All Commentary
Sunday, December 1, 1991

Book Review: The National Review College Guide: Americas 50 Top Liberal Arts Schools edited by Charles Sykes and Brad Miner

A National Review Book, 150 E. 35th Street, New York, NY 10016 • 1991 • 212 pages • $14.95 paper

In this age of “political correctness,” “cultural diversity,” “deconstructionism,” and “gender neutrality,” one might think that it is no longer possible to receive a traditional, well-grounded liberal arts education. And although it is increasingly difficult to find sound liberal arts colleges and universities, Charles Sykes and Brad Miner have proven that it is not, in fact, impossible. Their new book presents the prospective college student, his or her parents, and the high school counselor with a steady rudder for evaluating academic quality.

The editors identify three styles of American higher education. One is the “land-grant” institution, which is based on “technical expertise important to a particular region.” A second is the “German” university, focused on “highly technical research.” The third style, and the editors’ over-arching preference, is the “English” university, as it is “designed to graduate well-rounded scholar-citizens.”

The criteria for evaluating academic excellence used by Sykes and Miner by no means typify the average college guide. Size, percentage of faculty Ph.D.’s, amount of research grants, or the number of published works by faculty members are not to be found among their tools of evaluation. The editors have three primary criteria upon which a college or university is judged:

1. by the quality and availability of the faculty;

      2. by the quality of the curriculum, with special regard for schools with a liberal arts “core” . . . that respects the tradition of the West;

3. by the quality of the intellectual environment: that elusive interaction among students, faculty, administrators, alumni, and townspeople—the entire university community.

As for the faculty, the editors consider “teaching ability above other measures of performance.” This contrasts sharply with the prevailing, though misguided, publish-or-perish mentality in academia today.

Sykes’s and Miner’s criteria, while firmly grounded on the traditional ideal of what a college should be, represent, in today’s environment, the exception rather than the rule. For if they were not the exception, such a book wouldn’t be needed. It is, in fact, a most useful college guide, as its sole focus is on the quality of education.

William F. Buckley Jr., in the book’s introduction, expounds on this idea of a quality education: “And such education, [the editors] are convinced, requires not merely that graduates of an institution emerge technically qualified to handle the machinery of the modern world. They must learn something about what happened in the evolution of the modern world. And they must be exposed to some of the reasons why the bias gradually crystallized in favor of human freedom, and why the freedom of the marketplace is essential to that freedom.” Such thoughts on education are deemed outmoded by many academic institutions, and by some are even considered taboo.

Indeed, the search for truth has been supplanted in many academic settings by relativism, egalitarianism, multi-culturalism, and an over-sensitized environment that excludes debate. Sykes and Miner, on the contrary, in their own words, “have opted as often as possible for schools that have not supplanted education with political indoctrination, have not subverted justice in pursuit of equality—whatever that is.” They explicitly “reject any university that tolerates . . . assaults on academic freedom.”

A few of the editors’ own comments about various colleges and universities are in order to gain a feel for the temperament of this guide (all the institutions chosen by Sykes and Miner are worth consideration; the comments I have selected are merely for illustration):

“Although it is hopelessly out of step to pursue wisdom rather than ‘diversity’ these days, that seems exactly what BU’s [Boston University’s] new pilot core curriculum attempts to do.”

“It is worthwhile to recall that nearly all of the early American colleges and universities began as church-related institutions, reflecting the belief that liberal learning was integrally tied to a recognition of the role of faith in history and culture.”

“It is no exaggeration to say that the history of liberal learning in the twentieth century has largely been the story of higher education’s response to the remarkable core curriculum put into place during the first half century by Columbia College.”

“[Furman’s student volunteer] program not only instills the values of voluntarism, but also provides a first-hand lesson in non-statist approaches to social problems.”

“While the vast majority of schools compromised both their independence and academic integrity by accepting . . . federal controls, Hillsdale fought back in a decade-long struggle that culminated in Hillsdale’s refusal to all federal support . . . . Since then, Hillsdale has gone it alone, building its programs around the traditional principles of freedom, morality, free enterprise, individualism, and independence.”

“There is no mistaking the traditionalism of campus life at [Thomas] Aquinas. Students address one another as Mr. and Miss in the classroom, adhere to a dress code, eschew drugs, and follow a strict moral code.”

The National Review College Guide is unique. It doesn’t adhere to current academic trends but, rather, critically evaluates them in light of a traditional, proven core of knowledge. The fact that Columbia is the only Ivy League school to make this top 50 list is instructive. The Ivies have faltered in recent times. For example, “At Yale,” the editors note, “the denial of a core of knowledge is made explicit.” Sykes and Miner advise these institutions to “return to the basics—to teach undergraduates systematically a core of tested knowledge, and to revive the tradition and discipline so rigorously followed throughout all but a few recent years in their long histories.”

Sykes and Miner issue other caveats pertainingto some of the so-called top institutions in this nation. For example: “Imagine the surprise of students in Duke’s English Department who take a sensible-sounding course in Shakespeare only to discover that the professor teaches King Lear as a critique of sixteenth-century British capitalism.”

In this period of slackening academic standards and gross politicization, this book should be a primary source for those who seek a quality education.

Mr. Keating is New York Director of Citizens for a Sound Economy.

  • Raymond J. Keating is an author and serves as Chief Economist with the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council.