The American Council of Trustees and Alumni is the love child of Lynne Cheney and Joe Lieberman (although Lieberman no longer wants his name associated with the group). You might call them a conservative activist organization, although their primary goal of depoliticizing college curricula is something that people of all political persuasions can stand behind. They also do some unnecessary conservative stuff, but that’s a post for another day..
As part of their work, ACTA operates a website called What Will They Learn and it attempts to promote a strong core curriculum instead of the watered-down versions so many colleges offer. They list seven rating criteria and evaluate every college in the U.S. on whether they meet these ideals. The listings are free and easy to follow. Colleges that perform well sometimes advertise their success in their student recruitment materials.
In theory, this is a much needed service. In practice, ACTA obviously did not do sufficient research. To make my point, I would like to focus on two of their criteria: Composition and Foreign Language.
Composition: ACTA calls for a “college writing class focusing on grammar, style, clarity, and argument.” At first glance, this is not a problem. However, they’ve completely missed the boat on what English departments consider to be a good “argument.” If the folks at ACTA were to read a basic survey of literary theory, they’d learn that English departments often teach that logic is racist and a “good argument” is one that supports leftist political views. Plenty of English Composition programs assign their students essays that promote Leftist politics, use those essays as examples of effective style, and require students to write papers that mimic the readings’ political bent. And since the literary theory ACTA didn’t read also declares “correct grammar” to be an unjust application of power by the privileged majority, it’s easy to see how that part of the course could be allowed to fall by the wayside… especially if it interferes with students passing the course. Remember: if students don’t pass, they can’t pay the school more tuition dollars in future semesters. The last place I taught at had a composition curriculum like what I describe here; that college gets passing marks from ACTA for composition.
Foreign Language: They define an intermediate level of proficiency as three semesters of study. If I worked in college admissions and wanted ACTA’s seal of approval on my website, I could find an easy way around this. Normally, the textbook Destinos is used for Spanish 101 and 102. But: if my college gets creative, I can lobby to have the Spanish courses meet for 3 hours per week instead of four. That means that we can teach Destinos in Spanish 101, 102, and 201. It’s still the same content but now it’s 3 semesters and acceptable to ACTA. (Or: we can let the courses remain at 4 hours per week and cash in on the extra tuition dollars!) At least one college that receives a perfect score from ACTA uses the first-year textbook in 101, 102, 201, and 202; that school does not deserve recognition for its academics.
Moral of the Story: When looking at colleges, be sure to dig deeper. There’s always something you’re not being told.