VISION & VALUES: Higher Education and the Burger King Society

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. John H. Moore, president of Grove City College, delivered the following speech to The Discussion Club in St. Louis, Missouri, in March 2000.

At a recent national meeting of college presidents, the keynoter, Sally Helgesen, spoke about the challenges facing higher education, and in particular, small, independent colleges, in the coming years. One of her points caught my ear – the need to customize our offerings, to enable our students to choose their programs, to pick whatever set of courses they want, almost at will. The reason for this, she said, is that the generation of students that is approaching college (if it’s not there already) is one that has always been able to get exactly what it wants – from hamburgers to stereo systems to cars. They are used to “having it their way,” to use the Burger King slogan. And they expect the same in their college careers, she said.

There is an element of truth here that we should heed. We in higher education cannot simply ignore the wishes of students, who are, after all, our customers. We have to be attuned to the market and know what students and their parents want from a college. So I can’t reject what our keynoter said out of hand. But thinking about this led me to realize that customization – the implications of the Burger King philosophy in a broader context – leads down a hazardous path, one with dangers for our society that should be recognized. And that is what I would like to talk about.

Problems and Challenges
Before we consider Ms. Helgesen’s assertion, it would do us well to discuss a few of the many problems faced by colleges and universities. The first is rising educational costs. A couple of years ago, there was so much concern about the increasing costs of higher education that a national commission was appointed to look into the issue. It concluded that the matter was somewhat exaggerated, but nevertheless deserved continuing attention. Experience since then suggests that rising costs have been taken seriously and action taken to control them. It’s a never-ending battle, though – our costs at Grove City College are very low (tuition about half the national average), but we must work hard to keep them under control.

Another concern for many institutions is students who are poorly prepared for college. Remedial courses are common, taking time from truly college-level work and costing resources. All of us face multiple demands and expectations that may pull the institution in different directions. Some colleges find themselves lost in the midst of these conflicting pressures, losing their sense of mission and – with it – their cohesiveness.

Moreover, every college and university faces competition for students, for faculty, and, for those in the business of research, for grants and contracts. But now the traditional institutions as a group are running into new forms of competition – from the proprietary sector over the internet. The very survival of some institutions is at stake as a result.

That brings us to the challenges of new technology. Just about every institution is plunging into using new technology to deliver courses, even on their own campuses. Many institutions are providing computers to their students or requiring them to bring them when they come. High-speed campus networks are common. And if you don’t have a web page, you’re in the Dark Ages. All of this is costly. Administrative computing systems may ultimately save money, but that’s not evident yet, and everything else adds to costs. Why, then, is everybody rushing to the new technology? Sometimes it seems that the reason is that it is there, a kind of Mount Everest syndrome at work. Of course, there’s more to it than that, but the problems it raises are nonetheless real.

As if that’s not enough, there is the matter of what is being taught in our colleges and universities: all of the fads, the political correctness, the problems of maintaining quality, the need for remedial courses in many institutions, and so on. But that is the subject of another – and probably longer – talk.

There’s also the routine stuff of college life -like food. I’m sure there’s not a president in the country who isn’t forced to hear student complaints about the food, no matter how extensive the efforts to provide good food for large groups of hungry young people. I take comfort in knowing that these matters are not new. In the earliest days of Harvard, for example, the president’s wife was accused of serving mackerel “with guts in them.” President William R. Blackburn of the University of North Dakota once complained to the state board of regents that one of his faculty would not wait to start eating until he had finished the blessing. She retorted that the food was no better after the blessing than before and therefore saw no need to wait. In the end, the board fired them both. And in 1822 a Harvard student recorded in his diary, “Goose for dinner, said to have migrated to this country with our ancestors.”

The Burger King Argument
The need to customize services and degree programs, which I mentioned earlier, isn’t at the top of the list of problems we face. But it does point to an important issue for our society. First, the main point of Ms. Helgesen’s argument was the insistence that colleges and universities will be forced to develop individualized programs for every student. The reason for this is that students have been brought up to believe that they can have everything their way. My title refers to hamburgers, of course, but the point runs much deeper than that. Hollywood conveys the message that anything goes, that people are entitled to behave as they wish, to have what they want, to live however they please. The explosion of television channels on cable and satellite presents an unprecedented range of choice for viewers; they can find just about any kind of viewing fare they want. And the internet itself, of course, with its millions of web sites, opens untold opportunities to satisfy the most individualized tastes and interests. Our marvelous market economy produces a truly amazing variety of goods and services, surely a good thing, but one that reinforces the idea that every individual’s tastes and desires can – and perhaps should – be satisfied. The only limit is economic, and even that begins to fade on the internet.

