08/20/2012 12:22 pm ET Updated Oct 20, 2012

Algebra, Zakaria and Lady Gaga

As the Class of 2016 arrives on campus, my thoughts turn to algebra, Zakaria, and Lady Gaga -- shorthand for critical issues facing higher education today: What should our students learn? Will they learn enough about ethics? Who decides?

Algebra: What should our students learn?

On July 28, 2012, Dr. Andrew Hacker, an emeritus political science professor at Queens College in New York, provoked a heated academic debate by asking the simple question: Is Algebra Necessary? The New York Times article offered a devastating indictment of algebra as responsible for everything from unacceptable high school dropout rates to high admissions barriers at prestigious colleges to the pervasive American aversion to mathematics. "Why do we subject American students to this ordeal?" mused Professor Hacker.

Why, indeed? I asked my faculty colleagues for their thoughts; their answers were quick and cutting:

When and why is it acceptable in our society to say we're no good at math? We'd be embarrassed to declare that we're no good at reading, yet it's quite acceptable in our society to say that we can't do math! In today's information age, mathematics is needed more than ever... (Math Specialist Mr. Joseph Sheridan)

Questioning algebra's necessity evades the real questions... why are millions of students struggling?... many teachers of mathematics are inexperienced, afraid of mathematics, not qualified to teach mathematics... (Math Specialist Dr. Farhaana Nyamekye)

The question asked about algebra can well be asked of every subject. Is history necessary? Who uses history in life? Is English composition necessary? Of what use is it in a technical job?" (Professor of Mathematics Dr. Sita Ramamurti)

Heck, even those of us who still get sweaty palms at the memory of chalkboards full of indecipherable letters and symbols know that everyone must learn algebra as the basis for the math tasks that are essential to professional and civic life today. Without algebra, how would we be able to compare our personal effective tax rates to those of major presidential candidates? Or compare the relative merits of competing Medicare proposals? Or figure out how to refinance a mortgage? Or debate the Strasburg innings-pitched controversy? Or understand why Ohio and Florida are more important than a majority of national votes? Well, OK, algebra doesn't solve everything, but it's definitely important!

With so much concern focused on national competitiveness, workforce readiness and the declining competence of American students in the STEM disciplines, the suggestion that we should retreat from teaching algebra as one of the foundations of quantitative competence makes no sense whatsoever. Improve math teaching, yes! Eliminate a basic subject because students struggle with it? Absurd.

Zakaria: Will our students learn enough about ethics?

Fareed Zakaria is the latest in a sad string of journalists and writers (see also: Jonah Lehrer) to admit to stealing portions of his writing from somewhere else. (Zakaria admitted plagiarism in one instance, and has since been reinstated at Time and CNN. The Washington Post apologized for making a false claim of plagiarism in another story.) As his story unfolded over the last few weeks, the public discussion of plagiarism and its consequences exposed some serious fault lines about truth in writing. Some people claim that plagiarism is no big deal; others see it as a significant academic and professional crime.

Plagiarism and cheating have very serious consequences at my university, Trinity in Washington, where we have a strong honor code. Yet, each year we see an increase in the cases.

Students come to college with generally weak writing skills and little prior instruction in the ethics of learning. We uphold strict standards for academic honesty because we believe that ethics must become a way of life for our students, and also, because without academic integrity the student essentially learns nothing. We cannot give a diploma to someone whose only learning appears to be assembling other people's work. We're not training fast food burger flippers; we're educating master chefs who have to know how to find their own ingredients and put them together into signature creations of their own flavor and style.

Lady Gaga: Who decides what students will learn?

Perhaps I'd feel better about the inquiry that Helen Dragas made into the University of Virginia curriculum if she were expressing concern about mathematics education or the state of the university's famous honor code. But when Dragas, the notorious rector of UVA's board, chose to send some pointed emails about curriculum, her ire was laser-focused on a micro topic with political ramifications --- why the singer Lady Gaga was the subject of a writing course.

Sure, board chairs and boards of trustees generally have authority and responsibility to oversee the collegiate curriculum. At the same time, however, they have a very serious obligation to respect and protect academic freedom and to avoid micro-management.

As Washington Post reporter Jenna Johnson revealed, Dragas once again exposed her tin ear for good governance in an email to University Provost John Simon. Sparked by a blog entitled "The Lady Gaga-ification of Higher Ed" that appeared in The Foundry, a Heritage Foundation newsletter (not exactly an unbiased source, The Foundry promotes itself as a "conservative policy news blog") Dragas sent the link to the provost and president with the subject line saying "tough headline," which already says a lot about her point of view on this issue. She wrote, "...the title of the course and the headline of the article aren't helping us to justify funding requests from parents, taxpayers and legislators..."

Translation: we should only offer courses that the Heritage Foundation, donors or politicians approve.

Academic freedom is the oxygen supporting the intellectual life of the university. Without a healthy climate for academic freedom, the university becomes a cipher for special interests seeking control of teaching and research to achieve their own ends. One of the most important obligations of a university board is to protect the climate for academic freedom.

Yes, from time to time, faculty exercising their precious academic freedom can irritate and enrage those who make dubious claims to a closer relationship with Truth. Faculty exercise their responsibility to sustain the freedom of the university when they challenge conventional wisdom and turn their irascible noses up at any whiff of the noxious fumes of political manipulation of knowledge and free thought.

Without such freedom, we risk devolving into Putin's Russia where even the arguably silliest expressions of disagreement earn jail terms. We academics are all hooligans at some level, compelled to say things out loud that others may only think.

The great Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. once wrote that our fundamental freedoms in this nation guarantee "freedom for the thought that we hate." Helen Dragas does not have to like Lady Gaga. Neither do I. But rather than implying that the course should not exist, Dragas should be defending the right of her faculty to teach what and how they choose as a manifestation of the most fundamental American values of freedom of thought and expression.

Thomas Jefferson, I suspect, would expect no less from the leadership of his university.

Higher education has a massive agenda this year. We must get ahead of the learning curve for new generations of students who are less prepared for collegiate learning than ever before. Let's not squander previous time and energy on internecine power struggles and politically motivated micro-management. Great leaders ask big questions that challenge the academic community to make durable change.