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Dumbing down a college education

There is a famous scene in the classic gross-out comedy ''Animal House" where John Belushi (as Bluto Blutarsky) is urging his Delta fraternity brothers to retaliate against a rival Greek house. After receiving only lukewarm support, Belushi shouts, ''Did the Americans give up after the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?" Everyone looked incredulously at Belushi, but his mistaken oration had the proper effect, the Deltas went out and staged the memorable destruction of the homecoming parade.

Although ''Animal House" was an exaggerated view of fraternity life on a college campus and Belushi was a caricature of the frat bozo -- who with a .08 grade point average, somehow stayed in school -- real life college may now be imitating the Hollywood version.

A recent study by the National Center for Education Statistics found that only 31 percent of college graduates could read a ''complex book and extrapolate from it." Furthermore, the study found that far fewer college graduates are leaving school with ''the skills needed to comprehend routine data, such as reading a table about the relationship between blood pressure and physical activity."

What's most disturbing, according to Mark Schneider, the commissioner of education statistics, is that, ''the assessment is not designed to test your ability to understand Proust, but to test your ability to read labels."

I would be lying to you if I said that I was surprised by the data. My more than 30 years of teaching in higher education at Bridgewater State College and elsewhere, and frequent discussions with colleagues from a wide range of colleges and universities, both public and private, tell me the findings are accurate. That only 31 percent of the college graduates qualified as ''proficient" in reading and understanding information is sad but all too believable.

The United States is recognized as having the world's best system of higher education, but that does not mean that the system is graduating students who are prepared to understand the world or, more importantly, have benefited from the wisdom of the greater thinkers, writers, scientists, and historians while they were occupying space in classrooms.

Behind the dismal data on college graduate literacy is the new reality of higher education in America. Students today have little interest in what past generations of college students accepted as an essential education. Reading the literature of ''dead white guys," studying the relevancy of a 400-year-old historical event, and thinking about the meaning of life's mysteries are not of great interest to a growing number of college students.

Now, it's all about focusing on a career path, studying narrowly about the skills required of that career path, and then crossing the stage on graduation day. The only problem, as the literacy study shows, is that this short-cut route to postgraduate adulthood leaves behind the building blocks of an educated person.

No one really knows when this kind of discount college education got its hold on American youth and why the old-fashioned essentials of liberal arts training went out of vogue. Some point to the Internet as the culprit, where all the answers are at the fingertips of the college student, or the popular culture, where the ideas of Oprah and Tom Cruise's blog musings have the same stature as Plato's ''Republic" or Shakespeare's ''The Merchant of Venice."

What is most disturbing about this college literacy study is that the level of proficiency has declined over time, and the trend shows no signs of abating. It seems that this country is stuck in a kind of ''knowledge black hole" that sucks out of college students the passion to become truly educated men and women.

It may be instructive to remember that at the end of ''Animal House," as victorious John Belushi drives out into the sunset with a dim-witted coed, we find out that Bluto became US senator. Is this what we are headed for in the new age of college -- men and women of power and influence who are semiliterate and who have little interest in the benefits of a broad and serious education?

Michael Kryzanek is professor of political science at Bridgewater State College. He can be reached at

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