The Poor Quality of an Undergraduate Education -

Debates about education are nothing new: Isocrates complained that Greek citizens lacked the basic knowledge to govern themselves wisely. The editorial that follows is one of many penned by Arum and Roksa in the last few months. Various academic defenders have criticized Arum and Roksa’s research and conclusions, but do we really believe university educations aren’t slipping in value and meaning?

I’m convinced their complaints have more validity than the ceaseless, generational critiques of the past. (“These kids today! Lazy! Ignorant!” — said by educators since the earliest Egyptian tutors.) Grade inflation is a genuine concern. Focus on extracurricular “services” over education is also a concern. Student rec centers today put health clubs to shame. College is now an “experience” — especially compared to European campuses.

As an assistant professor of rhetoric, I am a member of the Department of English Studies and Communication Skills. Rhetoric is not only the art of effective communication, it is by necessity the art of thinking effectively. Call it “critical thinking” (a tired phrase too close to “critical theory” for my liking) or call it “analytical thinking,” the point of requiring courses in composition, speech, and general rhetorical theory is to help students polish their thinking skills.

Sadly, we’re coming up short for students. There are two issues I wish to address: 1) we don’t require enough courses with rhetorical theory components, and 2) the courses we do require aren’t demanding enough of students. Instructors should speak out to change the system. We know students need more writing, speaking, and general communication skills. Unfortunately, disciplines compete for students’ time (and money).

As I will note, we all share some “blame” for the state of education, too. Colleagues blaming unprepared students have a valid point. But, students are right to remind us they are working more outside of class, to pay for school and to establish future careers. Some parents do expect higher grades than students deserve, treating school more as a product bought than a civic duty for self- and social-improvement. Administrators compete for students, spending limited funds on things other than classroom teaching.

We have all undercut the traditional role and value of a liberal arts education, even if by not protesting loudly enough about the direction of the system, from kindergarten through doctoral programs. But, undergraduate education retains a unique status — separating the classes, the vocations, and even demarcating sociopolitical ideals among the disciplines. The bachelor’s degree is the dividing line between the “haves and have-nots” in our society.
The Poor Quality of an Undergraduate Education -
Your So-Called Education
The New York Times
Published: May 14, 2011

COMMENCEMENT is a special time on college campuses: an occasion for students, families, faculty and administrators to come together to celebrate a job well done. And perhaps there is reason to be pleased. In recent surveys of college seniors, more than 90 percent report gaining subject-specific knowledge and developing the ability to think critically and analytically. Almost 9 out of 10 report that overall, they were satisfied with their collegiate experiences.
I am reminded that a majority of people rank themselves as “above average” in almost every way. We’re all above average drivers, above average friends, above average in intelligence… no one is “average” in his or her own mind. So, 90 percent of students reporting they gained critical thinking skills? Not a shock to me or anyone else familiar with self-esteem research. We are lousy judges of ourselves.

We Need More Writing and Communicating
Consider the following statistics in light of the glowing self-evaluations of the college experience:
In a typical semester, for instance, 32 percent of the students did not take a single course with more than 40 pages of reading per week, and 50 percent did not take any course requiring more than 20 pages of writing over the semester. The average student spent only about 12 to 13 hours per week studying — about half the time a full-time college student in 1960 spent studying, according to the labor economists Philip S. Babcock and Mindy S. Marks. 
I’ve had too many students complain about writing three or four pages to doubt that they are not writing enough each semester. Arum and Roksa should clarify why this matters: it isn’t merely the quantity of writing, but the more you practice any skill the better you become at that task. No one would argue you can play the piano without practicing — but too often I hear colleagues suggest writing a lot doesn’t improve writing. Yes, the assignments matter, but practice is essential. Sadly, I’ve even heard writing instructors suggest we shouldn’t require “too much” writing. What is “too much” writing? Do we have similar debates in math or science? Are there “too many” labs in chemistry? Maybe “too much” programming code in computer science courses?

