Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Academically Adrift

The NY Times asked several educators to comment on a recent book, Academically Adrift by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, that finds students learning a lot less in the first two years of college than they used to. Not surprising, I would say, since the average amount of time students spend studying has fallen from 24 hours per week in the 1960s to 14 hours per week today. All of the experts are scathing about both the amount of work being put in by their students and the education being offered to them by universities. Here is Leon Bottstein, conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra and President of Bard College:
Why is anyone surprised to find that standards and expectations in our colleges are too low? High school graduates — a rapidly dwindling elite — come to college entirely unaccustomed to close reading, habits of disciplined analysis, skills in writing reasoned arguments and a basic grasp of the conduct, methods and purposes of science.

All many of them know is rote learning, and fear of mediocre standardized tests and grades. No vital connection between learning and life has been forged in our schools, much less any affection for voluntarily using one’s mind in the rigorous, sustained and frequently counterintuitive way that leads to innovation and the advancement of knowledge.

But our colleges and universities do pitifully little about combating student passivity and absence of curiosity.
The others hit these same themes: high school doesn't prepare students for college, colleges don't do enough to bring them up to speed, students don't want to work, and professors, who are evaluated on everything but their actual teaching success, don't have any incentive to motivate or crack down on them. My impression is that these academics see their problems as symptoms of major social changes, rather then something specific to higher education, and I agree. Higher education has become the middle class default, something that neither demands particular qualities for entry nor promises much of a reward for completion. Come to college with no ambition, leave for a dreary job in a cubicle. But be sure to attend lots of parties and football games in between.

Of course, complaints that sound vaguely like these are a human universal, so we should beware of taking them too seriously. But I can't lose the nagging feeling that our experiment with higher education for the masses isn't working out very well.


Carole67 said...

Did you notice how many times the President mentioned "opportunity to go to College" in his speech last night.?
I thought of you after hearing it over and over

John said...

We don't know what else to offer young people.