Academia Adrift: A Preliminary Report on Research Direction

To the extent that coverage in the Chronicle of Higher Education is a measure, a new book by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift,[1] has attracted considerable attention within academia since its publication early this year. David Glenn writes that the authors “have been through a torrent of radio interviews and public lectures. In the first days after the book’s release, they had to handle a certain amount of breathless reaction, both pro and con, from people who hadn’t actually read it.”[2] No doubt. The book’s first chapter will likely resonate widely within academia—and authors Arum and Roksa make certain that it will by citing on page two a nearly unanimous consensus among educators that the major purpose of an undergraduate education is to instill critical thinking skills, a purpose they allege is not being fulfilled. From there, they proceed to indict a culture on campuses that seems to be about anything but learning with a decline in hours students spend studying, a decline in expectations professors—who also face increasing demands of a “publish or perish” mentality—have of students, and college administrations that are increasingly business- and decreasingly scholarly-oriented.

I have only read part-way through chapter three, but questions both broader and more narrow emerge. First, methodologically, if we accept John Bean’s seemingly reasonable assertion that critical thinking skills are best measured through writing skills,[3] and if we accept Arum and Roksa’s findings that students are also failing to develop writing skills, then to what extent is the College Learning Assessment that Arum and Roksa rely upon measuring critical thinking skills and not students’ failure to express ideas clearly? And why would Arum and Roksa turn to a study, the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education, using closed-ended questions to validate their own?

A stark question emerges here of what is critical thinking? And more precisely, how shall we recognize it? The developers of the College Learning Assessment believe they have an answer to that question, but how well does that answer align with a social, political, and economic system which reserves its greatest rewards for uncritical and possibly criminal behaviors of Wall Street;[4] a system which—as Arum and Roksa repeat—allegedly “values the ‘highly analytical individual who can think abstractly,’”[5] but leaves many graduates unemployed and living with family or earning low incomes;[6] and a system in which many people displace their feelings of economic victimization onto members of subaltern groups[7] and onto members of the educational and cultural elite?[8] And from that, are we, after decades of intentional institutional stealing from the poor, working, and middle classes,[9] to attribute the apparent maladies of that system merely to dysfunction? What does United States society really need and desire from its colleges and universities?

The question of relevance in turn leads in two directions. First, Arum and Roksa harshly criticize students for valuing “social learning” over the content of their courses but given a social system that historically has privileged not merely those who attend elite institutions but the members of select organizations at those institutions and following that, counterpart organizations outside academia,[10] are students wrong to emphasize social networking? Writing for Atlantic, Chrystia Freeland would point to

the rise of a new super-elite that consists, to a notable degree, of first- and second-generation wealth. Its members are hardworking, highly educated, jet-setting meritocrats who feel they are the deserving winners of a tough, worldwide economic competition—and many of them, as a result, have an ambivalent attitude toward those of us who didn’t succeed so spectacularly.[11]

Freeland points to examples such as Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Peter Peterson, Stephen Schwarzman, Charles and David Koch, and Sam Walton, effectively reinforcing a notion that rewards for merit, defined in cut-throat competitive terms, are an exception rather than the rule. This is not a solution for the vast majority of people, or even the vast majority of educated people in our society. So again, the question of relevance arises: what does the United States really need, want, and desire from its colleges and universities?

The other direction that questions of relevance lead is entirely opposite from hierarchical institutions in which a select few determine what the many should learn. This is an avenue explored prominently by Paulo Freire, most famously in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Freire argues that rather than making people come to institutions, “teachers” should go to the people; and that rather than imposing knowledge upon people in a “banking deposit” style of education, we should all be co-learners, critically examining and searching for solutions to problems.[12] Freire’s model is entirely inconsistent with traditional academia, which is defined by its intense and highly visible hierarchical structure. But I would argue that academia has reached a dead end in a country where even the creative jobs that Daniel Pink believed would be retained[13] are now eligible for export, where a substantial segment of society devalues academic work and values,[14] and where it is no longer apparent—to the extent that competition is to be preferred to cooperation—that colleges and universities can provide any advantage to this country over institutions being established in other countries.

But even Freire’s approach will not be without difficulty. The problems of academia lead inescapably to the problems of the economy. And for Thomas Frank, many people view economic injustice as “simply business,” accepting the capitalist system as beyond challenge. The psychology of anger displaced onto us,[15] and onto subaltern groups[16] suggests that we must first problematize the problem of approaching people who in many cases think the solution is for us to go to hell.

And to be honest, I do not know how to proceed.

  1. [1]Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2011).
  2. [2]David Glenn, “Scholars Question New Book’s Gloom on Education,” Chronicle of Higher Education, February 13, 2011
  3. [3]John C. Bean, Engaging Ideas (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001).
  4. [4]Andy Kroll, “Fannie and Freddie’s Foreclosure Barons,” Mother Jones, August 4, 2010; Amy Goodman, “When Banks Are the Robbers,” Truthdig, October 19, 2010; John Letzing, “Ohio AG sues GMAC, Ally over foreclosure fraud,” MarketWatch, October 6, 2010; Dean Starkman, “A ‘Gate’ Worthy of the Name—’ForeclosureGate’,” Columbia Journalism Review, October 11, 2010; Matt Taibbi, “Courts Helping Banks Screw Over Homeowners,” Rolling Stone, November 10, 2010; L. Randall Wray, “Right Now, A Complete Collapse Of The Financial System Is Not Out Of The Question,” Business Insider, November 4, 2010
  5. [5]Caludia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz, The Race between Education and Technology (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2008, 353), as quoted in Arum and Roksa, Academically Adrift, 2.
  6. [6]David Glenn, “New Book Lays Failure to Learn on Colleges’ Doorsteps,” Chronicle of Higher Education, January 18, 2011
  7. [7]Scott Sernau, Worlds Apart: Social Inequalities in a Global Economy, 2nd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge, 2006).
  8. [8]Steven J. Bartlett, “Barbarians at the Door,” Modern Age, 35(4): 296-310; Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (New York: Henry Holt, 2005); Jacob Weisberg, “The Right’s New Left,” Slate, September 18, 2010
  9. [9]Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer—And Turned Its back on the Middle Class (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010).
  10. [10]G. William Domhoff, “The American Upper Class,” in Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, Thomas M. Shapiro, ed., 3rd ed. (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2005), 156-164.
  11. [11]Chrystia Freeland, “The Rise of the New Global Elite,” Atlantic, January/February 2011
  12. [12]Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th Anniversary ed. (New York: Continuum, 2006).
  13. [13]Daniel H. Pink, A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age (New York: Riverhead, 2005).
  14. [14]Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas?
  15. [15]Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas?
  16. [16]Sernau, Worlds Apart.

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