Does higher education ensure learning? Years ago, I co-taught a semester-long seminar in a multidisciplinary arts graduate program at San Francisco State University. The subject was the economic and policy environment for artists' work, and as I've discovered many times since, most of the students, despite years of arts practice and study, were learning the cultural landscape for the very first time.
As part of the preliminary faculty briefing, we were told to be sure to give at least one writing assignment in the course of the semester. There had been a little scandal the prior year when it was discovered that an MFA was awarded to a mature student who was functionally illiterate. Our plan was to assign reading and writing each week, so we had no problem with this policy (though we did feel shocked at the need for it, the history of indifferent regard to students' actual capabilities that it suggested).
Our first assignment was to write a brief paper comparing two essays expressing strongly contrasting views of culture. At the second class meeting, one student—a accomplished young man who had founded an artists' space of some renown—handed in his "paper," consisting of the two essays cut up and rearranged in a kind of collage. We handed it back, explaining that the purpose of the assignment was to help him explore, interpret, and integrate the two perspectives: there was no way to do this without actually passing the words through his own brain and generating his own writing.
The student was furious. He complained to the dean. We were given to understand that few of our graduate students—who had degrees from dance, drama, visual arts, and film departments—had been asked to do much reading and writing in the course of their studies. We pressed on. I'm still occasionally in touch with one or two of the students, who (once they worked through their resistance) learned a good deal that was of use to them later.
I thought of that experience this week. You see, academia is all abuzz over a new book by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. The authors assert that a large proportion of college students gain little or nothing in skills of critical thinking and expression from four years of higher education. They fault low faculty expectations and students' proclivity to neglect studies in favor of other activities. Among other things, they prescribe more rigorous studies, especially more reading and writing.
Our national conversation about education policy treats formal education and learning as if they were one and the same. The default assumption is that anyone who is pulsed through four or more years of higher education will emerge better-equipped in key respects: knowing more about the world and how to behave in (if not actually enjoy) it, possessing skills or knowledge essential to livelihood. Everyone knows that college endows an advantage.
To the extent that higher education is a sorting and culling mechanism, of course, this is true. Many jobs require degrees. Asking for formal educational credentials is a widely accepted way to shrink a job-applicant pool to manageable size.
But does higher education confer deep learning? Does it expand students' capabilities in questioning, comprehending, and communicating their experiences and ideas? According to Arum and Roksa:
Growing numbers of students are sent to college at increasingly higher costs, but for a large proportion of them the gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and written communication are either exceedingly small or empirically nonexistent. At least 45 percent of students in our sample did not demonstrate any statistically significant improvement in Collegiate Learning Assessment [CLA] performance during the first two years of college. [Further study has indicated that 36 percent of students did not show any significant improvement over four years.] While these students may have developed subject-specific skills that were not tested for by the CLA, in terms of general analytical competencies assessed, large numbers of U.S. college students can be accurately described as academically adrift. They might graduate, but they are failing to develop the higher-order cognitive skills that it is widely assumed college students should master. These findings are sobering and should be a cause for concern.
I've seen only an excerpt, some commentary, and a couple of reports on the study that underpins the book—perhaps not enough to vouch for the soundness of the authors' research methods or results, but enough to find them worth engaging. The CLA, an essay test, is supposed to measure skills in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and written communication, as opposed to knowledge of specific subjects. (Here's an interesting explanation of how the CLA is scored.) The results were adjusted for many factors—race, ethnicity, income, family status, etc.—but the authors feel the adjustments mostly made the results more positive, perhaps softening the findings that have caused so much alarm.
One potential weakness I see is that the authors posit education as a zero-sum game, highlighting "the importance of academic rigor over social engagement for learning…as a cautionary signal to colleges that have emphasized the latter in efforts to increase student retention in higher education." I see no proof here that students must give up social engagement as a trade-off for greater depth and focus in their studies. To the contrary, it seems that a well-rounded education must include both, but that is the pitfall of such research: it's easy to mistake a correlation for a cause.
Academically Adrift turned up some interesting differentials:
- Studying alone boosted CLA scores far more than studying with peers. Belonging to a fraternity or sorority had no positive effect.
- CLA scores rose proportionate to faculty expectations. When faculty members demanded and got more, students evidently learned more. The authors note that more than half of college seniors in a much larger longitudinal study hadn't written a paper of 20 pages or more in the whole academic year, for example, which presumably means, among other things, that faculty members hadn't assigned them.
- Liberal arts students, majoring in social science, humanities, natural science, and mathematics, showed significantly higher gains. Students majoring in business, education, social work, and communications had the lowest measurable gains. (There is no specific reference to arts students, but if they fall under "other," they're right in the middle.)
- Although there were many individual exceptions to the general rule, test scores tended to be proportionate to measurements of what the authors characterized as "disadvantage": as a rule, the students whose parents had graduate degrees got the highest CLA scores; those whose parents' education ended with high school (or less), the lowest. On entry to college, white students scored highest, African Americans lowest, and the gap widened throughout the four years. Of students of color, only Latinos' scores improved proportionately with whites. Students who attended largely non-white high schools tended to score lower.
The study focuses on CLA score gains over four years of college, with a benchmark of mean scores adjusted for the factors just mentioned. Perhaps that explains why it begs the obvious question, which is why it is accepted that students won't become skilled in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing before college.
