What Makes a Strong College Education? | Interview with Dr. Michael Poliakoff

We met with Michael Poliakoff to discuss the cost of attending university, freedom of speech on campus, what to look for in a university, and much more. Enjoy!

What Makes a Strong College Education? | Interview with Dr. Michael Poliakoff

Student Karina Macosko met with Michael Poliakoff, a classics professor turned ACTA president, to discuss the importance of freedom of speech on campus and the upward spiral of university cost. Poliakoff has created a rigorous grading system that evaluates the core curriculum of universities in the United States. He offers advice to college bound students as they look for the best university for their needs and urges them to look beyond a school’s bold mission statement and into campus life and core curriculums. Follow along to get an inside perspective from Dr. Poliakoff on the crucial factors to consider when looking for a university.

I'm not necessarily preparing you to be professors to go on to graduate school in classics, I'm preparing you for a meaningful life.” – Dr. Michael Poliakoff

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Interested in Dr. Poliakoff’s work? Click here to learn more about his website www.whatwilltheylearn.com.

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Interview with Dr. Michael Poliakoff

Interview Transcript

(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)

0:00:17.3How it started

Karina Macosko: Hi, my name is Karina Macosko from Academic Influence, and I’m here with Dr. Poliakoff, and we just wanna know…

…how did you get into your field? And how did you end up doing what you do now?

Michael: You’re actually asking me about my first love. [chuckle] From the time I encountered Latin in eighth grade, to be honest, I never really wanted to do anything else. It’s rather a strange set of circumstances that find me extremely happy doing work in education policy.

But I fell in love with the precision of the language, its logic, and then began to understand how classical studies tell us really essential, unique things about the human condition, and that drove me on through a PhD and through years of teaching. It was only after about 12 years of being a full-time professor that I decided I really needed to get into the policy arena.

Karina: Well, and so now you’re the head of the Chair Board of Trustees and Alumni, right?

Michael: No, no, I’m the president of a non-profit that works with Trustees and Alumni, some 23,000 college and university trustees around the nation are part of our universe.

0:01:42.2Making the switch

Karina: Wow, so how did you switch from being a professor in classical studies to this non-profit that you’re working with now?

Michael: Strangely, I listened to my own admonitions to my students when I said, I’m not necessarily preparing you to be professors to go on to graduate school in classics, I’m preparing you for a meaningful life, meaningful professions, whether that be law or medicine or business.

And finally, I said to myself, "I need to get out there, much as I love the classroom," because there were things happening within the world of education, even then in the 1990s that were calling urgently for attention.

Karina: And what were some of these things that you wanted to address the most?

Michael: As we said it, ACTA, I wasn’t with ACTA in 1995, but it looked into the future and said that we are going to have very serious problems with freedom of speech on campus, with academic standards, and with the upward spiraling of college cost.

And at that point, ACTA felt very much like the prophetess Cassandra in Greek mythology, nobody was listening, but now we’re in a position where at least people recognise the problem, and it’s time for some solutions.

0:03:12.0ACTA

Karina: Wow.

And so, as somebody who’s applying to college soon, and like many of the people who are probably gonna watch this interview, thinking about college, what does your program do? How can we see it work in our lives?

Michael: One of the things that we’ve been doing more and more is actually doing outreach to school college admissions counselors to get this message to students.

They work hard to be college-bound, they work to be academically serious, to develop the character, to be college students, and after that, engaged and informed citizens and to have a meaningful role in the workforce.

So to choose wisely, look under the hood of that automobile before you buy it. Does it have a strong core curriculum that brings all students together with some shared academic experiences? Does it have a vibrant life of the mind? And crucially nowadays, does it encourage intellectual diversity and freedom of expression?

Or will students who come with viewpoints that are a little out of sync with campus orthodoxy, find themselves increasingly silenced? And so much of the college experience depends on our meeting people who are different, not necessarily of different ethnicities or races, but who bring different thoughts, because that’s what the academy is about, and if we don’t have that vibrant exchange, we are really short-selling our students.

0:05:00.2Do your research

Karina: Wow, well, I love that you say that because we just interviewed Ron Lieber on here who wrote an entire book about kind of looking what you want from a college before you actually go, but you kind of have an inside perspective because you started as a professor, so I’d love to hear your advice about somebody who’s applying to college…

what is the main thing that you would tell them in making such a crucial decision?

Michael: I would say to do some serious investigation. That’s to say, visit the campus, look at the posters that are up there, get a sense of student life, read the school catalogue, and not just the bold mission statement, not just the rhetoric, but look at the reality of what is in the general education requirements, those things that presumably the school has come together and determined are essential for all college-educated students.

I’m afraid that in many places, what you’ll find is a great cafeteria line of choices, sometimes very strange courses on zombies or Harry Potter or Miley Cyrus. Other schools that are academically more serious, have come together as communities of learners and teachers to say, these things are essential.

