Sunday, June 5, 2011

What is the point of college?

Is it merely that I am sensitized to the topic of higher education b/c I work in it - or is there quite a bit of public discourse, including the publication of books and book reviews?

The latest installment appears in the June 6th issue of The New Yorker, which features a review essay by Louis Menand. In the essay, he features two books - Richard Arum and Jospia Roksa's Academically Adrift, which already has garnered a lot of attention and is based on an analysis of the College Learning Assessment (a kind of standardized test that is being used at a number of colleges and universities in an attempt to measure what a college education might "yield") and Professor X's In the Basement of the Ivory Tower, which is a kind of memoir based on an essay previously published in The Atlantic. I am unfamiliar with Professor X's work, but Menand makes him sound like a real-life William Henry "Lucky Hank" Deveraux.

This is fitting b/c in the public discourse on higher ed, I think we need to hear more (and take more seriously) about the experiences of the "teachers" - that is, the professors (who BTW do more than teach) and the adjunct instructors.

On a related note, I think we also need to hear more from students themselves - not just about the standardized tests that they take, ostensibly to measure what they have learned or been taught. This is where faculty feel frustration: As in the discourse on K-12 public schooling, the talk is all about "whether or not" (yes or no) students and learning and teachers are doing their jobs.

What, in fact, is the point of college for students? This is the point where Menand starts. Students bring diverse expectations (as well as experiences) to college - and this bears directly upon what they learn in college (and how and what professors also teach).

Menand describes three "theories" of what college is for Americans:

1. "College is, essentially, a four-year intelligence test" that is used to sort individuals according to "intellectual capacity and productive potential."

I admit that I cringe at the thought, and wish that this were not true.

2. "College exposes future citizens to material that enlightens and empowers them, whatever careers they end up choosing."

I imagine that a number of my colleagues oh-so-want this to be true: I want to believe. (In fact, I do.)

3. "College is where people can be taught what they need in order to enter a vocation. A college degree in a non-liberal field signifies competence in a specific line of work."

In fact, this is what I think a lot of students attending the four-year comprehensive public college where I teach believe this - or at least a lot of their parents do. Which is why I sit with students and talk with them about what to do with their major in anthropology - which they tell me they took b/c they "love" it, not b/c they think it is "practical," which I take to mean pre-professional. (In fact, about 60 percent of the majors in our department have anthropology as their second major. Not necessarily paired with a pre-professional major: I wonder whether or not there might be a perception that an anthropology major on its own might be fine, but pairing it with history or psychology or biology adds a bit of heft?)

Menand's conclusion is a bit bleak, as it suggests that the problems of higher ed might be much more difficult than simply testing students in order to assess* the value of collegiate learning and then weeding out the "bad" teachers - that is, those deemed ineffective at student engagement*:

*Buzzwords in higher education today.

Assuming that these new books are right, and that many students are increasingly disengaged from the academic part of the college experience, it may be because the system has become too big and too heterogeneous to work equally well for all who are in it. The system appears to be drawing in large numbers of people who have no firm career goals but failing to help them acquire focus. This is what Arum and Roska believe, anyway. Students at very selective colleges are still super-motivated - their motivation is one of the reasons they are selected - and most professors, since we are the sort of people who want a little gold star for everything we do, still want to make a difference to their students. But when motivation is missing, when people come into the system without believing that what goes on it really matters, it's hard to transform minds.

I think Menand is right to point out that a problem of higher ed today is that it is trying to be all things to everyone. On the one hand, I appreciate the idea of having college accessible to "everyone": Not that long ago, women and people of color and poor students were excluded from opportunities for higher education. It would have been unthinkable for someone like me to graduate from the privileged little community of the mind that I attended. The mission of higher ed, too, has changed, will change, and ought to continue changing.

On the other hand, I think the problem of "motivation" is not just what happens between between students and professors, in classrooms and on campuses, but the even larger system of the rest of life - or "reality," as my students call it.

When I talk with students, they are as likely to call college as a "break" as to describe it as an opportunity or a rite of passage. In their eyes, college is a last chance to "enjoy" themselves before "reality" - and the reality that they perceive is at best uncertain and at worst uninspiring and apparently unrewarding. They know that love can end in divorce as well as marriage, that women still bear the (unappreciated) burden of care, and that careers can be cut short as even the most loyal and experienced workers become "let go."

What, then, is the point of reading the assignments and writing the papers and acquiring those skills that standardized tests seek to measure? What is the point of college?

What needs to be "fixed" in collegiate student learning is not necessarily the teaching: Instead of blaming the professors, how about we take a look also at students? What needs to be "fixed" in higher ed is not necessarily just higher ed itself: What about the rest of the world that colleges and universities ostensibly "prepare" students to face? How about we try to fix that, too?

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