What’s the Point of Higher Education?

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on January 19, 2011

The higher education system in the United States has been looked to as the sole bright spot in an otherwise dismal educational environment; one that has persisted for thirty-odd years. But if the results of higher education are this, then we are going to have to reconsider whether the higher education system is fulfilling its mission:

An unprecedented study that followed several thousand undergraduates through four years of college found that large numbers didn’t learn the critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication skills that are widely assumed to be at the core of a college education.

Many of the students graduated without knowing how to sift fact from opinion, make a clear written argument or objectively review conflicting reports of a situation or event, according to New York University sociologist Richard Arum, lead author of the study. The students, for example, couldn’t determine the cause of an increase in neighborhood crime or how best to respond without being swayed by emotional testimony and political spin.

Arum, whose book “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses” (University of Chicago Press) comes out this month, followed 2,322 traditional-age students from the fall of 2005 to the spring of 2009 and examined testing data and student surveys at a broad range of 24 U.S. colleges and universities, from the highly selective to the less selective.

Forty-five percent of students made no significant improvement in their critical thinking, reasoning or writing skills during the first two years of college, according to the study. After four years, 36 percent showed no significant gains in these so-called “higher order” thinking skills.

Combining the hours spent studying and in class, students devoted less than a fifth of their time each week to academic pursuits. By contrast, students spent 51 percent of their time — or 85 hours a week — socializing or in extracurricular activities.

The study also showed that students who studied alone made more significant gains in learning than those who studied in groups.

“I’m not surprised at the results,” said Stephen G. Emerson, the president of Haverford College in Pennsylvania. “Our very best students don’t study in groups. They might work in groups in lab projects. But when they study, they study by themselves.”

So: Legions of college students are being graduated who cannot think their way out of a paper bag. Many of these students will be accepted to graduate schools, where their lack of critical thinking skills will only serve to pull down the quality of the graduate institutions that they attend. A few may find jobs in this horrible economy, but their lack of critical thinking skills will prevent them from doing well, getting promoted, getting pay raises, and more importantly, doing the brainwork necessary to help improve the work done by their respective places of employment.

No one can look at this picture and be pleased, save those who make one wonder what color the sky is in their respective worlds.

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