Choice as a Class Prerogative: A Response to Mark Bauerlein

Sometimes an argument is more interesting for what it assumes than for what it says.

I’ll leave it to those in Stanford’s orbit to say whether Mark Bauerlein’s piece in Inside Higher Ed on Monday accurately characterized the curricular shifts of which he writes. Briefly, he suggests that part of the decline of English major enrollments has to do with a loss of confidence in the canon on behalf of the faculty itself; what was once a greatest hits collection has become a seemingly random collection of fragments, and student interest has waned accordingly. A focus on what he calls “abstract issues (diversity and so on)” has replaced the more heroic narratives that 18-year-olds find compelling. Who can blame them for majoring in business instead?

Folks who knows Stanford better than I do can attest to whether his summary of the story there is accurate. Dismissing diversity as an abstract issue within a parenthetical suggests something much larger, but that’s an essay in itself. Instead, I’ll suggest how that piece reads from the perspective of someone working within the community college world.

First, and most basically, I would look at the emergence of dual enrollment and the explosion of AP and IB courses as possible culprits in eating away at entry-level gen ed requirements. Given how competitive the admissions sweepstakes are for places like Stanford, I’d expect that a supermajority of successful applicants will have taken at least some courses for prior credit and/or placement. In the main, those courses will fall in the general education areas. Students who have received credit for, or placed out of, freshman English will erode enrollments there. To the extent that departments used those intro courses as recruitment tools for majors, I wouldn’t be shocked to see downstream effects emerge over time.

That’s not a bad thing. I’m a fan of rigorous classes in high school, especially when they have the effect of telling students who may not have thought of themselves as “college material” that they can be if they want to be. Besides, the point of gen ed requirements isn’t to recruit students into liberal arts majors; It’s to ensure that everyone, regardless of major, has some background we’d expect of a college graduate. There’s valid and lively debate over the right mix of content and skills, but very little debate about whether English should get first dibs on recruitment over, say, political science. Students who aren’t exposed to freshman English are, instead, exposed to other things; that’s only bad if you assume that the other things are somehow less than. I don’t.

Second, be wary of any article lamenting a decline in liberal arts enrollments that take 1970 as the point of contrast. The few years around 1970 were anomalous; they represented a peak in humanities enrollments far greater than anything before or since. (I’ve seen that peak attributed to the wave of coeducation around that time; whether there’s a causal link or simply coincidental timing, I don’t know.) If you compare current enrollments even to, say, 1980, the decline is much less severe. One could argue that much of it represented regression to the historical mean—1970 was the exception, not the rule. If you take the aberration as the norm, your analysis can’t help but be compromised.

But the major moment of “huh?” came in contrasting the (apparently) wide scope of options available to students at selective places with the aggressive narrowing of options at community colleges. The guided-pathways movement is based on the argument, with some empirical backing, that students get lost among too many options; They’re much more likely to finish something that’s highly prescriptive. Better to finish a prescribed sequence than to drop out of an incoherent one, even if prescription comes at the cost of some choice.

English actually makes a really easy example. In my state, students in an associate of arts program (the typical feeder for four-year liberal arts majors) have to take Composition 1 and 2. No choice is given. We can’t stray far from the desired outcomes of those courses if we want our students to transfer successfully. The interdisciplinary freshman seminars that Bauerlein laments at a place like Stanford are ruled out here because they don’t transfer. Educational choice is becoming a class prerogative: elite schools can offer it, but we can’t.

Even the few students who decide to major in English at this level have a relatively narrow set of options. Again, the major constraint is transfer. Elite schools don’t like to take courses from others that they like to teach themselves.

At some level, of course, one could argue that folks with egalitarian politics who work at elite places should start by pushing for a more inclusive transfer policy where they work. That, by itself, would have a more profound impact on more people than parsing the internecine squabbles of elite English departments.

Choice has its merits and its flaws, but it should not be a class prerogative. That’s the scandal Bauerlein’s piece inadvertently highlights.

Leave a Comment