Academics in Crisis

Is there a problem with students’ academic achievements at the college level, or is the problem that expectations for how students learn have not changed as students have?

Student with head on desk

“Nostalgia for a fallen world of genuine learning in school brings with it much false memory.”

Photo by Fotolia/grimaldello

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Anthropology professor Susan D. Blum set out to find why students, including her own daughter, are increasingly dissatisfied with their academic experiences. In “I Love Learning; I Hate School” (Cornell University Press, 2016), Blum shares her findings about how students nowadays work versus the way conventional education teaches them. Filled with realizations and anthropological insight, this professor challenges the education system and offers suggestions on how to engage students in learning once again.

For more books that pique our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.

What’s the Matter with Kids Today?

I have a whole shelf of books critical of college. The criticisms come from every possible direction, all with significant points to make; some are truly profound. They contradict one another, but it is still impossible to pretend that all is well. Faculty, administrators, and the public complain about grade inflation. Neighbors complain about student behavior. Employers complain about unprepared, undisciplined, and spoiled college graduates. College is too long, too short, too much fun, too distressing.

Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses attracted public attention in 2011 with its claim that a significant percentage of students make absolutely no gains in terms of knowledge or skills during college. Students put in little effort, they charged. Students are not involved or engaged in the academic life, and learning outcomes are poor. And the situation is deteriorating: “While prior historical scholarship reminds us that U.S. undergraduates have long been devoted to pursuing social interests at college, there is emerging empirical evidence that suggests that college students’ academic effort has dramatically declined in recent decades.” The average amount of time spent by full-time college students on academic activities, including attending classes, Arum and Roksa report, has shrunk to twenty-seven hours a week. (A survey I conducted in spring 2013 put it at twenty-one to twenty-five hours.)

Another complaint, bolstered by “hard facts,” is that in tests administered to a more or less representative sample of students at more or less representative campuses, students do not improve on critical thinking. And critical thinking is what most faculty believe students should be learning in college.

That is so far from what students and their families believe they should be getting that it is worth a story of its own, though it will not receive one here. Do a survey: Ask the first five people you see what the goal of college is. Unless you ask college professors, I’d bet critical thinking is not on most people’s lists.

(Are you back from asking? What did they say?)

Citing other research, Arum and Roksa put the problem clearly: “Many students come to college not only poorly prepared by prior schooling for highly demanding academic tasks that ideally lie in front of them, but — more troubling still — they enter college with attitudes, norms, values, and behaviors that are often at odds with academic commitment.” I used to be troubled by this, but no longer. It is a human norm to be at odds with academic commitment. Or, to reverse the formulation, academic commitment is such a peculiar form of what is humanly possible that it is only to be expected that most students do not possess it. What they learn is to mimic it during their time in school.

Movies such as Animal House and Legally Blonde, and fictional works like Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons, present in entertaining, exaggerated form the seamy side of college, with its apparently rampant drunkenness, corner-cutting, sexual debauchery, and slides into mental illness. Journalistic works on higher education, like Richard Hersh and John Merrow’s Declining by Degrees: Higher Education at Risk and Barrett Seaman’s Binge: Campus Life in an Age of Disconnection and Excess, point out how little actual academic learning is done even at the best colleges, while students devote themselves to pleasures and evasion. Those close to colleges, such as administrators, also weigh in. In 2006 Derek Bok, president of Harvard from 1971 to 1991 and again from 2006 to 2007, wrote Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More. Writers recall their student experience, as did Ross Douthat in Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class, and Walter Kirn in Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever. The shared message is that students aren’t learning very much, academically speaking, but they should be.

Faculty write about higher education from oblique angles. Mark Edmundson, professor of English and prolific champion of the humanities, defends his profession, despite assaults from all sides, in Why Teach? In Defense of a Real Education. “Ultimately,” he argues, “it is up to individuals — and individual students in particular — to make their own way against the current sludgy tide.” So the “sludgy tide” is to blame. In In the Basement of the Ivory Tower, “Professor X” provides the perspective of the increasingly numerous adjunct faculty teaching at “colleges of last resort,” where students arrive with such poor training that more than half fail English 101. In Shadow Scholar, Dave Tomar writes about his ten years as a forhire term paper writer; he even wrote dissertations for Ph.D. students too busy or panicked to do it themselves. He justifies his admittedly unethical behavior by his own miserable experience as one of hundreds warehoused in huge classes at Rutgers, where his only personal relationship with the school was with the parking office.

In 1996 Peter M. Sacks explained the new generation in Generation X Goes to College: An Eye-Opening Account of Teaching in Postmodern America. Andrew Delbanco writes about College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be. Derek Bok followed up Our Underachieving Colleges with the broad Higher Education in America. Applying business theories about “disruptive innovation” to higher education, Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring propose The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out. Going further, Anya Kamenetz suggests DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education. Kevin Carey argues, like me, that we have reached the end of the familiar form of higher education, in his book The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere, but suggests a basically technological solution. Directly in contrast to those turning to technological innovations, William Deresiewicz in Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life pleads for a return to the real value of liberal arts.

Anthropologists, sociologists, and other social scientists have written an array of books exposing the realities of higher education: Michael Moffatt demonstrated the strangeness of college in Coming of Age in New Jersey. Dorothy Holland and Margaret Eisenhart revealed female students’ focus on relationships in Educated in Romance. Mary Grigsby showed how different types of students regard the academic enterprise in College Life through the Eyes of Students. Most colorfully, Rebekah Nathan in My Freshman Year writes about her own enrollment in college when she was already a professor in order to conduct clandestine research on the contemporary undergraduate experience. These works, and many more, explain what happens in college beyond the celebratory promotional advertising.

Similar complaints are voiced by teachers at lower levels of school, and hand-wringing about unprepared, undisciplined, unruly, defiant, lazy, erratic students proliferate. And don’t forget their dreadful test scores.

Yet in some sense these same complaints have been circulating for millennia. A timeless lament variably attributed to Plato/Socrates, Aristotle, Cicero, Hesiod, “an old monk,” and other Middle Eastern “ancients” (clearly apocryphal) criticizes the young:

“The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.”

So the good old days included a time when students listened to their teachers, cared about their studies, did their reading, spent as much time as it took to do the work, walked five miles in the snow uphill in both directions ... Nostalgia for a fallen world of genuine learning in school brings with it much false memory. When we measure the present against an idealized past, it must fall short.


Reprinted with permission from “I Love Learning; I Hate School”: An Anthology of College by Susan D. Blum, published by Cornell University Press, 2016.