Killing Academia 2: Colleges don't really educate students

The Death and Destruction of America's Colleges and Universities

Posted Oct 26, 2014

Source: Photo by Author

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by Neil Lavender, Ph.D.

Note: this is the second part of a five-part series the decline of college education and the upcoming crisis in education. Readers are advised to read Killing Academia: Part one.

Perhaps the principal cause for the rapidly deteriorating quality of college educations comes from a general misunderstanding of what a truly effectual college education should be.

No, it is not simply memorizing facts or mastering course content. No, it’s not just critical thinking although that is an important element. It’s not graduating with honors with high grades.

A real college education that is first rate should transform the student so that she never experiences the world the same way again; especially in areas of their major concentration.

In other words, an art student should never walk into a room and perceived and experience it in the same way that they did before their education. An English major should never read a piece of literature and respond to it the same way they did before. Psychology majors should experience people’s behavior in a whole new light; in a way in which they have never done previous to their college education.

Their perception and experiences of the world should change for the rest of their lives.

Secondly, a real college education should change the character. Gains from college should not just be mental in nature; but should impact upon a student’s very nature.

True education doesn’t just transform the mind; it transforms the soul.

They should not just be developing their minds. They need to develop key qualities such as passion, stick-to-it-iveness, as well as a general willingness and attitude to do things that make them uncomfortable but that are good for them: things like investing extra time in their studies, asking the teacher for extra help, seeking mentors, doing extra credit, seeking out of class experiences related to their field of study and, in general, developing a general attitude of devotions to their field of study. It is not by error that fields of studies are referred to as “disciplines”.

These changes in the very nature of the character of the student come from overcoming adversities and not by having their professors change assignments in order to adapt to their students comfort levels. As a college professor, I can tell you that the very announcement of an upcoming test brings a storm of emails and requests to either change the time, the format, and the content of a test. And, in this corporate model of education that we are moving to, students, like customers, need to be accommodated. Not doing so can get you called before one of the “Vice Presidents”.

In Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character (Jan. 2013), this very issue of character is addressed. He argues that in order for students to succeed, they have to develop a changes in character. He argues against the idea that schools should just enhance the mind. He believes our nation’s schools should also develop noncognitive skills such as persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, self-confidence and grit.

Yet our nation’s colleges and universities keep moving towards spending more and more money, time and effort on appeasing students and making a college education a more inviting experience rather than investing it in bona fide academics. As we move closer and closer to a “Core Curriculum” complete with its “Outcomes Testing”, both of which center on cognitive development, we continue to miss the opportunity to present our students with an authentic education.

How can this be fixed?

Although I don’t expect a nationwide reversal of this current trend away from nominal college educations, I can give this advice to students who truly desire a legitimate college experience and education.

In order to achieve this, students need to hang out with their instruction and linger with the ideas imparted to them in class.  Students need to pursue an academic rather than a social life.

The distinction between “simply taking classes” and “pursuing an intellectual life” turns out to be especially important.

According to Rebekkah Nathan in her 2006 book My Freshman Year, there is a good deal of difference between a student who simply takes classes and one who pursues an “intellectual life”. This college professor, posing undercover as a student and mingling with them discovered that most students simply wanted to pass their classes, get good grades so that they could enter their career. Her experience was that the average student did what they could to manage their college experience in order to get those ends with his little effort and time as they could.

Hardly the stuff scholarship, academics, and character are made of.

So in case you didn’t get the headline here it is:

Nathan’s experience flies in the face of the generally accepted idea that students go to college to learn.

The majority of students simply don’t.

Okay I get it. For many college students, the reasons are economic. With college costs skyrocketing, more and more students are opting to work at least part-time. For many students, working as a necessity and they would be unable to go to college without it. Many students are going locally also an opting for a community college education for the first two years.

But as a result, students are not even learning the basic cognitive skills of complex reasoning, critical thinking and written communication required for participation in our global economy according to Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa in their 2011 book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. In their study, which followed thousands of students over a four-year period, they found that the average student spent only about 12 to 14 hours of study per week which is almost half of the 25 hour amount recommended.

Is it any wonder that the United States continues to fall further and further behind in the global economy?

More next time in part three of Killing Academia: The Death and Destruction of American Colleges and Universities.