Tuesday, February 08, 2011

analytically adrift

This will likely be my second and last post on Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa's recently heralded critique of higher education in the US, Academically Adrift. I've about had it.

Psychologists used to employ the term idée fixe to name a certain mania for constantly repeating or returning to the same word or concept, regardless of its relevance to the situation. It's a kind of mental illness, a psychopathy, if you will, that people like Freud would have ascribed to childhood psychosexual traumas.

So much the worse for Arum and Roksa, who monomaniacally return to the same themes throughout this badly-argued book. Through the first 60 pages or so, I had thought that I was seeing just another politically-motivated screed against the academic establishment, or tenured faculty, or both, buoyed by cherry-picked empirical evidence. Would that it were so, at least for their sake. Instead, what I'm finding are lengthy red herring tangents of absolutely no probative value, subjected to analysis and critical reasoning that, ironically enough, would earn you a very poor grade in my critical reasoning class.

One example, of many, lest I be considered cruel: After dismissing the value of student-faculty contact outside of classrooms as having limited academic value, they spend several pages documenting that of the 9% of sophomore students in their sample who never talked with a faculty member outside of class, there were great over-representations of certain under-advantaged socioeconomic and cultural groups. Their conclusion: those students (9%) are losing out.

Okay, okay, one more. (I insist this is for demonstrative purposes only.) After beating to freaking death the evidence that many students, especially in non-selective institutions like community colleges, don't write a 20-page paper or read 40+ pages per week in any class as freshmen, they conclude, without a shred of argumentative support, that therefore these students lose out on development of critical reasoning skills. I don't mean to claim that reading and writing are irrelevant to developing those skills, but they haven't shown why 20 pages or 40 pages are relevant measures, at all. Not. One. Whit. Of. Argument.

Lauren's take: these are two people who were forced to write 20-page papers as freshmen, and are pissed off that they were, while their own kids now out-argue them, despite going to a mere CSU for a year.

That's nice to think, but I've read ahead to the exciting conclusion, where they say what their "mandate" for reform includes (and with that, I won't even bother), and repeat, for the bajillionth time in the book, the initial claim that they promise they will justify and never do: that There Is Something Rotten In The State Of Academia, and they know this because so few students report having been required to write a 20-page paper or read 40+ pages per week in a freshman college class.

It's a classic case. I'm thinking lack of breastfeeding, aren't you?

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