Former U.S. Representative Heather Wilson (R-New Mexico) has an op-ed in the Washington Post echoing everything we’ve been hearing recently about how college grads just aren’t critical thinkers with supple, creative minds any more (h/t RealClearPolitics.) Shockingly, she’s making this claim about applicants for the Rhodes Scholarship!
For most of the past 20 years I have served on selection committees for the Rhodes Scholarship. In general, the experience is an annual reminder of the tremendous promise of America’s next generation. We interview the best graduates of U.S. universities for one of the most prestigious honors that can be bestowed on young scholars.
I have, however, become increasingly concerned in recent years – not about the talent of the applicants but about the education American universities are providing. Even from America’s great liberal arts colleges, transcripts reflect an undergraduate specialization that would have been unthinkably narrow just a generation ago.
That’s odd–the whole “make up your own curriculum” fad is one I associate with the hippie-dippie days of the 1970s, and by the mid-1980s most colleges and universities had reinstituted a rigorous core curriculum (if they had ever let it go in the first place.) But, read a little further, and it becomes clear that Wilson’s complaint is political, not intellectual:
As a result, high-achieving students seem less able to grapple with issues that require them to think across disciplines or reflect on difficult questions about what matters and why. . . .
An outstanding biochemistry major wants to be a doctor and supports the president’s health-care bill but doesn’t really know why. A student who started a chapter of Global Zero at his university hasn’t really thought about whether a world in which great powers have divested themselves of nuclear weapons would be more stable or less so, or whether nuclear deterrence can ever be moral. A young service academy cadet who is likely to be serving in a war zone within the year believes there are things worth dying for but doesn’t seem to have thought much about what is worth killing for. A student who wants to study comparative government doesn’t seem to know much about the important features and limitations of America’s Constitution.
If I were the Rhodes Scholarship applicants described above, I would be pretty angry to see myself described as dull, incurious, or uninformed because I didn’t give Heather Wilson the answers she wanted to hear to what sound like political questions. I find it difficult to believe that the young aspiring physician had never thought why she might support health care reform, that the Global Zero founder had never thought about the policy or political implications of his movement’s possible success, that the military academy grad had never thought about “what is worth killing for,” and the comparative politics student was completely unfamiliar with the U.S. Constitution. Note that all of these “intellectual issues” just happen to be dog-whistles for contemporary Republican calumny against Democrats: The Job-Killing Health Reform Bill–now, with Death Panels! Democrats are soft on defense! Democrats don’t support the core mission of our military! Democrats don’t respect the U.S. Constitution!
I’ve always thought that there was a very straightforward reason for why university faculty and other highly educated people tend not to support Republican ideas: the more you know about the world, the dumber they seem. There’s no conspiracy at universities against conservative ideas–indeed, even Marxist Feminists like me teach about very conservative ideas all the time: patriarchy, hierarchy, Thomas Hobbes, the Divine Right of Kings, nineteenth century proslavery ideology, anti-women’s suffrage, anti-unionism, anti-communism, Father Coughlin, the John Birch Society, Impeach Earl Warren bumper stickers, “free market” ideology, and the like. And you know what happens? When students read the primary sources laying out these ideas, they usually see them for what they are: brutally, coarsely self-interested, unfair, and un-American.