Saturday, November 05, 2011

Down With Skool

(With gratitude to Nigel Molesworth).

A college education in the United States may very well be a colossal waste of money and education. Evidence has been mounting for years that college is overpriced. It doesn't actually prepare most people for, you know, work. Drop-out rates are high, and whether students finish a degree or not, they are left to begin adult life with crippling debt. And don't get us started on graduate school.

There's a review essay by Anthony Grafton at the NYRB, and it's sobering stuff, albeit familiar. Grafton is critical of some recent books, especial those which go after professors, and which seem to fall short of particulars, but he signs on to the general picture. Today's students study impossibly few hours; they read little, care less, and appear to gain no long-term benefit, financial or otherwise. Universities (Rutgers is mentioned in particular) starve their academic departments to feed the unprofitable pursuit of football glory.

Grafton is especially impressed by a test called the College Learning Assessment, which seeks to measure student progress -- of which it finds little:
The Collegiate Learning Assessment reveals that some 45 percent of students in the sample had made effectively no progress in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing in their first two years. And a look at their academic experience helps to explain why. Students reported spending twelve hours a week, on average, studying—down from twenty-five hours per week in 1961 and twenty in 1981. Half the students in the sample had not taken a course that required more than twenty pages of writing in the previous semester, while a third had not even taken a course that required as much as forty pages a week of reading.
(Grafton does not mention one factor that may deter professors from assigning as many term papers as they once did. Our own brief college teaching experience shocked us by revealing how thoroughly the Internet has abetted the age-old instinct to plagiarize, so thoroughly that students of seemingly reasonable intelligence seemed unable to distinguish between "writing" and "pasting." Surely few professors want to set up shop as full-time investigators of academic criminality.)

Notably, Grafton makes an exception -- or rather, the data make an exception -- for the liberal arts:
Nowadays the liberal arts attract a far smaller proportion of students than they did two generations ago. Still, those majoring in liberal arts fields—humanities and social sciences, natural sciences and mathematics—outperformed those studying business, communications, and other new, practical majors on the CLA. And at a time when libraries and classrooms across the country are being reconfigured to promote trendy forms of collaborative learning, students who spent the most time studying on their own outperformed those who worked mostly with others.
Just as we would have expected. In our day, by gum, students read books and wrote papers, mostly about Shakespeare and Wittgenstein. (Or was it von Kleist and Rembrandt? After all these years, we sort of forget).

Mind you, the CLA measures things like critical thinking, and many a liberal arts graduate has had time to think critically about, say, the meaning of the unemployment line.


Pastor Joelle said...

How many students did he study at our wonderful ELCA liberal arts colleges I wonder, where they still believe in a truly liberal arts education? Where they are small enough that the teachers actually KNOW their students. At Augustana in Sioux Falls my daughter's teacher knew her well enough to recommend two internships that were suited to her, one of which has already turned into a paid position. Although perhaps part of the problem is the idea that colleges are to prepare you for a job, not necessarily give you a rounded education. But in pursuing the job, the college ends up achieving neither the job preparation or a decent education.

Father Anonymous said...

Grafton didn't actually study any colleges; he's reviewing a bunch of books.

But I do wonder how ELCA colleges stack up; I know that US News ranks them pretty well most years, but of course those rankings don't have much to do with the broader questions about higher education in the US.

One of my questions is whether smaller colleges -- including most ELCA schools, as well as my own entirely secular alma mater -- might do a better job of encouraging students to actually study, rather than being distracted by all the less-needful things offered at a large university.

Mark C. Christianson said...

The issues is certainly a complex one, but one of the roots is, I believe, that the public and businesses (and thus parents and students) have come to see higher education as a form of preparation, as vocational training, rather than as education. For that matter, it isn't something that is just about higher education, but about education at every level. No small part of our collective consternation about education at every level is deeply connected with our viewing it as preparation for work. With that has come, I think, an actual devaluing of education for its own sake.

PS (PSanafter-thought) said...

A tech school near me used to have a big sign, "Learn to Earn." That about sums up one aspect of "higher education." So there are two issues: education/classes geared toward a particular job (and what happens if that job disappears?). The other is a mentality of just checking off classes from a list that one must take to graduate, rather than taking classes to both broaden one's knowledge and deepen one's knowledge. If an institution or a particular teacher makes it all to easy to pass each section of a class without actually learning something and demonstrating that knowledge, then the students are not being educated. Period. Eventually that should catch up with the students and perhaps with the college. I can't help but think that the mortgage and credit crisis that many people have found themselves in must have to do with poor math education. Lots of those people passed higher math classes in high school or college, but never "got it" in regards to compounding interest rates.