Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Academically bereft?

Here and here are two accounts of a new study (in the form of a book out Tuesday) that I don't think will shock anyone ... certainly not anyone who's been reading this blog. Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses suggests more formally what cynics have been saying informally for years: that a college degree signifies little about the knowledge of its holder, and that its true practical value is as an admission ticket to the workforce, period. According to Adrift's authors, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, today's college students spend the bulk of their time partying, screwing and orchestrating/coordinating the next upcoming episodes of same. Oh wait, I forgot: A fair number of underclassmen also participate in sports, music or another extracurricular activity. On average, the 2322 students in the study at the heart of the book devoted less than a fifth of their time to academics, against 51 percent given over to socializing and such. Unsurprisingly, then, "After four years, 36 percent of the students surveyed showed no significant gains" in the knowledge base and critical-thinking skills we (naively) tend to associate with college grads. How terribly comforting to parents who spend, also on average, $27,000 a year for their child's college education.

To me, however, the most telling aspect of all this is that despite the relatively low priority that students assign to the actual educational component of college life, they "earn," collectively, a 3.2 GPA. ... Can you spell "malignant grade inflation"? (I bet they can't.)

I'm rushed today, but I may have an addendum to this in days to come, and I certainly welcome comment in the meantime.


Dimension Skipper said...

I saw this reported on ABC news last night. No, I wasn't surprised.

Greg House¹ says "Everybody Lies."

Anymore I believe there's a significant corollary to that: "Everybody works the system." That is, everybody seems (or schemes) to look for loopholes and shortcuts rather than work honestly and properly within any established system so that said system can work as it was originally designed to work. Of course, that corollary is really just the old saying "If you're not cheatin', you're not tryin'" re-stated in a way so as to make it sound legit and acceptable (when it really shouldn't be).

Once again (for me) this all comes back to my own pet theory of too damned many people and spiralling complexity in the world as a result... Couple that with the "Everybody does it" mentality and then factor in the ever greater mass of communications options along with even more official, semi-official, and random reporting outlets shared by those "everybodys" and, well, this is the world we get as a result.

At some point, I even wonder if the picture painted is reflecting reality or if reality goes meta and begins to reflect the reflection due to the image presented in the media. (Has our world become a house of mirrors?) In other words, will a college student² who hears of this report decide to really get serious and do the actual work trying to "learn stuff" or will they just continue along the same way because obviously that's just how it is. Call me a cynical curmudgeon, but I think inertia usually wins out.

Did I work enough generalizations and clich├ęs in there?... Doesn't make it not true.

¹ Fictional character and focus of TV series House, M.D. for anyone who may not be aware.

² I shouldn't ignore the teaching side of the issue either. The ABC report also mentioned how professors are often more focused on their own publishing than teaching. In other words they're working their own separate system!

Hmmm, perhaps lost in all this too is that reporters/journalists also may be working their own system. Hence we (sometimes) get headline hyped sensationalism and maybe even factual exaggeration in order to draw more attention, higher ratings to the media outlet with little regard toward actually getting the story right.

Pick a system, any system, generally bureaucratic for the public masses or specifically focused in one specialized arena, and there'll be people, individuals or organizations, trying to cut corners while appearing to navigate it properly.

This is in very general terms a large part of what's often wrong with government imo... too much political strategizing focused merely on gaining and retaining power as the main goal, not enough actual "solutionizing" toward truly serving the public good once that power is attained. But then again when the public good is actually served, the public turns around and tries to take advantage somewhere. See how it's all very spirally?

(NOTE: I'm not even sure anymore how much of this comment is serious and how much is tongue-in-cheek... Lines and perceptions blur, things get out of control. Heck, this comment started out as a quickie blurb and look at what it became! And yes, I realize this all makes me sound like I'm ready to scale a clock tower somewhere myself, but I assure you that's not the case.)

Cosmic Connie said...

And yet our culture remains so entranced by "official" credentials that the diploma mills, so loved by certain New-Wage hucksters, continue to do a booming business selling phony doctorates.

Sad, really.

Steve Salerno said...

CosCon: Very good point in postscript (and once again you bring my blog back to its proper roots). Thanks!

DimSkip: I think there's a great deal of truth to your observations re educational "inertia." It's like the old line about calling people "losers": "Tell someone he's a loser and you can be sure he'll live up [down?] to the label." (That's why the issue of self-esteem is not quite as simple/simplistic as I've made it out to be. Like many things in life, it's a balancing act: Both too little of it and too much of it are dangerous.) OTOH, there are some people who, when called "losers," will marshal every ounce of resolve they possess in order to prove you wrong. So you just never know.

(Which means I basically just expended a lot of words in saying nothing.)

As for the press "working its own system": Absolutely! [See my piece on journalism for Skeptic. In fact, entire books have been written on the subject, notably by James Fallows.] But this thing with colleges definitely strikes me as a "where there's smoke" scenario: There's just too much evidence--anecdotal and statistical--for the impressions conveyed in this new survey to be a media-driven fiction.

