This item made its way around the interwebs on Tuesday, revealing the shocking assertion that American college students aren't learning much during their four to seven years of undergraduate binge drinking. A new book entitled Academically Adrift asserts that college students in their sample (approximately 2000) show little to no improvement in knowledge and critical thinking skills after two and four years. As these brief news items do not say much about the methodology of this study I can't say how seriously these findings should be taken. Nonetheless this conclusion seems like it has been common knowledge for quite some time now – especially among those of us on the Inside – and we may be safe assuming that there is some kernel of truth to it.

Look, this is not a revelation. We know that American universities are plagued with grade inflation, pitifully low standards, rampant senses of entitlement among the students, and a general lack of interest in scholarly activity on campus. We know that students want to do as little work as possible and whine for higher grades. We know that some meaningful portion of academics give out high grades and demand almost nothing of students in pursuit of higher student evaluations and teaching awards. We know that demands from parents, state legislators, and taxpayers play a role as well. We know that a lot of people in college right now are nowhere near ready to do college-level work. We know that the economic state of higher education means that less experienced, lower paid people are doing the majority of the teaching in many places. None of this is news and to discuss it here would be to repeat ourselves at great length to no effect.

Of the many news sites that carried this story on Tuesday, the Gawker link ended up being the most interesting to me. Not because the hack of a writer did a good job summarizing the book (he didn't) but because of the comment thread. While it is lengthy, it is interesting to thumb through. As usual when the state of academia is opened up for debate, current or recent undergraduates gravitate toward institutional factors as sources of blame, e.g.:

My Genetics degree was tough to get but I didn't have the time to fuck around and not study. But I also recall the first two years of my college being mostly fluff courses that we were required to take in order to make us 'well rounded'. Stuff like fulfilling certain multicultural, western, eastern, foreign language and history courses, regardless of major.

As an instructor of a giant, state legislatively mandated Intro to American Government course in which students generally have not one shred of interest, I encounter this attitude often. I am only here because the state is forcing me to be here. I do not want to take (math / English / foreign languages / history / politics / etc). I only want to take the courses in my major (which is inevitably journalism, business, or something equally full of people who think they know everything). Because why would a journalist or someone in "business" need to know anything about how American government works?

What it reveals, I believe, is the disturbing trend of treating students as customers in universities run like businesses, and we know that the customer is always right. They come into college with the attitude that they will tell us what they want to be taught, not the other way around. Despite the fact that colleges already offer students a substantial amount of discretion in choosing their course of study, they are increasingly vocal in their anger toward the minimal trappings of a well rounded, liberal arts education that most states have in place.

I cannot emphasize strongly enough that this is not how the system is intended to work. You do not walk into college, 18 years old and brimming with all the worldly knowledge concomitant with that age, and tell us what we should be teaching you. If the students already know what knowledge and skills they need, then why are they in college? Ah. At last we reach the heart of the matter – they fundamentally believe that the educational aspect of college is little more than a tedious requirement. We are just gatekeepers standing between them and the fabulous, high-paying careers that await them on the other side. "I don't give a crap about Literature or history or the rules of grammar; just give me my B so I can start making $500,000 per year in advertising or writing Golden Globes fashion articles for Vogue."

You see, college isn't about learning anything. It's merely a multiyear party with a bunch of hoops to jump through, a set of obstacles between each Special Snowflake and the Good Life. And the more they whine about states' efforts to impose some semblance of a well-rounded education, the more we change things to accommodate them. The customer is always right. I am not the world's strongest proponent of "knowledge for the sake of knowledge" education, but the idea that students aren't learning because we're boring them by subjecting them to math, English, history, foreign languages, and political science is beyond the pale. If anything, a far stronger argument could be made that students learn so little in college because their curricula are composed so heavily of narrow elective courses lacking in breadth and of dubious educational value. We know you want to spend all of your time taking elective crap and "business" classes, kids. But here's the thing: you can't. Our job, at least for now, is to develop your critical thinking skills and expose you to a broad range of ideas and intellectual traditions. But fear not; over time I'm sure that state legislatures will turn college into the four year drunken vocational school our customers so desperately want.

