Monday, March 07, 2011

Maybe "college for all" is not the answer

My partner teaches a required course usually taken by first and second year students at a respectable, though not highly selective, private university. From her, I hear many anecdotes about college students.

A few of her students each semester surprise her by how engaged they become in the subject matter and how much the course changes how they think. Most however seem poorly prepared to study at a college level, disinclined to work at what they don't already know, and merely to aim at getting a good grade and get out. They lack elementary knowledge of history, geography or current events; she has learned she has to start with a synopsis of world history if she doesn't want to read papers asserting that "Aristotle got his ideas from going to the movies..." She has stopped asking the students to analyze the arguments in an oped piece from a newspaper because they can't distinguish between reporting and opinion writing. (Have we a generation of perfect little post-modernists, adrift in a sea of meaningless information?)

These stories made me interested in Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. The book is not easy reading; much of it seems to be a preemptive defense of the authors' sampling and statistical methodology and, frankly, could have been more gracefully written. There's also a slight flavor of "these kids today are no good" about it -- doesn't every generation think that?

But the book's conclusions are damning and seem well supported. Institutions of higher education consistently show little interest in undergraduate education and contemporary undergraduates take the same attitude. Few students hit the books more than 12 hours a week; most spend half their waking hours on socializing -- and think that's just fine, fulfilling their vision of the purpose of college life and worth the enormous burden of debt they increasingly take on. Though they may pick up subject specific information, many never experience much intellectual deepening. According to the authors:

With a large sample of more than 2300 students, we observe [during the first two years of college] no statistically significant gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills for at least 45 percent of the students in our study.

Those who graduate from college (and most do) leave with a credential but not an education in a traditional sense. New York Times columnist Bob Herbert interviewed Professor Arum last week. The conclusion is chilling:

“You have to ask what this means for a democratic society,” said Professor Arum. “This is the portion of the population that you would expect to demonstrate civic leadership in the future, civic engagement. They are the ones we would expect to be struggling to understand the world, to think critically about the rhetoric out there, and to make informed, reasoned decisions.

“If they’re not developing their higher order skills, it means they’re not developing the attitudes and dispositions that are needed to even understand that that’s important.”

The comment section on the Herbert article was articulate, fascinating, and perhaps even enlightening. Here are a few samples.

One person traced grade inflation and declining academic rigor back to the late 60s.

... as opposition to the Vietnam War increased, and as the Selective Service Administration [the military draft] took a series of steps to make student deferments harder to get, many professors started giving "B"s to young men so they could stay in school & keep their deferments. The professors didn't want blood on their hands. Since it wasn't fair to give high marks to some substandard students & not to others, "B" became the lowest grade you could get in some classes. It was kinda like we were all star athletes!

My partner says most of her students probably do "C" work -- but she gives a lot of pretty easy "Bs".

Wider educational interests simply didn't pay off for one contemporary graduate.

In 2006, I graduated from a respected 4 year university with a degree in Political Science, emphasis Middle Eastern Affairs. After failing to find a job in my field, and many years working at a bank, I'm back in school studying engineering. So much for critical thinking, no money in it.

The degrees that teach students critical thinking skills don't lead to careers. The degrees that lead to careers are those that tell the students to keep their heads down for 4 years, follow the curriculum to the T, no electives, and get out with a job. Thank god for those students, because we certainly will need the scientists to get out of our mess. But a society without critical thinking skills is doomed to waste its science. And as far as I can tell, all the smart folks with any desire to make a living are running from the social sciences.

On the other hand, a professor with plenty of real world experience is horrified by student immaturity.

I became a professor after many years in the corporate and non-profit worlds. I spend my first year of teaching in a state of shock: upper-class undergraduates with poor writing skills, short attention spans, middle-school classroom behavior, poor critical thinking skills, and zero intellectual curiosity. Many of my students not only cannot manage their own workloads, they refuse to even glance at the syllabus to see what the assignments are.

Trying to keep them entertained enough to pay attention while giving them enough "tough love" to get them to act like responsible adults is a constant challenge that I would recommend to anyone who laments about the "light workload" of "overpaid" state educators.

While my institution does promote breadth and rigor, teaching evaluations remain the foundation for promotion and tenure. (I would be a superstar if I would just show movies and give them worksheets to fill in afterward!) The causes of this situation are no doubt complex, but we need to understand and address them. I love my students, but I fear for any employer that hires them after graduation.

Another commenter indicts common national attitudes:

Aside from the colleges' obvious financial interest in keeping all students enrolled--even those who are academically mediocre or unmotivated--the one aspect that should not be forgotten is cultural: i.e. the pervasive anti-intellectualism that continues to dominate among Americans. Americans generally don't like people who are "too smart," who use big words and long, complicated sentences.

Most of Herbert's commenters are older adults, but at least one current student is reading the Times and thinks Academically Adrift is measuring things that don't matter.

I believe that you are somewhat dated in your opinions. I'm sorry but statistics from the 1960s do not really apply to the 20th century. It's true there may be some students opting for the easy way out but I believe there is a good majority who are able to complete their studies, follow their passions, and also have a good time in college. In current times, the ability to succeed does not stem from being booksmart so much as being able to synthesize what you know and network, even if that means partying and having a good time while in college.

Not long after finishing Professor Arum and Roksa's book, I ran across a blog post by economist Paul Krugman questioning whether the idea of "college for all" was being over sold as a response to national failure to compete under global competition. Here's his graph (from census information) showing that through the late 90s having a college education gave full time working men a big boost over the earnings of men with only high school. But in the last decade, the trend has leveled off.

Do today's lackadaisical students have a glimmer of something about our society that older observers are missing? That's a grim thought, but I can't altogether dismiss it

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