Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Academic Rigor

Today’s Morning Edition broadcast featured an interview with Professor Richard Arum of NYU, who has recently done a study ostensibly demonstrating that a “lack of academic rigor leaves students adrift.” When asked about my alma mater in particular, Professor Arum pointedly skirted the issue, instead making the general statement that expensive private universities are slightly more demanding, and elicit slightly more conviction from their students. While that may be true, he left no doubt that the problem is faced across the board by American institutions of higher learning: their students are demonstrating very little improvement in writing and critical thinking skills. I’m very certain that that is a problem among NYU students, as well, but my agreement with Professor Arum does not extend very far beyond the basic recognition of the problem. Much to the contrary of his thesis, I am quite willing to lay the blame for failure to acquire intellectual skills squarely on the students thus failing. Of course, to my mind, the real issue is that they would not fail at that were they not unfairly expected to demonstrate that improvement in the first place. Whereas Professor Arum seems to expect that heightened academic standards and stronger curricula can bring growing numbers of students up to appreciable levels of improvement, I seek to emphasize that so long as enrollment grows, such standards will be increasingly difficult to meet.

No academic standards and no reasonable educational philosophy can improve writing and critical thinking skills among young people who have no interest in acquiring them in the first place. I am growing enormously impatient for the public dialogue about college education to reach a breaking point whereby someone acknowledges that it’s unsustainable and indeed damaging to continue on with the familiar trend of impelling every high school student to go to an institution of higher learning. Some students simply have no interest in college. Why is this a dirty secret that no one sees fit to acknowledge? What’s more, some students are no doubt better off not attending, both for their own sake and for the sake of society at large. Some people can be happy as line cooks and car mechanics, and they can do a damn good job of filling social roles that still need to be filled. And yet we go on emphasizing the crucial importance of a college education, somehow oblivious to the fact that at a certain point, we are going to end up with large segments of society academically trained and doing decidedly non-academic jobs. Like myself, right now, for instance. But you see, in my case, I had a tremendous amount of interest in applying my education to a highly intellectual career path. Others do not have that impulse, and yet they follow the same path, not only wasting their own time needlessly, but bringing down the overall academic standards of the institutions into which they flood.

Professor Arum directly acknowledges that there has been a fifty percent drop in the average number of hours spent in study by students over the course of the past few decades, but apparently he expects us to conclude from that that the demands placed on college students have inexplicably diminished during that time. Is it not more likely that the average level of commitment from students has declined as more and more of them are pushed, against their own inclinations, into academic pursuits? There’s got to come a time when a person like Professor Arum looks at this data and breaks away from the indoctrinated view that more formal education is always good for everybody. There must be.

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