'Academically Adrift' presents a detailed analysis, grounded in original research, of the state of play in American higher education. The authors' diagnosis is that the promise of an American university education is not what it was. The picture presented is of a system that has lost sight of the larger aims of education in pursuit of a chimera of equal and extended opportunity for all that cannot be met by an education system that reproduces the faults of the deeply divided society that gave birth to it. The detail may be specific to the United States, but the diagnosis is likely to be of significance for the United Kingdom, where education has come under similar pressure.
The picture that the authors paint is a depressing one. Directionless students, fuelled by debt or time-crippled by the need to work, often lacking basic skills, treat university as primarily a social experience, to which learning takes a remote back seat; faculty have largely abdicated any responsibility for providing direction or maintaining high standards, and have been forced in defence of their own careers to prioritise research over teaching; universities have become preoccupied with generating wealth and pandering to students who, as 'consumers' of an 'educational experience' make high demands on the provision of amenities while seeking the shortest, easiest path to increasingly meaningless qualifications, often in subjects that would once have been regarded as more akin to vocational training than higher education in the academic sense.
Most disturbing is the evidence that even in terms of their mandated task, universities are failing to perform, with many students avoiding difficult subjects, showing statistically insignificant intellectual progress and failing to acquire the higher intellectual skills that a university education, uniquely, is supposed to provide. Moreover, Arum and Roksa document the failure of a complacent university system to address the enduring failure of lower-class and non-white students to benefit from their educational opportunities as their better-funded, better-prepared and better-resourced upper-class, white counterparts still may.
Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa are academic sociologists by profession. They adduce a wealth of evidence to support their views. This lends a familiar dryness to their presentation - lots of figures and graphs, careful caveats where necessary, and the full apparatus of notes and bibliography - but lends authority to their conclusions. I recommend their book to anybody interested in the direction of higher education in this country; what has happened in the USA has direct parallels here, and much of what the authors describe will provoke winces of recognition. If these trends continue, the future will offer only more disappointment as the higher education system becomes increasingly and explicitly a servant to commerce and an instrument in the reproduction of the status quo.
on 11 June 2013
This is an academic paper expanded into a book, which makes it a little dry at times. Much of the statistical content is presented within inelegant graphs with long litanies of statistics (30% this, but 28% that...). That aside, the findings are fascinating, particularly that many students get through their degrees without a lot of effort and don't get a lot out of it, particularly in terms of generic skills in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing. And to top this off, whilst your background matters, what the universities do also matters. But it is sad that a book written by academics for the academic community has to point out that learning is important and universities should try and do this well. UK institutions take note...
This book has had a significant impact on thinking in Higher Education and so I wanted to read it to see what the evidence is about students being left "academically adrift" and the answer is not very much. This is an expanded scientific paper made into a book. The authors believe that student progress can be measured using an assessment of their critical thinking skills. To get a cross-institution and cross cohort study you need to develop some sort of standardised test to measure there skills and so they use the CLA to carry this out. They also compare this to other standardised tests used to assess university entry. Each chapter then documents a different aspect of the analysis taking into account social factors, educational background, race, financial background and so on. By controlling for each of the variables they try to isolate terms related to the schools (where the students are going to university) and the teaching.
The main finding is that more than half the students do not see an improvement on there CLA scores over the first two years of university and so they are academically adrift. Now taking this as a rigorous statistical study I have some problems.
It is very post hoc - First they ideologically assume they are "academically adrift" then they find the evidence. Nowhere is the evidence presented as showing that this drift exists. Evidence is presented the conclusion is drawn but there is no relation between the results and the conclusion - there is no linking discussion as to why this evidence means that they are academically adrift other than this means CLA is not going up. So this raises the question is CLA a good measure? What is it actually measuring? Why doe some subjects do better than others (science for example compared to social care and engineering). So this suggests the test is flawed and subject dependent unless all engineering colleges are rubbish. Second thought in my mind is, this is a scientific paper so why is it not in a peer reviewed journal? Why is it in a book where it cannot be rejected as methodologically unsound? The third worrying factor is why are there two authors when each chapter says oh X helped to write this. So it doesn't have 2 authors it has five authors but three are research assistants and so they don't count in the world of academia.
Given all of these methodological and to my mind ethical problems with the way the book is written there is one further weakness. The authors seem to fit into the traditionalist school of education. School is there for discipline and to instil morals etc. The book actually has striking similarities to the "Black Books" arguments about education from the UK in the 1970s. So from a Haidt perspective this desire for authority morality and respect puts the authors on the conservative part of the spectrum. Now this might or might not be the right way to educate but there is another view, that of the progressives (I confess I am on that side). These liberals believe that personal development is more important and that students need to find their own way - so if they are adrift that is because they are exploring. Now progressives are not new (Plato was one) but education moves between the liberal and conservative approaches almost continuously. This is why the book to me feels like the authors had decided what it was going to find before they even looked at the data.