Most of this is positive. I would be the last to say that our market cornucopia should in any way be reined in. And the technological change that is revolutionizing our way of life conveys powerful benefits to us all, even if it does have a dark side, benefits that are only beginning to be seen. With many others, I believe that we are at the cusp of a turning point in history, a new age. And I am loath to be critical. And yet. The keynoter insisted that we must customize, we must allow students to construct their own programs, design their own curricula, decide in detail what to study and, perhaps, how to study it. Why does this concern me? First we need to examine a bit of history, because in a way we may be about to repeat it.

American Colleges – The Past
The earliest colleges in America had uniform – indeed, rigid – curricula. Learning was in the traditional classical mode. There were no electives; every student took the same set of courses. The purposes were to train civic leaders and educated clergymen, and the prevailing view was that there was one and only one way to do that. This lasted for considerably more than a century. But in the first part of the 19th century, demand for more practical education led to gradual change in college curricula. Practical subjects were added, and colleges began to allow students to take electives. The once-rigid curriculum was broken down. This trend accelerated after the Civil War, especially with the development of the land grant colleges following the passage of the Morrill Act in 1862. But the electives movement got out of hand with a wild proliferation of courses (sounds a bit like customization). By the end of the century, curricula had lost their coherence and the wide availability of electives had resulted in over-specialization.

And so there was a reaction in the 20th century. Two lines of reform were followed. First was the concept of the major with additional distribution requirements. The idea was that the distribution requirements would satisfy the need for breadth in the program, while the major would create depth of learning in at least one subject. Distribution requirements usually insist that a student take a certain number of courses from a variety of disciplines. For example, at Grove City College, no matter what his or her major, a student must take eight semester hours of laboratory science. The second was the idea of the general education requirement, which was intended to provide every student with something like the foundation in liberal learning that had once been at the heart of the classical curriculum. Again as an example, all students at our college must take a series of six humanities courses which introduce them to the seminal ideas of Western Civilization. Both of these reforms, distribution requirements and general education requirements, have survived in various forms to the present.

There was an additional hiccup, recent enough that I lived through it myself. Many of you will recall the student unrest at the time of the Vietnam War and the pressures to revise college curricula that came with that. One main thrust was to eliminate or greatly reduce the number of required courses, to allow the students much more latitude in planning their programs. This harks back, of course, to the electives movement of the 19th century and it had some of the same results – incoherence in the curriculum, over-specialization, poorly educated students as far as liberal learning was concerned. Since then, there has been some reaction to what came to be known as the “cafeteria approach” to higher education, with the emergence of core curricula and the like. Now, however, we are told that the pendulum is swinging back again, toward fewer requirements and more choice.

Outlook for the Future
Dealing with these demands will be a problem for us all. But even though this looks like more of the same, of history repeating itself, there is, I think, something different this time around. The pressure for customization is coming not from a demand for more practical education, as it did in the 19th century, although there are steady pressures for vocationalism in our colleges and universities. Even the programs of that period of the development of electives had some coherence. Customization did not extend to the individual student; the electives were designed to meet some reasonably well-defined and well-recognized need. Nor does the demand emanate from the rejection of authority by students strongly opposed to an unpopular war, as it did in the 1960s. Now, it seems to me, the pressure for customization is rooted in changing social mores and the personal experiences of our young people.

That is one difference. The other difference is that the kind of customization that the keynoter had in mind is more feasible now due to the technological advances of the last decade. Certainly it is far easier now to share resources among institutions, to permit students to take courses that are produced at other colleges, even to put together courses that they themselves design. And this is happening. In many instances, it is developing not because of the demand for customization, but simply to take advantage of economies that can be had by collaboration. The teaching of foreign languages with small demand by internet is one example. The sharing of costly scientific instrumentation, using remote access, is another opportunity. And this will undoubtedly grow.

Furthermore, it is virtually certain that schools will, in fact, cater to the demands of the Burger King generation. They will have little choice in the matter if they wish to compete, to survive. Even so, the extent of individualized study will always be limited by cost. It has been in the past, and what we see today reflects in part the reductions in costs that have occurred as the result of the technological revolution.

So the future of higher education will be shaped in part by these two factors – the lower costs of personalized instructional programs and the growing demand for them. Cost reductions due to technological change appear to be inevitable and generally desirable. It is the changes on the demand side – or, more accurately, what those changes reflect about American society and its future – that are of deeper concern.

Here I make reference to a new study of the history of the 20th century by a former colleague of mine at the Hoover Institution, the esteemed historian, Robert Conquest. The book is called Reflections on a Ravaged Century, and it’s well worth reading. In it, Conquest looks back on the bloody century just concluded and attempts to understand the root causes of its catastrophes – the two world wars, fascism, communism. What does he find? For Conquest, it is fanatical dedication to an idea, an ideology whose adherents brook no dissension, that is at the root of the world’s suffering during the century.