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  1. Xynzee Says:

    Will U? As in: How do you get a Willamette girl into bed? Just ask, Will U sleep w/ me?

  2. ladiesbane Says:

    "We laugh because it's funny, and we laugh because it's true."

  3. Xynzee Says:

    @Nunya: that's abt sums up half the point. The issue is is that America seems to have very little respect for tradies. The first time I ever heard the word in context was w a friend of the family who's Irish. She was describing how her son has a trade. The way she used it, was with an absolute sense of pride. There was something about that European sense and use of the word that gives honor. Americans have an attitude towards the trades that's BS. Ever notice how "oh so you're a mechanic, electrician, etc." Is always said w a sneer?

    In Aus the kids who aren't academically inclined are allowed to leave school as a sophomore. For some reason there was a gap in the system where they were allowed to just go do whatever. Because of youth unemployment issues they now either have to be doing some kind of work, or learning a trade. Why they were allowed to just quit school and not be learning a trade is Anyone's guess, but it's been closed now.

  4. Hobbes Says:

    Entomologista, I am in exactly the same boat. I'm at a Big 10 university (I believe we're a "Leader", not a "Legend", or whatever the fuck they're calling that now) and I have a fantastically located apartment. Or at least it's fantastic when there isn't a home football, hockey or basketball game – then I have difficulty walking and forget driving entirely.

    I quoted that particular section,

    College sports provide tangible learning and character-building opportunities for student-athletes. They also bring an intrinsic value to the campus and surrounding community that is difficult to measure.

    for the part that I've bolded here. It provides great learning and character building opportunities for the student-athletes, I'm sure, but those of us who aren't in varsity sports have our opportunities massively diminished. My department has record enrollment in its intro classes, requiring more grad students to lecture than ever before – but there's no funding to pay them, so the department is overworking the few lecturers it can afford rather than hiring new ones (I volunteered to take a lecture but was told they couldn't afford to pay me even quarter-time).

    That's not just robbing grad students of the opportunity to teach, it's shorting the undergrads who actually want to take the class (it's an elective, not a general education requirement).

  5. beergoggles Says:

    I never had the pleasure of American high school. I grew up in England, did my Ordinary level exams (10 subjects) and then for the next 2 years studied 4 subjects (biology, chemistry, math and physics) for my Advanced level exams.

    Then I ended up getting a full scholarship to a top 10 American university so I migrated here. Sadly, it wasn't until junior year that I actually had the pre-requisite classes out of the way to study anything new and advanced. So 2 years of college were spent re-hashing everything I had studied in English 'high school'.

    It was a good thing it was free, because if I had to pay for it, I definitely would not have been happy about that waste of 2 years of my life.

  6. jack Says:

    The gist of the post and comments here seems to be:

    1) College students, despite being forced to attend history/english/humanties/sciences/whatever classes for the past decade, have learned very little from these classes, and have no wish to take any more classes in these things.

    2) The solution to this is to make them do more classes in subjects they have no interest, because doing a subject you have absolutely no intrinsic motivation for long after years upon years upon years of teachers have crushed all possible interest in it is a good idea which totally won't lead to cramming and night before essay writing.

    3) The idea that 18 year olds might be better off learning about subjects that they have an intrinsic motivation for, and expanding their interest from there is a hollow lie made by goddamn hippies. 18 year olds are stupid and feeble-minded, and cannot even be trusted to know which subjects they would like to study.

    Over in the UK we get to specialise in four subjects at the age of 16, and you know what? It's great. We love not having to put up with subjects that aren't suited to us. I didn't want to have to spend three hours a week reading vastly overrated and pretentious poetry, so I spent those hours studying chemistry instead.

    You know what's even better? We get to weed out the idiots. Going to school past 16 is opt in, so people who truly have no interest in education other than fucking up everyone elses' leave to work in shops, learn trades or join the armed forces. Even the borderline cases who are cocks but just smart enough to get in are weeded out for the most part, because they take business and media studies plus geography/sociology. If you don't take those classes you barely need to even see them.

    We pick our major before we even arrive at uni, and vocational courses like law and medicine don't need postgrads (you can do them if you wish, but they're very competitive), and only have three years for most courses. A little more choice in electives would be nice, I'm finding that a decent grip of calculus would help with neurobiology and some models of cognition, but there's a massive 24/7 library on every campus full of every possible book you would need to learn just about any topic in existence.

