THE Scholarly Web

Weekly transmissions from the blogosphere

June 16, 2011

"Recently there has been a boom in the cottage industry of complaining about higher education." This opening line from the Center for Faculty Excellence at McDaniel College blog could apply to any number of countries at present, but in this instance it refers to the US.

The posting is by Bryn Upton, assistant professor of history at the liberal-arts college, who says: "As the number of people pursuing a college education increases and the expectations change, we find ourselves besieged by well-meaning policymakers, helicopter parents, anxious students and expectant employers. They all want to know what it is they can expect from a college education."

Professor Upton notes that this "so-called crisis" has also led to an avalanche of books discussing the woes of higher education, citing in particular Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (2010).

Its authors, Richard Arum, professor of sociology and education at New York University, and Josipa Roksa, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, track the "academic gains" of 2,300 students on four-year undergraduate courses.

They conclude that almost half show no improvement in critical thinking, analytical reasoning and other "higher-level" skills associated with degree-level study during the first two years of their courses, and about a third still demonstrate no significant improvement after four years.

Describing his and his colleagues' responses to the findings, Professor Upton says: "A good-sized group of faculty came together to discuss (the book). We shared anecdotes and data, passed around articles and charts, did a decent amount of hand-wringing and (as academics do) agreed to keep talking about it."

One voice that he thinks should be added to the conversation is that of Louis Menand, professor of English and American literature and language at Harvard University. In an essay for The New Yorker, Professor Menand considers different theories about what a university education is for.

One is that "society needs a mechanism for sorting out its more intelligent members from its less intelligent ones", so that it can "funnel them into careers that maximise their talents".

If you take this view, he writes, then "it doesn't matter which courses students take, or even what is taught in them, as long as they're rigorous enough for the sorting mechanism to do its work. All that matters is the grades."

Another theory is that a university education is something that produces "reflective and culturally literate human beings".

If you take this view, Professor Menand writes, then "you might consider grades a useful instrument...but the only thing that matters is what students actually learn".

"A lot of confusion is caused by the fact that since 1945, American higher education has been committed to both theories," he argues. "The system is designed to be both meritocratic (Theory 1) and democratic (Theory 2)...We want higher education to be available to all Americans, but we also want people to deserve the grades they receive."

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