Students ‘Adrift’? Don’t Blame Them

inside-college-classroom.jpgI haven’t read Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, and frankly, I’m not sure that I want to. Having had high expectations of other widely touted books on higher education—most recently, Hacker and Dreifus’s Higher Education?, Martha Nussbaum’s Not For Profit, Mark Taylor’s Crisis on Campus—and having been sadly disappointed after reading them, I’m afraid that reading this book will be an instance of history repeating itself. Besides, after listening to a great deal of the chatter that it’s generated, I keep asking myself, “What’s new?”

In his fascinating book, Weapons of Mass Instruction (2009), John Taylor Gatto cites a 2006 study conducted by the University of Connecticut that affirmed that college students weren’t learning the things they were supposed to be learning. Having surveyed 14,000 students at fifty intuitions in five academic areas, the study showed that at sixteen of the fifty schools—including Yale, Brown, and Georgetown—negative intellectual growth (meaning that seniors knew less than freshman) had actually occurred among undergraduates. In thirty-four of the fifty schools, no discernable change occurred. This prompted Gatto to write: “after spending an average of six years in search of a BA degree or its equivalent, and spending an average of a quarter million in cash and loans, a great many young people had nothing or even less than nothing to show for the investment.”

In the American Scholar (Summer 2008), former Yale professor William Deresiewicz already warned us that even the elite institutions, which used to be the bastions of higher education, have been slouching “toward a glorified form of vocational training” and increasingly graduating more educated ignoramuses. Will another book on the failings of higher education deter students from going to ivy-league schools, even though they will be no better off after graduating than the 35 percent of first-year community college students who don’t return for their second year, or the 33 percent of students at four-year institutions who don’t complete a bachelor’s degree within six years of enrolling, or even those who never step foot in an ivory tower? (Source: A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education, 2006.)


I suppose that some pundits (especially those who don’t teach) savor a book like Academically Adrift because it gives them ammunition to blame students for poor learning by saying that they are apathetic, or that they shouldn’t be in college, or that they worship the wrong values—apparently Arum and Roksa tell us that college students spend 51% of each week on socializing and recreation, but only 12-14 hours studying. But this complaint is nothing new. Letters from the Middle Ages, when the modern university was born, show fathers chastising their sons for spending more time on gambling, drinking, and women than on studying. T. S. Eliot commented on similar tendencies among undergraduates almost a hundred years ago: If attending college or university is “not going to mean more money, or more power over others, or a better social position, or at least a steady and respectable job, few people are going to take the trouble to acquire education. For deteriorate it as you may, education is still going to demand a good deal of drudgery.”

That’s human nature, and why I find it difficult to blame students for poor learning outcomes in college, even when they are woefully unmotivated or unprepared. I do blame modern educators, including administrators of colleges and universities, for failing to demand that the standards for acquiring a liberal education be maintained, and to defend those standards. I also blame them for failing to reinforce the unity of knowledge once students get to college and to exemplify the value of liberal education in their own work, in their classrooms, and in their lives. Arum and Roksa may have data to affirm this, but Benjamin Barber (among others) has already blasted the profession at all levels for sending the message that what they do as academics has peripheral value: history is taught but rarely consulted; and courses like “ethics” merely adorn specialized subjects—“legal ethics,” “ethics in medicine,” “business ethics”—when they should be at their center, as the recent economic meltdown has made clear. (See “America Skips School: Why We Talk So Much about Education and Do So Little,” Harper’s Magazine, 1993.)

The real reason students aren’t learning anything meaningful, and think that most of their courses are a waste of money and time, is that they are bored. But we already knew that too. In The American Freshman (2009), John Pryor, et al. reported that 80 percent of first-year students surveyed expected rigorous academic standards in college but were sorely disappointed once they got there. George D. Kuh, director of the Indiana University Center for postsecondary Education, told us in 2007 that most freshman anticipated greater engagement and higher expectations than what was asked of them in high school, but that few professors were providing that.

Data from the National Survey of Student Engagement and the Beginning College Survey of Student Engagement (2008) showed that “about three-fifths” of freshman “study two to six hours less per week on average than they thought they would when starting college,” and that after being in college for one year, most students said that their institutions did not emphasize “academics to a substantial degree,” as they had expected. The 2008 College Senior Survey reported that nearly 60 percent of college seniors studied less than 10 hours during a typical week, and that 25 percent frequently felt bored in class. The 2010 study by the Center for Studies in Higher Education at Berkeley revealed similar results.
This is hardly surprising, since most students experience in their classes what one student describes in an open letter to professors (“5 Things Professors Don’t Know,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 2009): “If you literally read off of a paper for an hour and fifteen minutes this does not count as a lecture. Everyone will either be asleep or hate you. I had a professor once do this for the full 14 weeks of the semester. She would often pause and look up at us, as if expecting some sort of a reaction. What did she expect us to do? Stand up and break out in raucous applause?” Not only are most professors unprepared for the profession of teaching, as I’ve discussed here before, most have pandered to the growing numbers of them who are neither prepared for college life nor capable of doing college-level work by softening the curriculum and lowering standards, as students themselves are aware.

The recent study conducted by the Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts at Wabash College shows that only 26 percent of undergraduates at small institutions, and only 18 percent at larger institutions, felt strongly that their professors had high expectations and challenged them academically. At a state university where I taught, seniors who took my 100-level survey course told me that it was the hardest and most intellectually demanding class they had taken in four years at college. Many were actually grateful for having taken my course and felt cheated by their other professors—although others weren’t as grateful and eventually dropped the course or wrote negative comments on Ratemyprofessor.com. In an age when higher education exists for credentialing, and anyone can “get a degree,” they wanted an easy professor and a blow-off class. I refused to accommodate them.

