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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

Topics Books

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

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

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Topics Books

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