In a recent blog entry by Dr. Philip Nel, a specialist in Children’s Literature at the University of Kansas, heralded the findings in Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s book entitled Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (University of Chicago Press, 2011), which indicated that undergraduate majors in the humanities learn more.

This appears at a time in which there is a flurry of articles questioning the amount of learning that occurs in the first two years of their college education. Although the study demonstrated that students in the humanities and social sciences were performing in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills, than students in fields like business, education, and social work, the results of the study indicated that students in science and mathematics were actually leading the way. “Mathematic majors scored 77 points higher than business majors on the 2007 CLA, while social science /humanities majors scored 69 points higher” (106). In a time when the humanities and other liberal arts have lost ground to the so-called practical arts (business, education, social work, communications, health, computer science and engineering) this is certainly good news.

This is also important at a time when universities and colleges are experiencing economic pressure as well as increased competition for high performing students and a demand to provide “practical majors” that will bring a quick return on an educational investment. For a number of years, many of us have contended that students need to build their skills as competent thinkers, readers and writers. Clear thinking, reasoning, expression are necessary skills in any field, and I have yet to hear anyone argue the contrary. The humanities, along with science and math, are dedicated to develop these skills. However, before we congratulate ourselves too much, we should present some discussion about Arum and Roksa’s research, their basic premises and their conclusions, all of which go far reaching implications for the academic community, US culture, adolescents, privileged and under-privileged high schools, cultural preparedness for academic success, and our nation’s future. 

The researchers focused on the first two years of undergraduate education in which students take a number of their general education courses. They sought to determine how much students learned in this part of their undergraduate education. The basic premise of the research is that if 99% of college and university mission statements purport that the development of critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills are paramount to an undergraduate education, then research should be able to demonstrate students are developing these skills. Instead of using assessments that addressed discipline specific content, researchers used an instrument called the CLA (the Collegiate Learning Assessment), which consists of an open-ended performance task and two analytical writing assignments.  The point is to assess the core outcomes of critical thinking that appear in the majority of university, college and departmental mission statements.

According to their results, 45% of the students in the study demonstrated no significant gains in the development of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing during their first three semesters. While those of us in the humanities should take advantage of these findings to remind the public that our disciplines are contributing to the achievement of the university’s stated goals and mission, there are findings that go beyond our own departmental and disciplinary agendas. The most salient observations of the report tell us about problems that we will face in the future when college graduates will have to confront the gap between their expectations and their realization.

In regard to the reasons for this lack of progress, Arum and Roksa assign responsibility to all of the stakeholders in higher education: students, professors, high schools, universities, administrators, and society at large. Professors and university administrators participate in the problem. At the university level, these concerns are nothing new; many appeared in Ernest Boyer’s work in the 1980s. Boyer was concerned that many colleges were changing their focus from the student to the professor, from general to specialized education, and from loyalty to campus to loyalty to the profession” (7).  As a result, success in the classroom was reframed as positive student evaluations, which doesn’t necessarily translate into academic rigor and intellectual challenges for students.

The most telling is that many students come to the university poorly prepared for higher demanding academic skills, but also they enter college with “attitudes, norms, values, and behaviors that are often at odds with academic commitment.” The authors refer to these students as “drifting dreamers” who have high ambitions and expectation, but no clear idea of how to achieve their expectations and little comprehension of the effort involved in achieving goals. From this notion, these students are “academically adrift.” This trend is also evidenced by the drift away from an academic focus to a lifestyle focus where the largest growth in college and university hiring has been in non-faculty support professionals. Student Life, upscale student housing, clubs, organizations, and Greek life are all now considered essential to the college experience. 

The study also frames the current state of academia in the post-World War II expansion and democratization of higher education combined with the mentalities of “persistence over performance,” and “credentialism” has transformed a college education into a commodity. Students are less interested in acquiring specific skills and more interested in obtaining the credentials that will ensure them a high paying job in the labor market. Hence, students strive to obtain a diploma with the least amount of effort possible.

To be continued…

About the Author

Jimmy Gabacho

Gabacho– according to the Dictionary of the Spanish Royal Academy– is derived from an old Provençal word “gavach,” meaning a person from the foothills of the Pyrenees who spoke incorrectly. These days, it means “outsider,” somebody who just doesn’t fit in.

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