Please forgive me for bragging about the academic prowess of my students. This is something I wrote about the findings of our assessment efforts at Patrick Henry College, where I am the Provost and a Literature Professor:
A new book and a spate of news reports are presenting evidence that America’s college students, on the whole, are not learning very much. They score poorly in critical thinking, writing, and other academic skills. Most college students score abysmally low in “civic literacy,” the basic knowledge of America’s heritage of freedom and self-government. Though they might pick up some very narrow specialized knowledge in their majors, they find it difficult to think outside of their professional boxes and make real-world connections.
These things cannot be said, however, of Patrick Henry College students. Assessment data keeps pouring in that shows PHC students outperforming their peers in every category tested.
On the ETS Proficiency Profile, a recognized and widely-used standardized test of academic proficiency in higher education, Patrick Henry College students posted the highest average scores of all institutions that took the test. Those 261 schools taking the test included liberal arts colleges and large research, doctoral-granting universities. Among those taking that test, PHC’s academic performance is #1.
In their much-discussed new book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, educational scholars Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa express special concern for the low scores college students at large register in critical thinking and writing, asmeasured by similar tests.
PHC students, however, posted the highest average scores (a number drawn from all students, not just a few high performers) of all institutions that took the ETS test in critical thinking. Also in writing. Also in reading. And in humanities. And in Social Sciences. And in Mathematics. And in Natural Sciences. PHC students were number one not only in the total score, but in every category tested.
But some might say all of this book learning is obsolete. We are in the information age. What students most need today is to adapt to technology.
Well, one does not have to agree with that to appreciate that PHC students have also ranked #1 in informational literacy also! PHC students took the Standardized Assessment of Information Literacy Skills test developed by Kent State, and, again, their average score was higher than that of students from all other institutions that took the test.
Does this mean that PHC is the best college academically in the nation? We can’t say that. Not all colleges and universities take part in these standardized tests. The elite Ivy League colleges, having nothing to prove, do not subject their students to all of this testing. Some colleges might be afraid of what the tests might show about their academic quality. PHC, though, does have something to prove — that a solidly Christian college with conservative principles can be an academic powerhouse — and the data that has been collected is proving it.
What is the secret to PHC’s academic success?
One answer is suggested by another problem in higher education that is receiving attention. In an op-ed piece for the Washington Post entitled “Our Stunted Scholars,” Heather Wilson, who interviews applicants for the Rhodes Scholarship, sees something lacking in even our best students. “I have,” she writes,” become increasingly concerned in recent years — not about the talent of the applicants but about the education American universities are providing.”
Even from America’s great liberal arts colleges, transcripts reflect an undergraduate specialization that would have been unthinkably narrow just a generation ago. As a result, high-achieving students seem less able to grapple with issues that require them to think across disciplines or reflect on difficult questions about what matters and why. . . . Our great universities seem to have redefined what it means to be an exceptional student. They are producing top students who have given very little thought to matters beyond their impressive grasp of an intense area of study. This narrowing has resulted in a curiously unprepared and superficial pre-professionalism.
Part of the problem is that most colleges and universities have given up on a liberal arts education. Instead of giving students a solid foundation in a wide range of interconnected academic disciplines, which build up knowledge and mental skills that they can then draw on in their majors, most colleges send their students right into a narrow specialty. The classic, integrated, core curriculum has been reduced to a handful of “general education” requirements that can be satisfied by students picking and choosing from a list of specialized and unconnected courses.
Patrick Henry College students, on the other hand, benefit from a broad and rich core curriculum of 63 credits, plus foreign language proficiency. This “common core” means that every single student takes all of the courses, so that they all receive the same carefully-constructed educational foundation. All PHC students study the great books of our civilization. They take courses in logic and rhetoric, and they practice deep thinking and effective writing in all of their classes. They take not one, but four, history courses. They all study Constitutional Law. They take two “Freedom’s Foundation” courses, in which they study the ideas that formed this country, from Plato’s Republic to The Federalist Papers.
PHC students see how all knowledge is interconnected. What they are reading in their literature classes is illuminated by what they are reading in their theology classes. The beautiful sounds they are enjoying in their music class are understood on another level when they study waves and harmonics in physics.
The core builds up students’ mental muscles for when they do specialize. PHC offers majors in journalism, history, literature, the classical liberal arts, and government. Students may specialize within the majors in tracks like American Politics & Policy, International Politics & Policy, Political Theory, and Strategic Intelligence.
Another feature of PHC’s unique educational program is our apprenticeship requirement. Students put what they have learned into practice in congressional offices, think tanks, businesses, local schools, the media, and other “real world” settings. Internship directors love to have PHC students. We keep hearing, “Your students can really write well!” “They can really think and analyze!” “They are so articulate, and they present themselves so well!” Implicitly, these internship directors are comparing our students’ work against that of typical college students!
A key factor in PHC’s academic quality, in addition to its traditional, yet innovative curriculum, is its faculty. Every professor is at once a devoted Christian, a world-class scholar, and an engaging classroom teacher.
Above all is PHC’s commitment to Christian truth. In Christ “all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). In the postmodernist academic scene, truth is relative, morality is subjective, and nothing has objective meaning. No wonder the academy is having trouble teaching anything of value. But PHC has laid a full foundation for education. And while the typical college culture is one of frat-house partying and promiscuous hook-ups, PHC students comprise a counterculture that grows out of a love of learning, moral integrity, and authentic Christian community.
The testing reveals something else about PHC’s success. PHC’s students, over 80% of whom are home-schooled, are exceptionally well-prepared. The college has been administering the ETS Proficiency Profile for three years to both graduating seniors and to incoming freshmen. In a tribute to their parents, who in one way or the other supervised their education, PHC incoming freshmen, when compared to first-year students at other institutions that took the test, also were #1 in all categories!