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.