Other Opinions

Kevin J. Ayotte: Hanson misrepresents the state of the American university

In his April 11 column published by The Bee, Victor Davis Hanson charged modern American universities with failing to teach graduates to “read critically or write effectively,” stifling debate about controversial ideas with “politically correctness,” and inadequately training students for the work force.

The caricature provided in the column, however, makes little use of the very facts and critical thinking Hanson calls for, and worse does a profound disservice to the families and students who work very hard to build better lives through a university education.

There is indeed much that could be done better to prepare students for our complex world, but modeling the use of evidence to support arguments rather than relying upon caricatures and sweeping generalizations would be a good place to start.

It is difficult to engage many of Hanson’s assertions, because nowhere does he cite a single fact or statistic or specifically identify a college campus that has abandoned Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Joseph Conrad for teaching aesthetic appreciation and critical thinking in required general education courses, replacing all of the classics with “special studies courses and trendy majors.”

In fact, all of those paragons of Western culture still appear in the model General Education syllabi posted on Fresno State’s website, and I expect in most universities around the country.

What Hanson fails to acknowledge is the additional breadth and appreciation for a whole world of art, literature, and history provided by the inclusion of works that stretch young minds beyond the borders of Europe and the United States.

In our increasingly diverse and globalized world, it is vital that students learn, for example by reading about Han Fei Tzu, that philosophy wasn’t the exclusive domain of the Greeks. Or, by reading Gloria Anzaldúa, that English and Spanish can simultaneously be foreign languages for Latina/o Americans stigmatized by those who believe in pure linguistic identity. Or, by reading bell hooks, along with the classic Mark Twain, that the black vernacular some think of as slang finds its origins in the resistance to oppression performed by slaves as they learned standard English.

Hanson further charges that “political correctness” stifles “edgy speech and raucous expression” by coddling “hypersensitive students” who “are warned about ‘micro-aggressions’ that in the real world would be imperceptible.

“Imperceptible” to Hanson, and many others perhaps, absent being exposed to the fact that certain subtle behaviors are all too real and all too painful reminders of ongoing discrimination.

The click of car door locks as one walks by, a woman clutching her purse more tightly when one gets on an elevator, the family crossing the street to walk on the other sidewalk were likely imperceptible to many Americans until Barack Obama described the experience of so many black Americans; the consequences of the those “micro-aggressions” were not imperceptible to Trayvon Martin.

Hanson’s disdain for subtleties does not make them irrelevant. And no one who saw the recent protests at the University of Oklahoma following a fraternity’s racist chant, the thousands protesting education cuts across the U.S. on March 4, 2010, or the weekly events in Fresno State’s Free Speech Area could call those college students “weepy adolescents.”

Finally, the claim by Hanson that “the unemployment rate of college graduates is at near-record levels” is simply false. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the non-seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for college graduates in March 2015 was 2.4%, virtually identical to the rate in 1995 and half that of 2009 (when unemployment for those without a college degree was two-to-three times higher than for college graduates). As of March, the unemployment rate for graduates with a bachelor’s degree was less than half that of those with only a high school diploma.

Do American universities have room to improve? Most definitely.

But the “failed state” of U.S. universities declared by Hanson will be unrecognizable to the millions of Americans who live the benefits of a college education every day.

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