College Students Are Learning Plenty (When They Bother to Try)

Another day, another conservative screed against higher education. Today’s entry comes courtesy of Brad Polumbo, a student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, writing in the National Review. Polumbo points to a study claiming 45% of undergraduates show little improvement in their ability to think critically, reason, or write well after their first two years of college as proof that universities are failing their students (a dubious claim at best and based on dated decade-old research). His culprits? Not enough political diversity in the faculty, lack of faculty rigor in assigning work (somehow this is also associated with being liberal), students not attending class (or being present while there), and a lack of commitment to lifelong learning habits. Some of these points have merits– and most schools have been wrestling with how to combat them for decades (centuries, even!). Others are unmitigated nonsense. His assumptions raise two important and interrelated questions: Are college students learning anything? And how can we improve their learning? I’d like to examine Polumbo’s claims before (partially) answering these two questions.

The Liberal-Conservative Imbalance in Faculty is Stifling Rigorous Debate:

As I’ve written many times before, you cannot hire people who do not exist. The paucity of conservative faculty is not due to some inherent bias in the hiring practice. It is that the research and work we hire professors to perform has few conservative practitioners. Where am I going to find the hidden cache of staunchly conservative Women’s Studie professors at? Don’t you think that these trained academics would be raising a stink in the media and internet about how they keep getting bypassed for jobs in favor of less qualified liberal candidates if it were happening? Look at the political leanings of graduate students– they’ll closely align with your faculty numbers. Are we supposed to force half of all graduate students to commit to an American conservative political worldview as a precondition to entering the labor force?

Conservative mouthpieces have been pissing on the academy for decades, bemoaning the uselessness of liberal arts degrees and touting the superiority of their work in the private sector making real money and “real change.” In what universe were generations of smart, dutiful conservative youths going to sign up to spend their twenties and early thirties toiling for no pay in a supposedly worthless hotbed of liberal thought? The modern conservative movement told young conservatives academia was not a worthwhile pursuit and then acted surprised when none of their members signed up to join it.

Beyond the silliness of this argument, it simply is not necessary to have parity in political worldviews in order to encourage critical thinking in college. Being a contemporary liberal or conservative is not necessary (or even useful) in making a critical argument about the thesis of The Old Man and the Sea, explaining the historical relevance of the Epic of Gilgamesh, or outlining the most ethical solution to the Trolley Problem. What our earnest young college student has failed to recognize is that critical thinking is not about scoring points for a side– that is polemics. It is about using the tools of inquiry to ask the right questions and seek out the evidence that can help confirm or deny the position, leading to a revised and more accurate claim.

Lack of Rigorous Assignments

Students self-selecting courses with light reading loads is hardly the fault of the liberal faculty. It is more a sign of students who are looking for the path of least resistance. A reading load is far from a perfect way to measure class workloads. Particularly when the study claiming this is including a huge sample of community college students. Some courses may not require rigorous reading. Less prestigious institutions tend to encourage certain reading and workload caps on courses, particularly in general education.

I’ll forgive Polumbo’s scorn for how little his contemporaries read– he is young and idealistic. Keep reading, Brad. Shoot, encourage as many friends and colleagues you can to do the same. But I do not want to hear a peep of this from older Americans. Scores of older Millenials, Gen X’ers, and Baby Boomers who graduated from college never read. Literally. According to Pew, 7% of adults with college degrees do not read even a single a book in a year. The typical college-educated adult only reads 7 books a year. As a whole, Americans just do not like to read. Turns out, since the advent of TV and later the internet, book reading (in any form) isn’t a terribly desirable entertainment option. And for most people during the age of the printing press that is exactly what reading was: fun.

To Polumbo’s point about students not getting the rigorous liberal arts education they signed up for, I say you are right. This is not the fault of faculty not presenting you with the tough questions and best works of their fields– it is due to the generally dismissive attitude Americans of all ages have towards the “frivolous luxury” of a liberal arts education. Look at the most popular majors at most large state schools that pride themselves on having a broad, liberal arts general education program. It is not a hotbed of intellectual curiosity. They are basically the modern equivalent of professional prep programs. What a surprise that many of the young minds who choose such exciting career paths like information technology or business management might not be super interested in reading long academic tomes on history and philosophy. They should be. I say this as someone whose academic training was in history and works largely in the world of IT, design, and change management. The skills are transferable. But they are not. For many students, particularly those from working and middle-class backgrounds, practicality trumps passion. They are here to get credentials that will help them earn a living and insulate them from the risk, uncertainty, and physical demands (not to mention the feelings of being trapped) that their parents may have felt.

