Friday, February 04, 2011

academically adrift

I've begun this widely-discussed book which claims that colleges don't educate and college students don't learn. I'm deeply suspicious.

For instance, the second chapter begins by noting that in the last 30 years or so, access to higher education has been extended (the data they cite include the number of people with plans to attend college). They turn to discussion of data about high school students' efforts, aspirations, and their understanding of the link between their future career plans (if any) and their educational needs for reaching them. They say that almost half of high school students believe that they can reach their life goals even if they don't put a lot of effort into high school, and that many incoming college students are not planning for their lives.

It is this unique point in time - when access to college is widespread, concerns about inadequate academic preparation are prevalent, and drifting through college without a clear sense of purpose is readily apparent - that serves as the historic context for our observations of the lives of students as they unfold at twenty-four four-year institutions. (p. 34)

First, anecdotally, I would have told anyone who asked me, at age 17, that I didn't make much effort at all in high school, and that even less was required of me. I also had no life plans, let alone college plans. I didn't plan to go to college at all, and only ended up starting that fall at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte because my dad brought home an application one June day and told me I was going to fill it out and go to college.

I don't think being "adrift" in that way is necessarily a bad thing. Most of my friends in college spent some time adrift - changing majors, changing career goals, taking classes that ended up not being related to either, etc. From a certain perspective on the purpose and value of higher education - one I would think is far more narrowly and crudely utilitarian than my own - I suppose that might support the view that such people and experiences are not fulfilling the purpose of education. Among the purposes I believe drifting does serve are exploration, self-reflection, and the critical capacity to distinguish between different visions of self and future. (I anticipate, based on the first chapter, that the authors will, instead, connect such drifting to a "collegiate culture" of partying and recreation.)

Secondly, what they've demonstrated is not that anyone is and remains adrift "through college," only that they begin without certainty of what they plan to do.

That kind of slipperiness between premises and conclusion is found throughout the first chapter as well. It's crafted very carefully to make the slippage difficult to see and to work out through logical analysis.

But, as someone told me, the main problem is that everyone's talking about it but no one's read it. (I disagree slightly. Every article I've read about the book cites two factual assertions, from pages 4 and 18, so I conclude that the media heads writing about it have read those two pages, at least.)


Anonymous said...

I was going to put a really cool comment in here about the ABSOLUTE necessity of having a life plan FROM BIRTH that you never ever deviate from... but I couldn't figure out how to type with a Nazi German accent, so I gave up.

Doc Nagel said...

Like many universities, the CSU is considering changing their motto to "Arbeit macht frei."