The problem is not a rigorous curriculum or high academic standards. As a freshman I was neither ready nor prepared for college. I grew up on the South side of Chicago in a working-class family. My mother, a single-parent, raised my three sisters and me. No one in my immediate or extended family (except for one cousin) went to college, let alone to graduate school. College wasn’t even an option, and I probably wouldn’t have considered it if my high school director hadn’t asked me at the beginning of my senior year where I planned to apply. After serving in the army, I attended a liberal arts college where I came under the spell of two fascinating teachers whose ability to stimulate students seemed unparalleled. They didn’t dismiss me or write me off or let me slide by because I wasn’t college material. Rather, they made me read difficult and challenging books; they took the time to teach me to write; and they showed me by their example how a mature, learned, and disciplined mind approaches various intellectual questions. Above all else, they imbued me with the appropriate habits of thought and mind that defines the liberally educated person. If I had been tested, as a senior, on what I learned in biology my freshman year, or in economics my sophomore year, I probably would have failed; but if one compared my disposition, mindset, and intellectual outlook, as a senior, to what they were as a freshman, one would have seen an entirely different person.

That’s where colleges and universities are failing today. They are not turning students into mature, thinking beings with appropriate dispositions. One reason is that modern educators share no common goals about the ends of higher education and are inconsistent with their expectations from students in their courses; another reason is lack of discipline in the classroom, instruction without authority. Professors mustn’t dictate what is good for students or what they must know; subjecting students to rigorous academic standards and intellectual discipline is tantamount to punishing them; reason and argument are coercive.

Like many professors, I have dealt with students who thought they deserved good grades simply because they were enrolled in my class and showed up most of the time. When a former student who received a bad grade on a paper complained because I didn’t allow him to express his “opinion,” I said that first he had requirements to fulfill and to demonstrate his understanding of the particulars of our subject before he could offer an “opinion” on the issue he was writing about. He didn’t like my answer. He had been encouraged to express himself throughout grade school and high school and held the assumption that every interpretation is valid and should be given equal weight. He ignored that I was hired and paid for my knowledge, which gave me the authority to instruct him and to evaluate his performance.

This rarely (if ever) happens in the sciences. Budding biologists and fledgling physicists follow a strict curriculum and willingly submit to it, or else they get “weeded out,” and then take up a soft subject in the humanities. Nor does it happen in college sports. Watch any college football or basketball game and you’ll see coaches often chastising players, who readily submit themselves to their criticisms and demands, but almost never complain that coaches are intimidating or too strict. Why? Because it is understood that coaches know what is best for student-athletes and are pushing them to improve their skills and performance. Only in the sciences and college sports—apparently what really matter—is the demand for excellence taken seriously.

Our legitimate authority as teachers—which means instructing students and often telling them what to do even when they don’t want to do it—is undermined when it can be challenged on the faulty premise that the student as a customer is always right or that every opinion has equal weight and should be counted as any other. It is the nature of democratic peoples, I suppose, as Plato discusses in The Republic (Book VIII). When freedom is praised as the greatest good, teachers become frightened of their pupils and fawn on them, and students in turn don’t take their teachers seriously. In such a situation the young “copy their elders and compete with them in speeches and deeds,” while the old “come down to the level of the young” and imitate them, “overflowing with facility and charm, and that’s so they won’t seem to be unpleasant or despotic.”

Some may accuse Plato of exaggeration or irrelevance, but is he is really that far off the mark? “Spend some hours in school zones,” writes Mark Bauerlein, “and you see that the indulgent attitude toward youth, along with the downplay of tradition, has reached the point of dogma among teachers, reporters, researchers, and creators in arts and humanities fields, and pro-knowledge, pro-tradition conceptions strike them as bluntly unpleasant, if not reactionary and out of touch.” Today students evaluate professors despite not being in a position to judge their knowledge or ability as teachers. Untenured professors feel compelled to kowtow to students because they are afraid of getting bad evaluations and hurting their prospects for tenure; even tenured professors must worry that students or parents complaining about them to the dean might hurt their promotions or pay raises.

Nothing is more exasperating, in my opinion, than students, usually complaining about grades, who compare my standards with those of other professors. I refuse to go there, and flatly tell them that they are in my class not Professor X’s. Some students, aware of my military background, have compared me to a drill sergeant, not only because of my high expectations, but because I strictly enforce the rules that I put in my syllabus and lay down on the first day of class:

Rude Behavior Will Not Be Tolerated
This includes:
-sleeping in class;
-talking while class is in session;
-reading newspapers, letters, books, and other materials not related to the course;
-working on other assignments during class;
-using or checking mobile phones during class;
-texting or Twittering during class.

I have kicked students out of my classroom for violating these rules. But even in required courses, in which I have upheld my rules and expectations, I have been able to win over reluctant students, as one told me in an e-mail at the end of a semester: “I wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed the course. I certainly entered with a bias against it, but found myself enjoying it more and more as the term progressed. You challenged me to think in new ways and question things I never would have thought to question before.”

In the absence of a rigorous curriculum with demanding courses, it is up to teachers on the front line to restore the integrity of higher education by imbuing students with goals and aspirations consistent with broad instruction in the liberal arts. As Jason Fertig wrote here—well before the arrival of Academically Adrift—“if we are going to restore the ‘higher’ in higher education, it has to start with motivated educators at the grassroots level. We cannot follow the same ineffective battle plan and expect different results.” We must not only demand higher standards from our students, we must show them that college-level work is serious and requires higher levels of mastery than what they achieved in high school, even if their expectations or educational goals have nothing to do with acquiring a liberal education.

Eventually I will read Academically Adrift. I only hope that it doesn’t leave me adrift in the sea of other books on higher education that I have recently read.

Sean McKitrick

Sean McKitrick is Associate Provost at Binghamton University.

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