This summer the Advertising Council is putting on a vebement scare campaign to get people to give to the college of their choice. Our colleges and universities are broke, or so the message goes, and unless they get mucho dinero, great thoughts will go unthunk with a concomitant drop in our exports and our life expectancy. No commercials are to be heard imploring colleges and universities to do their part.
Yet even the extravagant medical industry doesn't run its hospitals on a nine-month year. The nine-month school year originally came about so that students could work on the family farm. With less than 5 percent of our population engaged in agriculture, pots of money could be saved for parents and public if our colleges were to adopt the normal work calendar of this society. It would mean that college might take three years instead of four. No small saving when a year's study at a local multiversity can cost $5,000 plus.
A year's work for a year's pay has always been resisted by higher education, just as if has ignored its own proclivity to offer too many courses. "Despite the drop in enrollment on many campuses the size of catalogs vitually doubled and the number of courses with less than five students in them also proliferated," writes Gerald Grant and David Riesman (see "The Perpetual Dream: Reform and Experiments in the American College." University of Chicago Press 1978, $15, and worth it.)
Nor after decades of complaint and ridicule has our higher education disciplined itself out of offering the most costly diddleybop to indolent students looking for gut courses. Thus Grant and Reisman have caught some of the profs teaching "such hobbies as Chinese gourmet cooking, harpsichord making, and indeed, astrology."
Such nonsense isn't new, but it expanded enormously during the 1960s Gold Flow into higher education. New colleges were founded and old colleges changed so that students could do anything they wanted and it was called learning, just as faculty could do anything they wanted and it was called teaching.
"The most important change was the virtual or complete abolition of fixed requirements in many departments and of mandatory distribution requirements, including class attendance and the time, mode, and kinds of credits needed to secure a baccalaureate degree," is how the two sociologists in education sum up what happened.
In due course there were complaints from dissatisfied customers. "I have never read anything by Sigmund Freud or Karl Marx. I know nothing about the history of Africa, the history of Latin America or the history of Asia. I have not come within a quarter mile of a test tube since I took chemistry in my senior year in high school," writes Jonathan Kaufman, who graduated from Yale in June.
In practice there is no waiting line to get into St. John's College, Annapolis, where Mr. Kaufman would not only have been required to learn chemistry, but also to read Plato in Greek. There are no electives at St. John's. There it is supposed that the teachers know more than the students and therefore should prescribe the course of studies.
It's a buyer's market of higher education where there are more places than there are students to fill them. Colleges like St. John's lose out to schools where you can get a B.A. by spending four years in a TM group and graduate summa cum laude by cultivating organic radishes. But even schools with sufficient fame and prestige so as not to have to fish for customers have not been able to save money and improve quality by offering fewer and better courses to bring forth from adolescent flesh the fully rounded educated person promised in so many college brochures.
Harvard and Yale both are cutting back on electives and insisting their students take at least a few classes leading to that much talked-about condition of well-roundedness. It won't be the first time efforts have been made to reserve higher education's adherence to the fragmentation and miscellany of the elective system. But it's not just the student-customers who oppose significant change; the specialized departments and their competition for the some students make any general, core curriculum impossible.