John Zmirak

Bard College, Annandale on Hudson, NY. (#40): While the school has many pockets of academic excellence, a recent graduate said that at Bard, “politics on campus has a solitary voice. It’s ultraliberal.” By way of illustration: Few at Bard think it strange that the school maintains an endowed chair named for Stalinist spy Alger Hiss. True to the endowment, one past Hiss professor wrote a book that described anticommunism as a psychiatric condition.

U.S. News also declines to offer any guidance about the curricula at given schools. You won't learn from its rankings whether you can graduate from Harvard (#1) without reading Shakespeare (you can) or Columbia (#8) without reading the Federalist Papers (you can't). The fact is that at most “prestige” colleges—with the honorable exceptions of Columbia and U. Chicago (#8)—core curricula were junked in recent decades. Remember Jesse Jackson's Stanford University (#4) chant in the 1980s, “Hey-hey, ho-ho, Western Civ has got to go”? Well, it went. Except at a few select liberal colleges and Great Books schools, core curricula have given way to lame, vague “distributional requirements.” Students can “kill off” their lit requirements with courses on, say, Japanese anime, and even pad their majors with classes steeped in trendy theory, or “victim studies” courses. To illustrate the point, let me offer laurels to the schools with the Three Lamest Curricula in America:

Brown University, Providence, R.I. (#16): This university is famous for imposing no distributional requirements, and permitting students to take (if they wish) all courses pass/fail. While many departments are excellent, the school makes no official effort to keep its students from turning into either narrow specialists or dilettantes.

Amherst College, Amherst, MA (#2): Another school with no distributional requirements. Its “open curriculum,” the college boasts, makes students the “architects” of their own education—instead of, for instance, the well-paid administrators whose job it usually is to guide and shape students' formation. So students can skip math if they're scared of it, opt out of basic writing classes and foreign languages.... Yankees go home.

Hamilton College, Clinton, N.Y. (#21): Hamilton’s once-rigorous curriculum obliged its students, already well schooled in Greek and Latin, to continue their studies in those ancient languages, as well as in mathematics, religion, history, philosophy, and the humanities. Today, the college “urges” and “suggests” certain kinds of courses, but it does not require any in particular. “Experimental education” and “interdisciplinary perspectives” are the lingua franca now. One professor complains that Hamilton’s “curricular freedom” makes it “likely that students will learn more about condoms than the Constitution.”

Students or parents interested in a college that offers genuine intellectual diversity, free expression, and solid curricular guidance ensuring that each student gains the “liberal” (e.g. liberating) education that formed our Founders had better look elsewhere than the beauty contest conducted each year by U.S. News.

John Zmirak

John Zmirak is editor of All American Colleges and Choosing the Right College.

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