    It's a good system. Being treated like an adult who actually gives a fuck about their subjects at 16 makes you vastly more motivated to learn. If I'd had to put up with the same 'wear these shitty uniforms, do this utterly pointless stretched out busywork, get shat on by massive twats' bullshit for another 2 years there's no chance I would have got decent grades at A level. Forcing people to choose their major before uni weeds out a lot of people who just kinda like the idea of not doing manual labor.

    TL;DR: Treating kids with some respect makes them like education more than they will if you treat them like little shits who know nothing and should learn about your awesome interests instead of their obviously stupid ones.

  7. Anonymouse Says:

    @entomologista: you forgot the ever-present danger of physical and sexual assaults by drunken "student" athletes and the special athlete-only dining halls, paid for by actual students' tuition.

    Entomologista wrote:>>Look, I played college hockey at my D3 private liberal arts school. It's one thing to have sports as an extracurricular because they are fun and being active is healthy. At the Big 12 university I attended for graduate school, I learned that college sports mean something else entirely at that level. It means having 10,000 people camped outside your apartment building all weekend. It means being woken up at 8 am on Saturday because the goddamn pep band is playing across the street. It means drunken fans pissing in your yard. It means that you can't leave your apartment because traffic is terrible. It means that a new coach is hired on at a huge salary but I can't take a graduate seminar class because of budget cuts. It means my student fees are increased to pay for a new stadium. I hate college sports and wish they were all eliminated.>>

  8. Redleg Says:

    Although I agree with much you said about the current student, I am somewhat bothered by your gibes about "business." I get the impression that you don't think highly of the study of business. Oddly enough, some of my business students express a similar attitude when they have to take my management-organizational behavior course. They think the subject is simply common sense and not necessary for their development into super-business-heroes. I just laugh at the end of the semester when very few earn As and most earn Bs and Cs with a few Ds and Fs scattered in to make the grade distribution interesting.

  9. Jado Says:

    "They come into college with the attitude that they will tell us what they want to be taught, not the other way around."

    Umm, yes. To a certain extent. I would prefer NOT to pay an exorbitant sum of money to learn the history of WWII, dumbed down sufficiently that the entire conflict can be "taught" over the course of 12 weeks, and consisting of the exact same information I learned in 6th grade…and then again in junior year of high school.

    As an engineering student, I honestly have no problem with "well-rounded" class requirements – I have a problem with specific classes being required, with no substitutions allowed because these classes are on the curriculum.

    I need a history class in order to graduate? Excellent, maybe I can learn something I don't know. I need to take THIS SPECIFIC class, which is a waste of my time and money? Hey, thanks. I'll be sure to keep this in mind when you call for alumni donations.

  10. Tosh Says:

    I made it clear to my students that I was here to teach them to think and learn for themselves and on an individual level, I would make the maze more difficult, depending on the student. This si why you are required to take classes you dont think you are interested in; to teach you HOW TO THINK AND LEARN. They didn't like it and no one got out unscathed. This brings me to @Beergoggles: You got the critical part out of the way with the compulsory ed in your country of origin; merkin HS DO NOT even come close to anything like that

    The situation is getting much worse; H Barbour want to fundamentally privatise MS high school by shifting those responsibilities and student to (wait for it…) COMMUNITY COLLEGES!!! You/we pay to learn what should have been learned.
    Barbour is a BIG FAN of community colleges..

  11. Townsend Harris Says:

    I've written this before:
    "You pretend to teach me, I'll pretend to learn" is the offer of corrupt undergraduates everywhere.
    "They pretend to pay us, we pretend to work" was the Soviet industrial worker's comment on the value of the ruble.

  12. Tosh Says:

    @Sarah: ANY science requires higher math; and most grad program requires stats (take the GRE). Math/number is the most logical, pure field of study and most definately will teach one to think. Any thing that make you think differently inherently makes you smarter; it uses different parts of the brain and opens one up to a different way of looking a things. You see the possibility…

  13. Tosh Says:

    @Sarah: Modern medicine is nothing more than a statistical analysis