Clear Evidence Of Declining Academic Standards

In classics, two major changes were made. The “classics” track, which required an intermediate proficiency in Greek or Latin to enter the concentration, was eliminated, as was the requirement for students to take Greek or Latin. Students still are encouraged to take either language if it is relevant to their interests in the department. The breadth of offerings remains the same, said Josh Billings, director of undergraduate studies and professor of classics. The changes ultimately give students more opportunities to major in classics. —”Curriculum Changed Add Flexibility, Race, and Identity Track,” Princeton Alumni Weekly

A New Dark Age?

The one thing that most people with undergraduate degrees think they know is that the Middle Ages was a “dark ages.” That story is, at best, only partially true. The Middle Ages describes a period of about 1,000 years during which some remarkable intellectual and academic achievements were made. My students can testify, however, that, for some years, I have been making jokes about a coming dark age. There is some evidence that it may now be upon us.

Ten years ago a report was published that documented the decline in the number of hours “college students” (the report does not distinguish between undergraduate and graduate students) spend studying since 1961. A decade ago, scholars were lamenting the decline in “critical thinking skills” and a “lack of rigor” in university programs. If you ask professors, they will tell you that trend has continued. A report from 2017, says, “Employers complain that many graduates they hire are deficient in basic skills such as writing, problem solving and critical thinking that college leaders and their faculties consistently rank among the most important goals of an undergraduate education.” This report notes a sharp difference between the way college seniors perceive their ability and the way they score on tests:

The vast difference between how well seniors think they can perform and their actual proficiencies (according to tests of basic skills and employer evaluations) suggests that many colleges are failing to give students an adequate account of their progress. Grade inflation may also contribute to excessive confidence, suggesting a need to work to restore appropriate standards, although that alone is unlikely to solve the problem. Better feedback on student papers and exams will be even more important in order to give undergraduates a more accurate sense of how much progress they’ve made and what more they need to accomplish before they graduate.

Again, those who teach undergraduates, graduate students, and those who employ them will tell you that their experience and anecdotal evidence confirms this discrepancy. The 2017 suggests that “better feedback” will help to “restore appropriate standards” but all the incentives are pushing in the opposite direction. The baby boom is long over. Universities are over-built and heavily dependent upon mom and dad to write hefty tuition checks. Students have become clients who are being told that they are the best and the brightest, whose GPA reflects that narrative, and who are being asked to learn less every year.

One of the persistent myths of American education is that there are still elite schools where standards remain, where the best and the brightest really are still doing the hard work of gaining an excellent undergraduate education and that this is partly out of a sense of obligation (noblesse oblige), and partly out of tradition. The “Ivy League” schools are supposed to be holding the line by maintaining standards.

To be sure, there are still schools where standards are upheld. I think of schools like Hillsdale College, Grove City College, and St John’s College. My experience is that students coming from these schools and others like them, are upholding standards but as a teacher of graduate students, who sees the results of the declining rigor in undergraduate programs, they are relatively few. The trend in undergraduate education is not toward higher standards. The establishment of the Department of Education in 1980, with its layers of educational bureaucracy, has not helped the cause of education. It has created a huge layer of bureaucracy in colleges and universities, which is tasked with quantifying educational processes and outcomes. Bureaucrats cannot judge a well-written paragraph or a well-argued essay but they (or their computers) can count and that is what they do.

That Princeton University, one of our nation’s elite schools, is dropping the requirement that classics majors learn Greek and Latin is part of a much bigger story. It illustrates concretely the decline in standards and rate of degree inflation. Monetary inflation (have you been to the store lately?) describes what happens when a unit of currency is devalued. When that happens currency loses its purchasing power. In 1961, the reported starting salary for someone with a bachelor’s degree was about $6,000. In 2015 it was about $50,000. When huge numbers of dollars are pumped into the economy the existing dollars can lose their purchasing power. The same thing happens with grades and degrees. When top marks (in most American schools that is an A) are handed out for poorer performance, that mark loses its value. When a classics degree that formerly required students to learn classical languages no longer does, the degree becomes inflated. It is worth less than the earlier degree.

The effect of lower academic standards, grade inflation, and degree inflation is that the students who emerge from such a system are not as well prepared to think, function, work, and lead as they were.

What Should Parents And Students Do?

Find a school that still has high standards. It has been exceeding difficult during Covid to maintain high standards. School libraries have been closed, students have been dispersed across the globe, and distance education, however tempting, has been found wanting. As we emerge from the pandemic, parents and students should look for schools who are maintaining standards. How can students and parents judge whether a school is maintaining standards? One way is to look at what schools report to their accrediting agencies. Virtually all schools must report to a regional accrediting body. On the West Coast we report to the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC).  Find out to which regional accrediting agency your school reports and take a look at their report.

