A side note before I start: I want to blog a little about Egypt, but I'm going to first re-read Leila Ahmed's A Border Passage, her memoir about immigrating to the US from Cairo. It's got a solid bit about Egyptian history, and I think I need that refresher.
There's this new book out that's causing a stir. It's called Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, written by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa and published by the University of Chicago press. I haven't read it (it's about $70), so I'm drawing on the many articles that are summarizing and analyzing it.
In their book, Arum and Roksa posit that students don't learn very much in their four years in college. How did they come to this conclusion? They tracked 2,300 students in 24 colleges and universities, using a variety of methods, including surveys, transcript analyses, and the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a standardized test that (according to their website) "presents realistic problems that require students to analyze complex materials and determine the relevance to the task and credibility. Students' written responses to the tasks are evaluated to assess their abilities to think critically, reason analytically, solve problems and communicate clearly and cogently." Arum and Roksa found that 45 percent of (traditional, full-time) students didn't improve significantly in those areas during their first two years, that 36 percent didn't improve significantly over all four years, and that those who did improve only improved a little.
In other words, we're not learning in college. It's quite a damning conclusion.
It seems, just from reading these articles, that Arum and Roksa lay the blame on 1) lack of rigor in classes and 2) lack of time spent studying and in academic pursuits--most students spent 30 hours (or less) a week engaged academically. They also say this (quoted in the Chronicle of Higher Ed review): “[S]tudents…majoring in traditional liberal-arts fields…demonstrated significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study. Students majoring in business, education, social work , and communications had the lowest measurable gains.” There's nothing about the sciences in the article, so I can't speak to those. (Does feel kinda nice, though, to have a little bit of vindication after having majored in such a "useless" field as literature.)
I'm a bit academically inclined myself, so perhaps I shouldn't really respond with my own experiences. But I do think about my college days, especially my first two years. I have distinct memories of my freshman year, sitting in the hallway (because for some reason, I couldn't read in my room) and puzzling over Aristotle's Metaphysics (it made my head hurt). I also have memories of holing myself up for hours and hours in order to study for Cosmology exams, of reading Beowulf at two in the morning because I couldn't sleep--damn insomnia--of being in study groups for Betsy Morgan's lit exams and Dr. Jenkins' Byzantine Empire exams, of sitting in my room senior year trying to piece together bits of research for my thesis.
If anything, I learned to think in college. Not that I hadn't been able to in high school, but it's certainly a different level of thought. I also read. I read a lot. I devoured books and plays and poems. Some of that I did on my own, but I credit many of my professors with pushing me to be academically curious.
Perhaps, in some cases, this "academic adriftness" is our fault as students--after all, learning is what we make of it. And perhaps it's the fault of colleges--that their expectations have lowered over the years, and, as a result, so has our level of learning. I don't know. There have been criticisms of the study, of course, and those should be taken seriously. But we should take Arum and Roksa's book seriously as well, because an examination of college learning is necessary to our growth (and perhaps our survival, but that may be taking it too far). Education, after all, isn't a static thing, and if we can make it better, we should.