Tarring with a Broad Brush

May 15, 2011

In today’s New York Times, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa have a piece called “Your So-Called Education” which aims to cast a pall over the season’s commencement exercises.  “We would be happy to join in the celebrations if it weren’t for our recent research, which raises doubts about the quality of undergraduate learning in the United States,” they argue.  And add,  “We found that large numbers of the students were making their way through college with minimal exposure to rigorous coursework, only a modest investment of effort and little or no meaningful improvement in skills like writing and reasoning.”

(Three months ago, I called attention to two critiques of their book, Academically Adrift, from which this opinion piece is drawn.)

They tar with a very broad brush, making no suggestion that there might be significant differences among colleges and universities, some with very much higher standards than others, and succeeding in inducing much more learning on the part of their students.

Arum has a B.A.from Tufts; Roksa a B.A.from Mt.Holyoke.  I wonder if they mean to condemn their own alma maters.

Their urgings, on the other hand, are relatively straightforward and sensible.  They urge colleges and universities to take greater care in evaluating teaching.  “Distributing resources and rewards based on student learning instead of student satisfaction would help stop this race to the bottom.”

And they urge others to act as well.

“College trustees, instead of worrying primarily about institutional rankings and fiscal concerns, could hold administrators accountable for assessing and improving learning. Alumni as well as parents and students on college tours could ignore institutional facades and focus on educational substance. And the Department of Education could make available nationally representative longitudinal data on undergraduate learning outcomes for research purposes, as it has been doing for decades for primary and secondary education.”

Perhaps we could celebrate the institutions that already heed this advice?


About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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