping America’s Potential: The Education for Innovation Initiative (TAP), about the STEM workforce.  In October an ad hoc committee appointed by the National Research Council, the executive arm of the National Academies, issued Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future.  The latter two reports were devoted to the crisis in STEM education in the United States on the K-12 level, while Innovate America discussed STEM education as one part of the nation’s “innovation ecosystem.”  It recommended federal support for the physical sciences and engineering, and research-and-development tax credits for U.S. corporations.

Innovate America’s recommendations for education had much in common with the two subsequent reports.  TAP was quite clear: “Our goal is to double the number of science, technology, engineering and mathematics graduates with bachelor’s degrees by 2015.”  TAP was only 19 pages long.  Despite its ominous title, Rising Above the Gathering Storm was more moderate in the tone of its October report, which was advertised as a draft.  The final version of 592 pages appeared in 2007.  A number of its recommendations, which were not dramatically different from those found in the other 2005 reports, were included in the “America COMPETES Act of 2007.”  This bill was only “authorizing legislation,” which in our system enables expenditures but does not provide funding.  The economic events of 2008 put the quietus on this as on other expenditure bills that year, but a significant number of the three reports’ recommendations were put into the Stimulus Package of 2009.  In 2010 the presidents of the three National Academies rounded up members of the original Gathering Storm committee to assess the STEM state of the nation in the years since 2005.  With the certainty of a TV weatherman suggested by the original title, the committee reported, “The unanimous view of the committee members participating in the preparation of this report is that our nation’s outlook has worsened. . . . The Gathering Storm increasingly appears to be a Category 5.”

Research published in the wake of the 2005 reports suggests that the committee’s analysis reflected not only the certainty but the accuracy of TV weather reports.  In 2007 B. Lindsay Lowell and Hal Salzman published an analysis of the empirical evidence on the performance of American K-12 STEM students and the supply of the STEM workforce.  They found that, although the average performance of U.S. students was ranked in the “moderate” range, there were many good students in science and engineering (S&E)—more, in fact, than there were jobs for.  “S&E occupations make up only about one-twentieth of all workers, and each year there are more than three times as many S&E four-year college graduates as S&E job openings.”  Lowell’s and Salzman’s results were confirmed by Yu Xie’s and Alexandra Killewald’s Is American Science in Decline? (Harvard, 2012) and by Michael S. Teitelbaum’s Falling Behind? Boom, Bust & the Global Race for Scientific Talent (Princeton, 2014).  Teitelbaum surveys the current bogus crisis, but he also shows that the hysteria it represents follows a regular pattern in the United States since World War II.  Just a few days after the Soviets launched Sputnik (October 4, 1957), Elmer Hutchinson, director of the American Institute of Physics, told the New York Times (October 8) that, unless the United States revamped her educational system to emphasize science, “Our way of life is, I am certain, doomed to rapid extinction.”

Threatened with rapid extinction, the national government naturally poured money into science programs at the expense of humanities and foreign languages, the budgetary aspect of the educational environment in which enrollments in high-school Latin went from 728,637 in 1962 to barely 150,000 by the late 1970’s.  This significant change in the nation’s priorities in curriculum and funding was accomplished with remarkably little public debate.  As historian Carl Richard has shown, earlier generations had rejected calls to repudiate traditional classical education, and America had enjoyed 200 years of prosperity, creativity, and freedom.  The success of the U.S. space program in the 1960’s could not have been the result of money directed at what are now called STEM subjects in schools.  The scientific and military leaders associated with the space program were all educated in previous decades, a number of them in Europe.

Teitelbaum shows that today’s STEM graduates face serious unemployment or underemployment when this STEM bubble bursts, as has happened after earlier bubbles.  There is, however, another point.  Consensual institutions require educated citizens who can speak and write grammatically, think logically, and express themselves convincingly, the goals of the arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric—“to think, communicate and lead,” in Clinton Rossiter’s words.  Not only do the decisions of academic leaders like MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon lead to producing too many STEM workers, the implosion of the humanities is undermining the possibility of free institutions and creativity in many areas.

In the end, the issue is not whether we should be bothered by, or even notice, the curricular decisions of a school that has been a notorious diploma mill since Eisenhower was president.  Instead, we should ask, are these leaders making curricular and cultural decisions that will prove irreversible?  It raises Albert Jay Nock’s question: How do we know if we are living at the beginning of a Dark Age?  Technological innovation will not tell us.  Seventh-century Europe had better plows and new inventions like the tidal mill and stirrups, but literacy declined, and cities shrank or disappeared.

Decisions to eliminate the liberal arts are neither bold nor innovative.  They are reckless and irresponsible.  And when such schools reach a critical mass, there will be no turning back.  Andrew Crocker was on target when he said, “I’m hoping the university will come to its senses.”

It is a question of sanity.  Quem deus vult perdere . . .