A shocking portrait of the academy adrift

With US students now expected to spend more time at the bar than at their desks, a new book asks why universities are so palpably failing to educate the young.

Alex Standish

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Academically Adrift, by Richard Arum and Josipa Roska, is the latest in a long line of books that address the wayward nature of the American academy, stretching back to Allan Bloom’s 1987 The Closing of the American Mind. What makes Academically Adrift stand out is that it is not just an anecdotal portrait of the limited academic efforts in America, but that it is backed up by hard evidence – in the form of a survey of 2,300 students across 24 American colleges and universities. This has made the authors’ conclusions difficult to ignore.

Arum and Roksa examined student learning using the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a tool that measures critical thinking, problem-solving, analytical reasoning and writing. The example of a CLA test cited in Academically Adrift involves students writing a memo advising an employer of the desirability of purchasing a type of airplane that recently experienced an accident. To do this, students need to analyse and synthesise information from several documents and data sources, before writing a meaningful and convincing response. The authors admit that it is by no means an ideal measure of intellectual growth. It does not assess subject-knowledge, for example. But it is nevertheless widely regarded as a challenging test and it is the type of activity that graduates should perform better at than recent school-leavers.

The main finding of the study was that 45 per cent of students made no statistically significant improvement in their skills of critical thinking, problem solving, analytical reasoning and writing over the first two years of study. Furthermore, 36 per cent made no significant advance on the test between their freshman and senior years.

The authors collected other data about students’ work habits and the demands of classes (in terms of reading and writing papers) and drew upon the findings of other studies to account for limited learning. For instance, they cite the results of a longitudinal study carried out by economists Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks. They found that the average time students spend on academic pursuits (classes and study) is 27 hours a week, fewer hours than most high-school students spend in school. From the 1920s through to 1961, the equivalent figure was 40 hours. The average time spent studying fell from 25 hours per week in 1961 to just 13 hours a week in 2003 (the figure for less-selective institutions would be lower than this).

The flipside to the decreasing amount of time spent on academic pursuits is that students now spend an average of 40-plus hours a week socialising. The authors surmise that, today, many young people relate going to college and university to social and economic gains rather than to academic ones. Of course students of the past also knew how to play hard, but evidently they were studying harder, too.

Arum and Roksa found that the poor work ethic of students was partially a result of the limited class requirements: half of the students surveyed had not taken a class in the prior semester that required more than 20 pages of writing, and a third had not taken a class in which they were asked to read more than 40 pages a week. Despite the declining focus on academic learning most students continue to make solid progress towards their degree receiving good grades for their limited efforts. The authors suggest that there is a sort of complicit understanding between faculty and students, whereby faculty members don’t set much work and the students don’t bother them too much.

Instead of focusing on educating undergraduates, Arum and Roska suggest, universities are preoccupied with research, grants and enrolment targets. ‘No actors in the system’, they argue, ‘are primarily interested in undergraduate student academic growth’. There is certainly some truth to their assertion. When I was at Rutgers University it was common for inexperienced post-graduate students to be given responsibility for introductory classes for over 300 students, while the faculty taught classes of their choosing. And a recent report on the state of higher education reveals the extent to which colleges and universities are becoming dependent upon part-time and temporary labour to teach large parts of their curriculum.

Nevertheless, I think Arum and Roksa do actually underestimate the degree to which some members of faculty value teaching undergraduates. The problem has more to do with the failure to establish a ‘culture of learning’, as described by the authors, which in turn derives from confusion about the purpose of higher education.

One of the most intriguing moments in the book is when the authors talk about the tradition of college dormitories. Dormitories were originally developed in the first part of the twentieth century, according to historian Julie Reuben, because ‘university administrators recognised that it was almost impossible to mould the social lives of students when they live outside of the college’. Arum and Roksa note that it was a social device with a moral purpose. By living together students developed a sense of loyalty and a collaborative ‘college spirit’. Compare this to today’s campuses with their growing numbers of commuters, online classes and halls of residence with private rooms.

Yet, it is not just a matter of physical space, but rather that faculty, and administrators, saw the moulding of students’ minds and character as part of their job. Others have written about the demise of a clear sense of moral and pedagogical mission in higher education. Yale law professor Anthony Kronman, for instance, found that colleges and universities no longer see it as their purpose to provide young people with insight into the meaning of life. Instead, they focus on researching and teaching increasingly specialised areas of knowledge, while avoiding the moral questions raised by the humanities.

It is not only the moral dimension of higher education that can be found wanting today. By retreating into relativism many academics have eroded the pursuit of truth as the central purpose of knowledge. They have replaced Knowledge with knowledges, and embraced political, economic, or therapeutic rationales for education. If some faculty are confused about the purpose of education then it is no wonder that students can be found ‘academically adrift’, a point which is not adequately addressed by Arum and Roska.

Part of the reason why Academically Adrift has received such great attention in the US is that it has been published at a time when Americans are preoccupied with both a sense of national decline and poor economic performance. There is growing recognition that higher education does not lead to good jobs for all and some are starting to question the value of degrees that are leaving young people saddled with debts they will struggle to pay. Indeed, approximately 40 per cent of the students who enrol in a four-year degree fail to complete it within six years, a statistic which in and of itself indicates that higher education is failing to inspire young people. Predictably, this has led to calls for ‘transparency and accountability’, as was the case with the 2006 Commission on the Future of Higher Education, led by then-secretary of education Margaret Spellings. There is a real danger that Academically Adrift will be taken as further evidence that university education needs external regulation. Arum and Roksa are not in favour of this solution although they do suggest that institutions should develop their own internal forms of accountability. However, they also argue that it will take some ‘exogenous’ shock to awaken colleges and universities from their slumber.

Another strength of the book is that the authors recognise that there is no easy way to ‘fix’ the academy. On the one hand their main conclusion is a common sense one: students will improve their skills of critical thinking, problem solving, analytical reasoning and writing when greater academic demands are placed upon them. However, Arum and Roksa also understand that just getting universities to raise their expectations of students is not enough. They suggest that the drift away from an academic culture at colleges and universities is part of a broader cultural shift embedded in the attitudes of students, parents, politicians and policymakers, who increasingly view education in instrumental terms.

If we are to reverse this academic drift, we need a national discussion about the purpose of higher education. To re-create a constructive ‘learning culture’ on campuses we need to re-establish the moral purpose of the academy as the pursuit of truth and the dissemination of knowledge. That means trashing instrumental notions of education as a means to acquire skills for work, education as political activism, or education as therapy. Who better to lead such a debate than those whose job it is to preserve and maintain the Academy?

Alex Standish is associate professor of geography at Western Connecticut State University.

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