An even better measure, however, is actual outcomes. Many schools must collect a senior portfolio and submit them to the regional accrediting agency. Ask to see random samples of student work. What do employers say about the graduates from this school? What do graduate schools say about their graduates? Are they able to get into and finish good graduate programs? As a teacher in a graduate school I have a good sense of which schools are likely to send us well prepared students.

Perhaps most importantly parents and prospective students should ask whether students are being required to learn things of substance or whether a school is following the latest fad. Princeton is announcing to the world what they are doing: granting degrees in classics to students who no longer have to learn the most basic thing about the classic world: the languages. A little more than a century ago, in many undergraduate schools, it was expected that all students would learn Latin. 70 years ago, American public high schools in big cities and in small, rural towns required students to learn Latin. Until 1920, Oxford University required incoming students to know Greek and Latin was required for as a condition of entrance until 1960. The assumption of the Westminster Seminary curriculum in 1929 was that incoming students would know Greek and possibly Hebrew. Today, of course, liberal arts undergraduates are not required to learn Latin and classics departments are often in state of suspense as to whether their funding will be continued next year. In that light, Princeton’s move, however distressing, is part of a longer, larger trend away from what used to be regarded as basic educational standards.


Allowing students to take a classics degree without learning the classical languages is the equivalent of allowing a student to take a degree in engineering without learning math. Would any reputable engineering firm hire an engineer who never learned calculus? We had all better hope not, since we all drive on bridges designed by engineers, who, we trust, have done that hard work. Why should we regard as a legitimate student of the classics a graduate who cannot conjugate amo and who, quite possibly, does not know what it means to decline a noun? Our safety as a society depends upon engineers who can compute and our future as a culture depends upon those who can help us interpret our past.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

Thanks to M. J. Denning for his editorial help.


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  1. A lot of k-12 schools are the reason for declining standards. Back to basics is being replaced by the elusive idea of authentic learning. Knowledge rich curriculums are lambasted and discarded in favor of vague, generalized ‘critical thinking skills.’ Sounds great until you realize you can’t actually think critically about something if you know nothing about it. Apparently, when France adopted this style of curriculum a couple of generations ago test scores tanked. E.D. Hirsch (of Core Knowledge fame) and Greg Ashman are my go to guys on pedagogy. But, as usual,the truth is unpopular.

  2. In 1990 author James Atlas’ “Book Wars: What it Takes to be Educated in America,” was published in conjunction with The Larger Agenda Series (William Rukeyser) with the heavy financial support of FedEx. It was re-published in 1993 as “The Battle of the Books: The Curriculum Debate in America” by W.W. Norton. In this relatively short volume Atlas covers those advocating the continuation of the traditional literary Canon, i.e., the classics, Allan Bloom, et. al. versus the “new canonists” such as Frank Lentricchia, Stanley Fish at Duke.

    The former group makes the case that, if the Classics (which include the Classical languages) are minimized or even eliminated altogether from liberal arts curricula, the culture at large will suffer from a decline in critical thinking and cultural literacy. The latter rebut that all of those “classics” were written by white males (sound familiar?) and are not relevant to various minority groups and their experiences as an oppressed entities. Their list includes various works focusing on the militant neologisms common in today’s discussions among the youngest generations: Eurocentrism, phallocentrism, logophallocentrism, and the like.

    Says Altas,
    “If we as a society can’t agree that there is a body of knowledge to be mastered, much less what that body is, our very continuance as a literate culture will be in doubt. And that threat exists on all levels, from elementary schools in the slums to graduate seminars in the Ivy League. Saving our schools isn’t just a matter of improving test scores or teaching children ago read. There has to be a vision of what it is we with them to know.”

    And that was written in 1990, over 30 years ago. Consider the extent to which it has been realized since then.

  3. One point that should not be lost here, this kind of dumbing down effectively reduces the value of the product – in this case an educated adult. This is a great opportunity for smaller colleges, Christian Colleges, and alternative schools. Now that the large heavily endowed competitors are degrading their product, other smaller competitors have a chance to build market share. A small engineering school that is solid and hard core will quickly find its graduates in demand. While I don’t know what a classics grad can do, it would seem that plucky law schools would be far more interested in an old-school classically trained (Latin) undergraduate applicant than one from a prestigious but vacuous program. So bring on the idiocy I say, let them destroy themselves. Homeschoolers rejoice, small colleges take note and don’t follow their example. The next move will likely be in the area of accreditation. Now that the ‘bigs’ are poisoning themselves, their accreditation monopolies will also loose their power. Hopefully, the small schools won’t follow the big school lead. God’s Judgement is tough to watch play out, but it is followed by revivals. So rejoice.

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