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:
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:
One person traced grade inflation and declining academic rigor back to the late 60s.
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.
On the other hand, a professor with plenty of real world experience is horrified by student immaturity.
Another commenter indicts common national attitudes:
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.
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