Enriching American academics

The failure of the American educational system Quick—besides your alcohol tolerance and 25 variations on the same ramen “recipe,” name something you learned in your first two years of college that you still use/understand today.

The failure of the American educational system Quick—besides your alcohol tolerance and 25 variations on the same ramen “recipe,” name something you learned in your first two years of college that you still use/understand today.

If you can’t think of anything, you’re not alone.

According to the new book “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses,” 45 percent of American college students finish their first two years of college with no significant gains in the ability to think critically, engage in complex reasoning or write. These results were based on surveys of approximately 3,000 students on 29 campuses, transcripts and standardized testing (in particular, the Collegiate Learning Assessment). The results startled the academic world: Today’s students can slide by with 50 percent less studying than their parents’ generation. Students today are not asked to read or write as much as previous generations.

This begs the question: What the hell, America?

Since the book was published, the academic world has been quick to point fingers, accusations flying back and forth like political mudslinging. Blame has been placed on the students themselves, untenured professors, tenured professors, administrators, alumni, athletics and just about every other group even tangentially related to college. Maybe some of it is due to one or more of these groups.

The basis of the problem, however, lies squarely on how higher education is perceived today. Institutions of higher learning have traditionally been viewed as enrichment centers. The educational component of college was specifically geared toward building the skills necessary for success in the long-term. Students read, listened, wrote, practiced, recited and struggled for their grades. Those who graduated university were those who adapted and grew intellectually.

Now, higher education is viewed as a stepping stone. What was once another “pro” on a resume is now a prerequisite for most long-term, secure jobs. As such, the goals of most colleges have changed from skill- and knowledge-building to getting as many students to graduate as possible, regardless of whether these students actually learn anything.

It’s become a factory mentality. Students take classes solely to graduate, usually not retaining more than a few key facts or ideas.

Universities haven’t become any more difficult in recent years, either. Instructors have relaxed grading immensely, curving drastically and giving full credit for half-assed work. Science and math instructors award partial credit for completely incorrect answers and problem-solving methods, if a student “shows his work.” And the difficulty of that work is laughable, at times. Where getting a college education once meant skill-building and mastery of a specific topic or discipline, now a degree is earned by checking off boxes, taking classes and arguing with advisers. And with the first two years of college aimed at preparing students for the mastery of a single discipline—something which has not truly existed since the advent of “liberal arts” majors—it is no wonder students don’t retain much of anything.

Teaching methods have also had a role to play in the downfall of college learning. Jeff McNeal, a senior studying science at Portland State, is particularly frustrated by instructors who don’t feel inclined to instruct. “Why would I pay to take a class when the teacher expects us to teach ourselves the material?” McNeal said. He feels his time and money could sometimes be spent better elsewhere.

Even “progressive” programs such as PSU’s University Studies fail to help students build skills for the rest of their college careers. McNeal, a transfer student, is particularly doubtful of the program. “They are a cluster-fuck of assorted classes where only half of them, if that, actually teach you anything,” McNeal said. “They are good in theory, but when PSU offers classes based off of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer,’ I wonder where my tuition costs are really going.”

Regardless of the reason behind it, the fact remains that students are no longer learning the skills necessary for success later in life. This cannot continue if America is going to maintain its tenuous hold on its reputation for having some of the best institutions of higher education in the world. Colleges need to revive skill-building classes and once again ignite the fervor and interest of their students. College can no longer be seen as a means to an end; if American students are to get back on track, they have to seek enrichment. ?