Saturday, August 22, 2009

College Ratings and the Culture Wars

It is college rating season again. This year the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a conservative education advocacy group that pressures for the "traditional" curriculum, has created a web site rating colleges and universities.

But watch out.

Not only are the criteria and ratings rather tendentious -- so far as I can tell they are often simply inaccurate. When I learned of the project I visited the site and looked up the rating for the university where I teach -- Penn State University.

ACTA gives Penn State a "D," alleging that we do not require English composition as a graduation requirement -- which is not accurate. They give Penn State only one "yes" rating, for requiring foreign languages. But in fact study of a foreign language is required only for the BA degree -- not for the BS degree. In addition, Penn State requires that students take a writing-intensive course in their major. The Penn State undergraduate degree requirements--admittedly they can be somewhat confusing--are here.

Between the political agenda and the apparently sloppy research, the ACTA ratings don't seem to hold up.

Cornell University is rated "F" -- on the allegation, among others, that they do not offer a required composition course taught by the English department. The first year writing program at Cornell is of long standing and has been a considerable success, taught by instructors not only in English Literature but also in Philosophy, History, Art History, and other disciplines. Cornell in fact requires two first-year writing seminars. The Cornell first year writing program is described at the Cornell site for the John S. Knight Institute for Writing in the Disciplines. The Cornell model may not be for everyone, but it is hard to argue that it is casual or irresponsible.

There is also the question of why so many colleges that attract elite students choose to act in ways that earn them an "F" in the ACTA ratings. Perhaps a simple set of required courses is not the golden key to a great college education.

ACTA is not rating undergraduate education but awarding grades based on an arbitrary and tendentious set of criteria -- inaccurately applied.

For a fascinating essay on the history of English studies, do have a look at William Riley Parker, "Where Do English Departments Come From?" Association of Departments of English Bulletin 11 (1967): 8-17. The essay is reprinted in an immensely useful new anthology, The Norton Book of Composition Studies, ed. Susan Miller (New York: W. W. Norton, 2009), 3-16.

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