I must admit that when I first read the results of Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses I wasn’t surprised. In fact, I was surprised that anyone would be surprised at their findings. As a college instructor for over a decade, I have witnessed first hand that 45 percent of college students “show no significant improvement in the key measures of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing by the end of their sophomore years” (Huffingtonpost.com).
In the fall of 2005, I was so shocked that my students didn’t know who the Secretary of Defense was in a time of war (Donald Rumsfeld) that I started requiring my public speaking students to read Newsweek. I gave students weekly quizzes about the latest issue and eventually started including vocabulary in each quiz. The vocabulary section wasn’t particularly difficult. Students had to match the word with its definition. That was it– match the word to the definition. On one ill-fated week in winter of 2007 (I remember it that vividly) one of the vocabulary words was steely. The definition was “resembles steel in hardness.” One-third of my students did not correctly match steely with “resembles steel in hardness.” I think my soul died a little that day.
Arum and Roksa’s study, in addition to PISA latest results for high school education place the United States in a precarious position. As a country surely we want better than to be 14th in the industrialized world in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math. Once our children get to college surely we want a better process than the current one where students are graduating with a 3.2 g.p.a., on average, yet show no great strides in their ability to critically think. Yes, Lyndsey Wajert, many college students aren’t ‘as dumb’ as the study infers. But far too many are horribly, inadequately prepared for college and the world beyond. In a higher education system that functions by business models instead of intellectual ones, more and more students view their college education as a hoop to jump through, not an experience in personal growth and intellectual exploration. Paying tuition does not equate to going to the local hypermart where you can return an item if it didn’t meet your expectations. Or does it? Will the Registrar’s office soon become a customer service desk where you can ‘return’ that “C” in sociology for an “A?”
We can do better. We can be better.