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In a recent book entitled Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses lead author Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa claim nearly half of American undergraduates evidence no significant academic gains in their first two years of college.

The researchers also noted students spend 50% less time studying than students a few decades ago. Some 50% said they never took a class wherein they wrote 20 or more pages.

Arum and his co-author's research results are discouraging but not surprising. In fact, I find it interesting Arum described the results as “really kind of shocking.” If he means he’s appalled, than I understand. If he means he and other researchers or faculty members in general were unaware of this trend, than I think he must live in an academic bubble. People in higher education have watched these trends for years, but like the growing national debt, not much has been done about them—at least not the things most likely to turn trends in a productive direction.

Higher education has become a huge bureaucracy with its own rhythms, power structures, and focus on means over ends. There’s still much good, but there’s even more that’s not so good. After more than thirty-four years “in the biz,” I’d offer three critiques of American higher education generally:

--Public and private institutions without commitment to Christian or religious worldviews have become “multi-versities” with no coherent over-arching paradigm. There’s no “uni” left. Faculties dispense information as facts but do not provide students with a philosophic overview or set of wisdom principles by which to organize, evaluate, and apply the information/facts.

--A significant majority of faculty members in most institutions have earned tenure and, while it’s not true of all, many if not most professors teach what and the way they will and no longer respond to administrative influence, much less directives, to improve pedagogy or increase excellence. They focus more on advancing within their professional disciplines, which requires research and writing, than upon teaching. Yes, there’s a lot of noise about excellence (every institution of higher learning claims to be excellent) and committees sometimes spend months on the subject, but in the end, most professors do their thing much like they always have. Tenure shields them from accountability, robs them of incentive, and reinforces mediocrity.

Both of these higher education characteristics undermine learning. But declines in student learning are not solely the responsibility of academia. These declines are rooted in American culture too.

--We no longer demand or expect a strong work ethic or excellent work. From family room to courtroom, we’ve established innumerable obstacles for academic authorities to negotiate even if they want to place higher demands upon students. Students are, therefore, protected within a zone of laxity. At home, we don’t teach students restraint, a sense of personal limits, respect for authority, or accountability, so schools and schoolwork that used to benefit from these cultural characteristics are now no longer reinforced.

The result of all this is that generations are coming to adulthood without maturity—some don’t even know what maturity is—and worse, with a sense the world owes them rather than they owe the world.

If higher education is to produce greater returns on students’ first two years of investment, several reforms must be implemented:

--In colleges and universities, resurrect and implement cohesive “meta-narrative” approaches to education—even if not specifically Christian or religious, schools should define themselves and expect faculty members to support their school’s philosophy of education. Tie state disbursements to whether this gets done, gets implemented, and is owned and applied by school faculty.

--Even if it must be phased out via new hires, eliminate tenure—at secondary and postsecondary level—which no longer protects academic freedom. It just protects poor teaching and poor teachers. Tenure is an impediment to academic excellence. Tie professor advancement and salaries to actual in-class teaching excellence, not solely advanced degrees and most of all, not simply seniority.

--Put political pressure on governors to make education excellence and achievement, at every level, top priority in their states. No other public policy would reap as high a return on investment as could be accomplished via developing truly better schools.

--Reposition elementary and secondary education with family and local support, focusing upon teaching and learning, achievement, and accountability. Sounds like pie in the sky, that maybe we’ve gone too far and it couldn’t be done. But with dynamic leadership it has already been accomplished in some districts, and it can be done in others.


© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2011

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