If intolerant, fanatical dedication to a single idea has been the cause of these sufferings, the flip side is that a democratic and free society must be tolerant and pluralist – but that pluralism must rest on a solid consensus. Conquest argues that such consensus preceded British democracy and that it could not have been otherwise. The same was true for America – consensus on the nature of the society existed before the Constitution, indeed before the Revolution. The Federalist Papers can be seen as an effort to strengthen that consensus by persuading people who had differing economic interests to support the Union. If there is no consensus, democracy is hollow; it may be no more than the dominance of a majority group over the minority, one set of interests in power by election rather than by other means.

We have been able to maintain a consensus regarding the central values of our society for more than two centuries. If the consensus were to break down, the basis for a democracy in which the rights of minorities are protected against the tyranny of the majority could be lost. What is this consensus? What is its basis?

The Freedom Consensus
This is not the time for political philosophy and I am not a philosopher. But I think we would all agree that our nation is built on the ideals of freedom. Surely it is dedication to those ideals that led our forefathers to come to this land, that was responsible for the War of Independence, that was at the heart of the Constitution, that has been the central principle governing our political life ever since. And, in a sense, the Burger King society reflects an element of this notion: that we are free to do what we want, as long as what we do doesn’t interfere with the freedoms of others.

But there is something more to be said. Our ideas about freedom are – and were at the Founding – rooted in something deeper. At base, they are rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition and its central values. It is in that tradition that the value of the individual human being is most strongly expressed, that the relationship between the person and the Creator is understood, that the basis for thinking that every individual is important is laid down. Without that, there is no basis for arguing that individual freedom matters.

For that reason, it is crucial that the consensus about the great tradition that is at the heart of our freedom be maintained. Until fairly recently, the elements of the tradition could be taught in the schools. The values connected with the Judeo-Christian tradition, if not the religious practices themselves, were emphasized – the characteristics associated with the Ten Commandments, with Jesus’ ministry and teachings. But few of our public schools can deal with these topics any longer, as we all know.

Nor are these things popular in higher education. Quite the contrary. Much of higher education seems dedicated to destroying these ideas, to convincing students that all values are relative, that none stands ahead of others, that it’s all a matter of choice, which is, perhaps, the most malevolent manifestation of the Burger King society.

For obvious reasons, state-sponsored colleges and universities – even if they have the will to try – are hardly able to do anything to change this. Private institutions are better positioned, if they have the will. However, there is a potential problem here – and that is federal support of these institutions. For with federal support comes federal regulation. Under Title IV of the Higher Education Act, the title that governs student financial aid, the Department of Education might seek to regulate the content of what is taught at colleges that receive federal support, even indirectly. And certainly the First Amendment opens the possibility that teaching related to matters of religion might be regulated or suppressed.

To my knowledge, this has not happened as yet. But the possibility that the federal government might interfere with how the College was operated led my predecessors at Grove City College to decide to refuse federal support. In 1984, we withdrew from the Pell Grant program. In 1996, after my arrival, we were threatened with additional regulation because some students financed their educations with federally guaranteed student loans. We therefore withdrew from that program. Now we have absolutely no financial support, direct or indirect, from the federal government. We don’t avoid all federal regulation, but we do avoid all that which emanates from the Department of Education.

So we, at least, are free to teach what we wish in the Judeo-Christian tradition. And we do that. All of our students, regardless of major, take a six- course sequence that views the great writers, philosophers, artists, historical developments and other elements of the liberal education through that lens. We are a Christian institution, and what is taught in the classrooms is reinforced in extra-curricular activities, in student life and in all the elements of the experience at the College. Our students leave Grove City with a solid understanding not only of freedom itself but also of its fundamental sources and rationale.

But we are only one college, and a small one at that. Ideas are more powerful than numbers, and a few individuals can have a disproportionate impact on history, so even a small institution can take heart. Still the problem we face is daunting. The solid ground on which our freedoms are based is eroding. How can that erosion be stopped, reversed? This, I think, is the great challenge for us all in this new century. Somehow we must move from “have it your way” to “have it our way,” with a revived and vital national consensus on what our way is and what its foundations are.

At Grove City College we remain steadfast in our commitment to our mission – to provide an excellent education in a thoroughly Christian environment at an affordable cost. We have adhered to this mission for more than a century and we guard our independence zealously to insure that we will be able to continue to do so. The roots of our mission lie in the American tradition that I have tried to describe. Continued commitment to that mission is our contribution to stemming the erosion.