Anyone who comes into our school and receives a diploma needs to have these skills and to acquire this knowledge. And that takes a lot of discipline on the part of the institution, all the way from top to bottom, but that’s the kind of community that a serious college-bound student should be looking for.

Karina: Wow, that is so interesting.

And what about for you, do you think that when you went to college, you did enough research and you really ended up at a school that was matched kind of in what you were looking for in a college?

Michael: It worked out well for me. But in retrospect, I was fortunate and I’ll explain a little bit. As I said, I was in love with Latin, and the thought of learning Greek was just heady, so I wanted to be a Classics major.

My father, whom I adored, may he rest in peace, wanted me to be a doctor. So, I actually had a reasonable core curriculum despite the very lax requirements of the school. So I wound up with a pretty strong background in science, as well as a wonderfully rich major in the humanities.

I get really impatient when I see a school talk and talk and talk about multiculturalism and global citizenship, but not to require a language, walk the walk, do the hard work.” – Dr. Michael Poliakoff

But this is the active message. This should not be left to chance. This is the obligation of the institution. Not everyone will either be lucky, or come from a home in which the parents are gonna say, "You know something, that course on Harry Potter might sound like a lot of fun, but you really need to learn statistics, given what you want to do. You need to learn a foreign language, because that’s just part of global citizenship." Side bar, I get really impatient when I see a school talk and talk and talk about multiculturalism and global citizenship, but not to require a language, walk the walk, do the hard work.

And I’ll even share a family anecdote. My daughter, whom I think is just brilliant and has been so successful, looked at our core curriculum study, in which we grade the schools, A through F, and we don’t do grade inflation, there are only about 24 schools that get A’s and a lot more that get D’s and F’s.

And she looked at it and said, "Dad, thanks so much. Now I can pick out a school that won’t require me to do mathematics." [laughter] "I think we might reconsider that," and she did, and she went to a school with an extremely strong core curriculum, and it prepared her brilliantly for moving on into a graduate program.

But again, I worry about the students who fall through the cracks, because of a school that’s intellectually lazy, that has capitulated to a set of absurd demands, faculty who wanna teach their favorite topic, or students who simply want to be able to choose things that may not be of any significance.

That's like turning children loose in a supermarket and expecting they're gonna come back with a grocery cart of nutritional things.” – Dr. Michael Poliakoff

Setting up a school with, and I’m not exaggerating, 3000 different choices for what’s considered distribution requirements, and sometimes they even have the fraudulence to say that’s a core curriculum. That’s like turning children loose in a supermarket and expecting they’re gonna come back with a grocery cart of nutritional things. They will choose the cupcakes and the candy.

Karina: Right.

Michael: Or at least a lot of them will. And I don’t wanna take away autonomy, but everybody needs some structure, especially at that crucial moment of moving from teenager to adult.

Karina: So you found that most of the responsibilities should be in the schools to create the core curriculum, right?

Michael: Well, it should be a relationship between various students, serious families, and I will venture to say, for public university, serious taxpayers as well and an institution that takes its role seriously, as a community of serious teachers and mentors.

There are things that shouldn’t be left to chance. I’ll give one more example. We survey over 1100 schools every summer. It’s quite labor-intensive, we have a team of interns that go through all of the catalogues and see what’s required, not what rhetorically is claimed, but what is actually required. And at this point, at this crisis time in our nation, only 18% of them have a real solid, fundamental course in American History or Government.

Karina: Wow.

Michael: And how irresponsible could an educational institution be to leave such a thing to chance? And when we do surveys of civic knowledge of recent college graduates, we find that the results are apocalyptically bad.

This is a threat to our democracy, to our future as a republic. And as we see the disregard for the First Amendment, Lord spares us an assault on the capital. It’s time for us to step back and say, "What really matters? What are our obligations as the leaders of higher education?"

0:12:16.5Schools with the best core curriculums

Karina: Wow.

So, I’m so curious, what are the best schools that you have found for core curriculum? Because like you said, this is a growing problem, so what are those schools who are really doing a great job with setting up core curriculum that students have to take?

Michael: Let me invite people actually to the website where they can get all this information in detail. It’s www.whatwilltheylearn.com, it’s a free website.

Some of the ones that have distinguished themselves, Baylor, Pepperdine, St. John’s, both Annapolis and Santa Fe, Thomas Aquinas in California, Christopher Newport, a public university in Virginia, that systematically added core requirements, and I have to confess, full disclosure, that’s where my daughter went, [chuckle] and got a splendid education there, with a great deal of balance.

About 24 schools have done this. Some of the famous like Baylor, University of Georgia, Pepperdine, some of them, not nearly as well known as they should be. But one of the things that we wanna do is to put these in front of the college-bound population and say, "These are some hidden gems worth considering."

0:13:42.0Sign off

Karina: Wow, well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. It was really so interesting, because college is such a huge decision and especially for people my age, it’s kind of always on people’s minds. And so, I think you gave a really unique perspective about what you should look for in a college. So, thank you so much.

Michael: Oh, I’m delighted.