Author of anti-St. Mary's screed has a political ax to grind

I was offended but unsurprised by Anne D. Neal's fallacious opinion piece in your paper this past Wednesday ("St. Mary's College: a cautionary tale for America's bloated higher education system," May 29). Offended, because it levels baseless charges at an education which has been invaluable for me and many other successful alumni; unsurprised, because this is exactly the kind of anti-academic rhetoric that liberal arts graduates like me have come to expect from people with little or no knowledge of the curricula that small institutions like St. Mary's College of Maryland have to offer.

Ms. Neal's central point seems to be that the St. Mary's curriculum is somehow to blame for its admissions shortfall. Parents, her piece implies, are growing wise to the supposed questionable value of what she terms the "anything goes" liberal arts curriculum, full of "fun" or "disruptive" classes that teach no marketable skills. She likens St. Mary's to a "bloated wastrel," draining resources from the state while contributing nothing to society in return. Indeed, it would be a compelling argument — if she were able to produce even a single shred of hard evidence that parents were actually thinking along those lines.

As for the "anything goes" curriculum, Ms. Neal's piece seems to take more issue with the names of classes than their actual content. Is a class that analyzes the role of materialism in modern culture likely to encourage critical thinking and build analytical skills? Yes, of course it is. But Ms. Neal argues otherwise, simply because the professor decided to include the word "bling" in his description of the class. Does examining the art a society produces tell us about that society's beliefs? Of course it does, but because the two classes she mentions deal with horror films and protest music, she writes them off as being somehow less serious than other music and arts classes. She asks where literature and composition and American history have gone in our curricula, all the while completely ignoring the fact that composition and writing skills are central features in the first-year seminar program she attacks (they even include writing workshops at the College's Writing Center), and the fact that American art is, indeed, part of American history. In fact, the seminar programs are designed to give students a crash course in the critical thinking and writing skills they will need to succeed in college.

As her trusted source to prove these points, Ms. Neal cites a "D" rating given to the College by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, neglecting to mention that she is the president of said council. We "bloated wastrels" call this line of circular logic "begging the question" — that is, saying to your reader, "This is true, and if you'd like a second source to verify my statements, I also said it was true five minutes ago."

The reality is that St. Mary's College of Maryland routinely makes the US News and World Report's list of the top 100 liberal arts colleges — a list that includes private as well as public institutions — as well as Forbes' annual America's Best Colleges list. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, on the other hand, has allied itself with far-right lobbyists such as David Horowitz (who has previously called for Muslim students in the U.S. to convert to Christianity or Judaism), "blacklisted" college professors with liberal views (many of whom are top scholars in their fields), and attacked academia as a "weak link" in America's response to terrorism. It is, in a word, a political organization. This does not make its intentions bad, or Ms. Neal's opinion irrelevant, but it does mean that it is not an impartial source on the quality of education a college provides.

So, politics aside, what is the cause of the alarming admissions shortfall at SMCM? Well, if Ms. Neal had taken the time to search the news instead of relying on her organization's stock talking points, she might have pinned the recent staff shake up in the college's admissions office and a very public battle with toxic mold in the student housing as likely candidates.

For all the issue I take with her arguments, Ms. Neal and I agree on a number of key points. Rising tuition costs and the struggle for relevance in a competitive and increasingly technical job market are absolutely serious threats to the higher education system that American society counts among its greatest virtues. But rather than laying the blame on innovative professors and creative classes, I would turn my attention to a much more relevant foe: lackluster job placement and employment offices, underfunded and unsupported work-study programs, and the stifling bureaucracy that has been the bane of good academic management since day one.

Most colleges do a great job of educating their students but few give them the start they need as professionals in their fields or in fields where their education is relevant. Having students analyze the meaning behind vintage horror films is not the problem; finding them a job where they can put those same critical thinking skills to use is.

For my part, I doubt that liberal arts graduates from most institutions today can boast that they speak two languages, have turned their humanities degrees into successful careers in the consumer technology industry, or count their professors among their professional connections, but I can say those things about myself as a direct result of my education at St. Mary's. And I am not alone: among my colleagues who spoke out in letters, meetings and social media in reaction to Ms. Neal's piece are financiers, scientists, doctors, authors, political activists and entrepreneurs. I'd say the St. Mary's education is holding up pretty well in the real world.

Oh, and one final note: I had the distinction of participating in one of SMCM's famous first-year seminar classes, in which we studied and composed papers on the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band — alongside Monteverdi's L'Orfeo and Mozart's Requiem In D Minor, complete with their original libretti in Italian and Latin, respectively.

Kyle McGrath, Boston

The writer is a member of the St. Mary's College of Maryland Class of 2011.

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