Each year, the U.S. News and World Report guide to U.S. schools gives a few days of glamour to academia. PR departments of colleges note with pride that their college is “moving up” in the rankings. What too few parents and prospective college students understand is how distant these rankings are from reality.

The largest single factor in ranking a college at U.S. News is how well it does on surveys completed by the staff at other schools. A full 25 percent of each college’s score comes from a popularity contest.

The next largest criterion is how much each school spends per student. The ability to attract big-name professors would matter much more if they were mostly required to teach — but it’s precisely at big-name schools that tenure is awarded mostly on the basis of academic publishing, not classroom time. In the humanities, this means that an English professor makes his bones by completing this year’s 4,000th essay on Faulkner — probably through some quirky ideological lens, since he has to find something original to say. (The average scholarly book published in the humanities, according to a recent report by Emory Professor Mark Bauerlain, sells a total of 300 copies.) At Stanford University, ranked no. 4 in its category by U.S. News this year, the “discussion sections” where students actually get to discuss the works they’re reading are led almost exclusively by graduate students who do the grading (instead of professors). It’s the same at most elite universities in America; professors get up and lecture, then spend most of their time doing research, far from students.

The higher a teacher at many high-ranked colleges rises — which theoretically means, the better he is — the fewer classes he typically has to teach, to free him up more time for (you guessed it) research. Lighter course loads are the reward for rising in the ranks. This makes academia unlike any other profession; partners at law practices, accounting firms, you name it, typically work harder and longer at the core mission of their business than lower-level employees. It’s only in academia where teaching — the heart of the enterprise — is treated almost as a punishment, or a hurdle one needs to clear. 

Students are given far too much latitude by most leading schools to choose their courses, with little guidance requiring them to take foundational classes in Western history and civilization, classical philosophy, great works of English literature, and even U.S. history. The solid core curricula that lay a common groundwork which every student, regardless of major, had to master, are sadly gone at most colleges. For instance, at Occidental College, President Obama’s alma mater, students can fulfill their “distributional requirements” in humanities with any of approximately 340 courses (1,360 units) in the humanities, social sciences, and fine arts; recent options ranged from  “Cervantes and the Renaissance” and “Early Christian and Medieval Art” to “Critical Race Theory” and “Rastafari, Reggae and the African Diaspora.” A student could easily avoid any classes covering Europe or even the United States. Is that really helpful for graduates, regardless of their cultural origins?

Politicized courses and politicizing professors also proliferate. At UC Berkeley, some choice offerings in recent years have included “Geographies of Race and Gender,” “Transnational Feminisms,” “Identities across Difference,” “Alternate Sexualities in a Transnational World,” and “Queer Visual Culture.” What isn’t political is often trivial. Other courses at the school have included “Italian Cooking,” “Superman as American Mythology,” “The Simpsons and Philosophy,” “Exploring the Realm of Flirting,” “History of Fencing,” and “Profiling Serial Killers in the U.S.”

There are very solid colleges in California that rise above the trendy and the tendentious. Deep Springs College, in Bishop, Ca., is a small, politically progressive academy located near Death Valley. Its tiny (all-male) student body engages in intensive seminars on serious subjects chosen by high-minded, ambitious undergrads — who work the school’s cattle farm in return for free tuition. Caltech in Pasadena offers one of the most solid preparations for future scientists anywhere in the world. Biola University, an Evangelical Christian school in Los Angeles, offers a solid liberal arts preparation, and lively programs in the arts; a recent graduate was Scott Derrickson, who co-wrote and directed the sophisticated 2005 thriller The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula has one of the most rigorous and complete college curricula in America — leading students through the Great Books from the ancient world up through the present. 

The key to finding the right school is to look up what foundational classes it mandates, check its student/faculty ratio (the lower the better), ask a professor how much teaching is relegated to graduate students, and do some digging to make sure that it offers an atmosphere of free, open debate. Given the skyrocketing cost of tuition, you should demand nothing less.

 

John Zmirak, Ph.D., is editor of “Choosing the Right College: The Whole Truth About America’s Top Schools” (ISI Books) and Collegeguide.org.