The Spellings Commission, Ten Years Later

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“We have a responsibility to make sure our higher education system continues to meet our nation’s needs for an educated and competitive workforce for the 21st century.”—Margaret Spellings, Secretary of Education.

In this excerpt from the late 2005 announcement of Secretary Spellings’ appointment of a commission to study and make recommendations on the future of American higher education, I have emphasized “educated” because, while we were and remain appropriately concerned with our nation’s competitive strength, its research and technological leadership, and providing its succeeding generations with the tools to excel in a globalized environment, we should also be concerned with the education of our youth, properly understood.

I have noted many times G. K. Chesterton’s understanding of education: “Properly speaking, there is no such thing as education. Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another. Whatever the soul is like, it will have to be passed on somehow, consciously or unconsciously, and that transition may be called education.”

Continuing in this context, when we contemplate the mission of higher education, I am attracted to the statement adopted some years ago by Students for Academic Freedom: “The central purposes of a university are the pursuit of truth, the discovery of new knowledge through scholarship and research, the study and reasoned criticism of intellectual and cultural traditions, the teaching and general development of students to help them become creative individuals and productive citizens of a pluralistic democracy, and the transmission of knowledge and learning to a society at large.

Free inquiry and free speech within the academic community are indispensable to the achievement of these goals. The freedom to teach and to learn depends upon the creation of appropriate conditions and opportunities on the campus as a whole as well as in the classrooms and lecture halls. These purposes reflect the values—pluralism, diversity, opportunity, critical intelligence, openness and fairness—that are the cornerstones of American society.”

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, in its 1998 booklet, “What Every Educated Person Should Know”, reminds us that the foregoing principles underscore the belief that a shared understanding—a shared knowledge—helps unify and advance civilization. Indeed, the American system of self-government is uniquely premised on the need for a citizenry so educated in order to sustain it.

Regrettably, over the past several decades, there has been a breakdown in this commitment to a shared common core of learning and understanding—of our culture, our ideas, our ideals, our history—in short, of the foundations of our civilization and how we can sustain them.

In the spirit of hopeful revival of this commitment, in an essay published in my publication, The Texas Pilgrim, upon the appointment of the Spellings Commission, I suggested the following questions and the issues raised by them for serious consideration by the commission:

How should academic freedom be defined, and how has the concept evolved over the past century, particularly as to its intersection with intellectual diversity and free speech, properly understood? Has this evolution been beneficial?

What should be the future of academic tenure?

In the wake of the Gratz and Grutter Supreme Court decisions on affirmative action at the University of Michigan, absent legislative or judicial correctives, what should be the future of race-neutral admissions, enrollment diversity, and minority access to highly selective public institutions?

What has been the value of the trend toward the “elective system”, and should we return to a universal core curriculum grounded in the Western intellectual tradition?

What should be the obligation of higher education for the standards and accountability of elementary and secondary education to produce college readiness?

How can we establish a system of K-12 teacher education and preparation in our public universities that will produce a sufficient quantity of highly qualified teachers necessary to revitalize elementary and secondary education?

Considering the significant criticisms in the 2001 Knight Commission Report on Intercollegiate Athletics and its predecessor ten years earlier, what should be the proper relationship of major college sports with the mission of the NCAA Division I universities?

What are the major drivers of the accelerating costs of higher education, and what can be done to mitigate them and slow the growth?

How should the cost of publicly supported higher education be allocated among its primary constituents—students, the public sector, and the private sector?

Secretary Spellings selected an outstanding group of scholars and education policy veterans for the commission and they did very commendable work, but, needless to say, the subject matter remains at least as urgent now as it was then. In all humility, these questions seem to me to be just as valid and timely for the future direction of this institution that is so critical to the continuing success of the American experiment.

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