Sunday, November 13, 2011

Decline of American Universities?

Liber ethicorum des Henricus de Allemania (ca. 1355)
Laurentius de Voltolina (1300s)

The above image of a 14th-century university classroom has been used in a previous post or two here at Gypsy Scholar, and I still don't know anything about Laurentius de Voltolina. So much for my education!

In other areas, I'm also ignorant, as I learned from an article by Anthony Grafton for The New York Review of Books, "Our Universities: Why Are They Failing?" (November 24, 2011). Grafton reviews eight books on the state of American universities, and it's rather depressing -- astronomical tuition, disengaged faculty, overheavy administration, neglected students. This is the world's best system of higher education? Hard to believe, but perhaps not for long. Grafton doesn't despair, and he's not writing a jeremiad, but there seems no easy way out of this mess. Read the article if you want to know more, for it's too complex for me to summarize this morning, given my lack of time.

Instead, let me just quote three paragraphs that I can respond to, Grafton's remarks on a book by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses:
In Academically Adrift, Arum and Roksa paint a chilling portrait of what the university curriculum has become. The central evidence that the authors deploy comes from the performance of 2,322 students on the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a standardized test administered to students in their first semester at university and again at the end of their second year: not a multiple-choice exam, but an ingenious exercise that requires students to read a set of documents on a fictional problem in business or politics and write a memo advising an official on how to respond to it. Data from the National Survey of Student Engagement, a self-assessment of student learning filled out by millions each year, and recent ethnographies of student life provide a rich background.

Their results are sobering. 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.

Results varied to some extent. At every institution studied, from research universities to small colleges, some students performed at high levels, and some programs fostered more learning than others. In general, though, two points come through with striking clarity. First, traditional subjects and methods seem to retain their educational value. 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.

Concerning this CLA "exercise that requires students to read a set of documents on a fictional problem in business or politics and write a memo advising an official on how to respond," I can readily imagine that I'd have difficulty doing well on such an exam. Such an exercise demands not just skills in analysis, synthesis, and composition but also some sense of what works in the practical world of business and politics, and that sense comes mostly from life experience in those worlds. As an impractical scholar, I'd likely perform worse than some of my students. Well . . . maybe not here in Korea, where undergraduates have far less practical experience than American ones. If I were teaching in the States, I suspect that my students performing best on this CLA would be the young men and women who'd served a few years in the military on tours in Iraq or Afghanistan and had learned to deal with complex situations requiring quick analysis and practical solutions. But there aren't many such students with that sort of experience.

I suppose I ought to feel gratified that students majoring in liberal arts and studying on their own tend to do best on the CLA, for that describes the sort of student I was . . . but if I'm one of those who'd outperform students in other majors, especially if they engaged in group study, then the CLA scores must be dire indeed.

What's the solution? I don't know. I'll just keep slogging away at teaching as best I know how. Encouraging students to think for themselves. Providing critical feedback to students on essays and research papers. Generally showing students the virtues of moderate irascibility. One ought to be a bit put out with the world . . .

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