College Students Today Just Are Not Serious About School

Newsflash: they never have been. Regardless of era or school type, most students are social first and formal learners second. This does not mean they are not learning. Social skills are a huge part of life. I’ve often found that the old adage that politics is at its most fierce when the stakes are low to be true. The machinations of my fraternity or graduate student council (I cannot think of a place where the stakes are lower) were far more vicious and complicated than much of what you will face in the real world. Dealing with others, from managing groups to simply making friends with new and different people are all part of the college experience. Don’t dismiss this as meaningless.

That said, showing up is paramount to success. The sports cliche that the best ability is availability rings true. Being present– not just in the chair but actively engaged– gives you a huge leg up on the competition. This extends well beyond college. Nearly every workplace I have worked in is full of people who are at best half “there.”  Showing up and being present is always good advice.

Are College Students Learning Anything

Polumbo writes, “Our system of higher education is in disarray, and it’s failing everyone involved.” This is the sort of hyperbolic statement youthful exuberance often brings out amplified by the punditry on both sides of the aisle who constantly claim our schools, from pre-school to graduate school, are failing. This is simply not true.

If we look at the evidence from a historical perspective, our college graduates exhibit greater knowledge in a wider range of subjects than any prior generation. Take a look at the curriculum they pass. Read some of the books they are responsible for digesting. What seems like a cream-puff education to our most studious youths is actually leaps and bounds tougher than what their parents and grandparents encountered.

What about in contemporary context? We hear a lot about how Americans are falling behind other nations in education. Right. That is why so much of the rest of the world send their children off to America to study under our world-class faculty and institutions. These institutions are packed with graduates from our public K-12 and university systems. Does that sound like failure to you?

Anecdotally, I am very impressed by every recent grad I’ve hired and/or managed. They are smart, polished, and work their tails off. And even if it does not all manifest itself right away, many of these graduates will become MORE curious and studious as their life moves forward. I know my own friends and colleagues often talk about new ideas they are encountering and lamenting the missed opportunities of their formal education, overlooking how what they did learn has led them to want more. This is a good thing.

College students are learning plenty.

How Can We Improve Learning at Colleges?

While higher education is doing a good job by any standard, there is clearly room for growth. For one, we could stop demonizing higher education. You cannot tell people how pointless something is and then expect them to treat it seriously. Relatedly, as a culture we have to push back against the notion that it is silly or wasteful to pursue ideas and skills in the liberal arts rather than the cold, practicality of professional training, Being a skilled writer, analytical thinker, and being a discerning reader are assets in navigating most career paths. And while it may not seem like it, you will find being well-read is a pretty useful social tool in the world where a fancy dinner out means more than scarfing down chicken wings and (incorrectly) rattling off sports stats with your bros at Buffalo Wild Wings.

Colleges and universities could do more to encourage academic engagement and rigor. Digital tools are key. Faculty can incentivize reading and engagement in ways not even imagined thirty years ago. We can model the sort of interdisciplinary thinking and knowledge scaffolding that makes a liberal arts education so useful. Stop telling students that a broad general education is useful and start proving it. Adjust your survey curriculum to hit the goals and passions of your students. How hard was it for me to squeeze a little more in about Hull House and the progressive movement commitment to education and social opportunities in my modern US history survey when I noticed a large contingent of social work students on the roster? Or to slip Babe Ruth and Joe Louis into a lecture to hook my sports management students? We can do a lot better job of adapting and connecting to students in meaningful ways.

There are a lot of ways we can improve higher education. I’m partial to better curriculum design, utilizing digital tools, and better emphasizing human connections, but there are scores of other areas we need to improve in. We do not need to denigrate what exists in order to improve.

Polumbo closes his piece by reminding readers of the stakes– students are taking on too much debt to not walk out with all the skills they needed to learn. This anxiety, cost and subsequent job opportunity, cannot be the focus of educational policy. Indeed, focusing on this seems to have created a negative feedback loop. Rather, schools should continue refining their pedagogy and professional knowledge while public policy should consider ways to better fund this project and what is causing such arrested career development for college (and high school) grads entering the workforce. Simply demanding the schools get better (and cheaper) seems like an impossible policy proposal.

Yet, it is all that Democrats or Republicans seem to be offering us.

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