It strikes me as odd that we worry about “too much” writing. If that is a concern, it is the assignments that are the problem. Writing well requires both reading and writing regularly. Yes, you do need to practice academic writing. Practicing academic writing and speaking is practicing the art of reasoned argument.
Not surprisingly, a large number of the students showed no significant progress on tests of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing that were administered when they began college and then again at the ends of their sophomore and senior years.
I realize we can debate various test instruments, but having taught students at all four undergraduate levels, it has stunned me how similar the work is in writing and communication courses. Why is that? I have compared the basic grammar errors, the structural errors, and the more important reasoning errors. We can debate the “value” and social implications grammar and mechanics, but would any other discipline accept no improvement in foundational skills?

When first-year composition instructors tell me grammar and mechanics shouldn’t matter — something the MLA once made an official position — I wonder what that means for students. Doesn’t grammar reflect the ability to analyze a pattern (the sentence) and employ rules effectively? To argue well, one must analyze patterns and employ logical rules.

School as Business
I have some problems with the notion that operating “as a business” is inherently negative. For example, if I want to pay a tennis or golf coach to help me, that coach is operating a business. He or she gains clients based on helping students achieve better results. I know some rude, pushy, obnoxious coaches. And yet, people wait months or years to receive personalized training.

But, instead of selling self-improvment, knowledge obtainment, and skills mastery, our colleges and universities market themselves like summer camps and vacation resorts.
The authority of educators has diminished, and students are increasingly thought of, by themselves and their colleges, as “clients” or “consumers.” When 18-year-olds are emboldened to see themselves in this manner, many look for ways to attain an educational credential effortlessly and comfortably. And they are catered to accordingly. The customer is always right.
Arum and Roksa repeat the same mistake I’ve heard hundreds of academics make: they do not understand the nature of business. I do not pay an architect and then tell him that my building should look like an inverted pyramid. I do not hire a doctor and then tell her what my diagnosis should be. No, the client is not always “right” — in fact, a serious client admits that he or she needs the help of an expert to address a problem. You don’t hire a music teacher to tell you how great you are, you hire the teacher to tell you how to improve.

Why do we assume businesses don’t challenge customers? I challenge consulting clients constantly. That is what they want. If you hire me to fix something, I also have to teach you how to learn from past mistakes.

Colleges and universities have taken the wrong lessons from business, though. Instead of viewing their task as similar to a consultant, university administrators embrace the hotel / resort service model. It is a retail sales model, not a consulting model.

Even at those colleges where for the past several decades tuition has far outpaced the rate of inflation, students are taught by fewer full-time tenured faculty members while being looked after by a greatly expanded number of counselors who serve an array of social and personal needs. At the same time, many schools are investing in deluxe dormitory rooms, elaborate student centers and expensive gyms. Simply put: academic investments are a lower priority.
By adopting the retail model, “the customer is always right” trumps the notion that the customer is seeking an expert adviser. Suddenly, teachers are to be judged as we would a retail clerk or waiter at a restaurant. Service is now equal to fun and pleasure, not being challenged to meet higher standards personally. When I go to a tailor, the clerk should be an expert at hiding my flaws. By comparison, a coach won’t let me forget my flaws! 

Customer satisfaction surveys are a restaurant staple. We have the same forms, under a different name, at our colleges and universities: the student evaluation form. I don’t like this model. Some administrators and instructors will place greater value on being liked than being effective (though research on student evaluations is mixed). Evaluations have a place in education, but they should be a small part of overall instructor evaluation. 

Too many institutions, for instance, rely primarily on student course evaluations to assess teaching. This creates perverse incentives for professors to demand little and give out good grades. (Indeed, the 36 percent of students in our study who reported spending five or fewer hours per week studying alone still had an average G.P.A. of 3.16.) On those commendable occasions when professors and academic departments do maintain rigor, they risk declines in student enrollments.
I am not suggesting we tell students education is like cough syrup: it has to be miserable to be effective. In fact, that’s a horrible approach. What I am suggesting is that students reflect the priorities their parents, administrators, and society in general seem to endorse. We need to restore self-improvement and knowledge attainment to the top of our educational values system.

Yes, that means more writing, more speaking, and more rhetorical analysis in our courses. Let’s stress analytical thinking instead of how cool the new recreation center might be.
Note: Richard Arum, a professor of sociology and education at New York University, and Josipa Roksa, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, are the authors of “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses.”


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