The authors say that "Findings of persisting and/or growing inequality are consistent with research on K-12 education. Gaps in CLA performance across students from different family backgrounds in our study can be explained by the varying levels of academic preparation with which students enter higher education."
Maybe so. And maybe they can also be explained by the differential ways formal educational culture treats students depending on various social signifiers, such as race, gender, and class. But slotting people into categories by such characteristics always obscures the persistent truth of individual resilience and drive: there were individuals from every racial and ethnic grouping, socioeconomic group, and background who excelled on the CLA, contrary to expectations.
The exceptions to categorical rules can't be explained through quantification: for mysterious reasons—vibrant intelligence, a mentor, ambition, monumental curiosity, genetic luck, heroic stubbornness—exceptional individuals developed and retained a thirst for knowledge that grew and persisted despite the vast shortcomings of formal higher education in this country. Though the forces that daunted others pressed on them too, they did not yield.
It's been a long time since I was in high school, but I still remember so many of the subtle (and not-so-subtle) culling mechanisms used to separate the students deemed worthy of excelling from the rest. As a high-school freshman, I was slotted into an English course designed, like most of them in those days, mostly to occupy rambunctious students for an hour before they were released into the hallways for a quick discharge of the energies suppressed in the boredom of class. A typical learning experience would be a pop-quiz on Moby-Dick modeled on a math test: how many kinds of whales appear in the book? Why are they hunted? Who is Queequeg? A sympathetic counselor—like me, a child of working-class immigrants—noticed my stupefaction and transferred me to an advanced class featuring actual discussions. If he hadn't been there, I'm quite sure I would have slept through all four years of English: no one else took a comparable interest in me. This doesn't quite translate into faculty expectations, nor into the need for rigor. Instead, it speaks of a generous willingness to see human potential regardless of the way it is packaged, of a spirit that loves learning and wishes that love to suffuse the world.
One thing about higher education that can't quite be captured by a test is the function of education in creating an elite, and fairly widespread self-awareness of this social role. This is what creates the gulf in regard extended to Harvard or Yale, from that given to public institutions deemed run-of-the-mill. I spend a lot of time on campuses, giving talks and workshops, talking with students, and I love it. The faculty I meet there seem to me exactly like the people one meets everywhere: some are present and curious and determined; some are serving time and not much bothered by the effect that has on those they teach. From what I have seen, most don't feel responsible for the institutional culture in which their work is embedded. Often, they seem to regard it as given, a landscape independent of—and indifferent to—themselves. This deferential acceptance of the things as they are can make those who adopt it insensitive to what Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb called "the hidden injuries of class."
Although it comes from a very different time and place, I love the way Raymond Williams wrote about this. In his powerful 1958 essay, “Culture is Ordinary,” Williams contrasted the genuine cultural inheritance he was able to experience at Cambridge with the petty oppressions meted out by those who saw themselves as the keepers of culture by birthright:
[I] was not…oppressed by Cambridge. I was not cast down by old buildings, for I had come from a country with twenty centuries of history written visibly into the earth. I liked walking through a Tudor court, but it did not make me feel raw. I was not amazed by the existence of a place of learning. I had always known the cathedral, and the bookcases I now sit to work at in Oxford are of the same design as those in the chained library. Nor was learning, in my family, some strange eccentricity; I was not, on a scholarship in Cambridge, a new kind of animal up a brand-new ladder. Learning was ordinary; we learned where we could. Always, from those scattered white houses, it had made sense to go out and become a scholar or a poet or a teacher. Yet few of us could be spared from the immediate work; a price had been set on this kind of learning, and it was more, much more, than we could individually pay. Now, when we could pay in common, it was a good, ordinary life.
I was not oppressed by the university, but the teashop, acting as if it were one of the older and more respectable departments, was a different matter. Here was culture, not in any sense I knew, but in a special sense: the outward and emphatically visible sign of a special kind of people, cultivated people. They were not, the great majority of them, particularly learned; they practiced few arts; but they had it, and they showed you they had it.
My experience at San Francisco State University inclines me to agree with Arum's and Roksa's call for increased faculty expectation, for more reading and writing as a path to real learning. After all, whatever learning I possess I acquired through satisfying my own appetite to read and write. But much of my experience with academia also leads me to notice the authors' omissions: are the embedded class prejudices and snobberies of academia not worth mentioning as a factor in students' engagement with real learning? Are they not a factor in the extent to which students take their work seriously as a path to real learning, rather than regarding it merely as the ante up to a well-paying career?
A classic focus-group exercise used in reframing issues shows a picture of sick cattle in a field, asking people how the animals got that way. Usually, respondents say that the farmer has failed to supply the animals healthy food, or a virus has gotten into their food or water. Then the picture is enlarged to show a factory just beyond the farm, belching black smoke and effluent. Suddenly, larger answers emerge. I'd like to see Arum's and Roksa's study contextualized to show the whole scene, factory and all.
Listen to this amazing Eric Dolphy bass clarinet solo version of "God Bless The Child," a signature song for Billie Holiday (its co-author), as you meditate on the truth of its words:
Them that's got shall get
Them that's not shall lose
So the Bible said and it still is news
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that's got his own
That's got his own