Cosmic Connie said...

And here's a quotation that's quite relevant, I think, to the direction in which this discussion has turned (as well as being relevant to another recent post on SHAMblog). I read this snippet in the new issue of Reader's Digest (which is falling victim itself to the rapidly changing media milieu). The quotation is from a new book by Seth Mnookin, "The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear" (Simon & Schuster):

"On the Internet, facts float about freely and are recombined more according to the preferences of intuition than the rules of cognition: Mercury is toxic, toxins can cause development disorders, mercury is in vaccines; ergo, vaccines cause autism. Combined with the self-reinforcing nature of online communities and a content-starved, cash-poor journalistic culture that gravitates towards neat narratives at the expense of messy truths, this disdain for actualities has led to a world with increasingly porous boundaries between facts and beliefs, a world in which individualized notions of reality, no matter how bizarre or irrational, are repeatedly validated."

That explains it pretty well.

Steve Salerno said...

CosCon: The saddest part is that it isn't just on the internet. Ratings-minded journalists (and the "news" outlets for which they work) are also accomplished nowadays at creating a pastiche of lies, half-truths and "expert opinion" in the service of irresistible (often alarmist) headlines. Once again I refer you to the lede of my Skeptic piece on broadcast journalism...

... To listen to all the horror stories, you'd think that just about every child in America will be abducted by a stranger in the course of his or her life. That particular scenario--abduction by a stranger--is tragic-BUT-RARE. Very rare. The real danger is posed by members of the child's family and extended family, especially the live-in boyfriends of single mothers. But for a variety of reasons--including the clout wielded by the feminist lobby, both in and out of newsrooms--that story line is a "non-starter," as we say in the biz.

namowal said...

Thanks for posting this, Steve. Like you, I am unsurprised by these results, but they're something I think everyone should be aware of if they aren't already.

I just wanted to provide a few thoughts as someone who is deep in the system. (I finished my ph.d. a couple of years ago and have been working one-year professorships at different universities since then. Still looking for a tenure-track position...)

1. DimSkip's 'footnote' 2 places the blame right where it goes - the teachers - though we also need to add administrators to that list (see (2)). Grade inflation? You betcha! Only teachers can be held responsible for that. Currently, students *expect* A's. A 'B' means 'poor' to them. If you try to be one the teachers who maintains that a 'C' means average, you are seen as a bitch. (Well, I'm female; I don't know what male teachers are seen as, but it's not nice either.) Since a majority of professors are buying into this, can you blame the students for expecting A's or at least B's just for showing up?

2. But why do most teachers care more about research? Because that's what the tenure system is based on. If a professor has horrible evals coupled with an excellent list of publications - that prof gets tenure. A prof with excellent evals and limited publications doesn't get tenure and has to leave academia. So it doesn't pay to make teaching a priority.

3. Universities are businesses not 'institutions of higher learning'. All they really care about is the bottom line. They have learned that, by using adjuncts (people who are paid by the class and often have no benefits) and 'lecturers' (professors on salary but not on tenure-track - where I'm at), they can stretch their funds further. Of course such people are not ideal teachers. Even if they are excellent at teaching, they are often not there for long and cannot develop long term relationships with students, and they have no 'status' and thus no control over curriculum, major/minor requirements, etc. Furthermore, when many people are adjuncts for too long, they get so worn down by the 'abuse' (long hours at essentially minimum wage, colleagues often treat you like scum, no office space, etc.) that their once flourishing teaching skills wilt.

4. *Everyone* is expected to go to college. Want to be a mechanic, an artist, a dog walker? Better go to college first. When everyone goes to college, a college degree becomes just like a high school diploma - something that proves you can make it through the system, and nothing more.

So, I've outlined a bunch of problems and no solutions. I'd love to hear y'all's suggestions for how to start to fix these problems. I think about this stuff everyday, but I don't know what to do. I love to teach; I love to do research; I think I'm good at both, so I want to stay in academia. But everyday I think about how broke the university system is and wonder if there really is any hope.

a/good/lysstener said...

Steve, quick response: So true, so true, so tragically true!

renee said...

We can't solve the problem because we're tackling the wrong problem.

We shouldn't be trying to increase our number of college graduates to keep up with the rest of the world.

We should be trying to increase the number of thinking, provocative, enlightened, curious, involved and interested people in our country.

It may not surprise you to know I wrote about this too, Steve.

Steve Salerno said...

Renee: Thanks for stopping by and posting this.

In addition, there's the argument made by Charles Murray (who was widely demonized after the publication of his book, The Bell Curve) in an issue of The American Enterprise a while back. Murray in essence argued, "What's the big deal about college, anyway? Not everyone's cut out for college. And people who aren't cut out for college likely make more money by skipping college and going directly into the workforce after high school." His piece featured intriguing data and a number of provocative logical propositions that would've been food for widespread cultural rethinking--had Murray published his thoughts in a journal that doesn't tend to get marginalized by the (yes, still) liberal media.