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?


| January 2017



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

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.