Saturday, March 5, 2011

Academically Adrift, Not for Profit in NY Review of Books

I can't exactly recommend Peter Brooks' review of the two books we've recently done reading groups on here at ISW. It strikes me as cranky and out of touch, and in the case of Academically Adrift, dismissive and careless in its reading:

Proposals to abolish tenure in a setting of calls for some equivalent of “no child left behind” for college students—what the Spellings Commission report and Academically Adrift propose—should give us pause. Arguments emphasizing crisis and decline feed the demand for reform based on “improved measurement” of what students learn, which in turn is fostering a new metrics enterprise. That “Collegiate Learning Assessment,” designed not to test student acquisition of knowledge but rather “core outcomes espoused by all of higher education,” has three parts. According to Arum and Roksa, the best developed is the “performance task component.” In the example they give (and praise), students are asked to write a “memo” to the president of DynaTech, which makes precision instruments, concerning whether the corporation should buy a certain small jet, the SwiftAir 235, which seems to meet the needs of its sales force—but has had a recent crash.
This cost-benefit exercise is fun, but it hardly tests the kind of thing I teach (which might best be evaluated, I have often thought, by what students are thinking about and dreaming of twenty years after graduation). Such exercises resemble the case studies pioneered by Harvard Business School. But the test results allow Arum and Roksa to ring the alarm bells (students are learning very little from their college studies), and to cite with approval the Spellings Commission report claim that “the quality of student learning at US colleges and universities is inadequate, and in some cases, declining.” To blame? The culture of the professoriate, once more. The solution?
From our standpoint, the evidence of student and organizational cultures’ inattention to learning and high levels of societal investment makes discussion of higher education’s accountability both largely inevitable and in certain respects warranted.
Though ponderously stated (as is the whole book), the message again is that the university must be policed and regulated through outcomes testing.
Gee, where do I start?

Academically Adrift does NOT call for the abolition of tenure. The Collegiate Learning Assessment certainly does "test student acquisition of knowledge" — not subject or content knowledge, and perhaps not what Brooks teaches, which seems to reflect negatively on Brooks, not the CLA. (And dig the Wall Street Journal-ish use of scare quotes as a tool of rhetorical sarcasm.) And Arum and Roksa don't unilaterally place the blame on "the professiorate"; as we've noted here, there's plenty of blame directed at students, administrators, parents, and government leaders too. And I don't recall the message of the book being that "the university must be policed and regulated through outcomes testing." (Indeed, I'm not quite sure where the authors stand on those issues.)

Oh well.


  1. This doesn't sound accurate about Academically Adrift. Strange. Is it coming from a general hostility (to which I am sympathetic) to assessment? I'm sure we'll discuss this more as the weeks continue, but I was cheered by Arum and Roksas call for assessment at the institutional rather than the governmental level.

  2. Reading AA, I could hear the voices of certain colleagues in my head reacting in exactly this way. For some, any criticism of the status quo is an attack on professorial autonomy by Republicans, people who want to run the university like a business, and general anti-intellectuals.

    Arum and Roksas are careful not to play into this line. The final statement of their book is not ponderous; it is careful. Given how many parties have an interest here the only way forward is with public discussion and careful negotiation.

    Arum and Roksas make it clear that the first priority for everyone--professors, students, parents, administrators, funding bodies--is something other than actual learning. But I would say more optimistically that it is everyone's second priority. Sure, students are mostly there to get a credential, but they are generally open to actually learning something. Professors are research focussed, but they like it when students appreciate the kind of work they study.

    The reason "critical thinking" appears on everyone's list of desired outcomes for college is that people recognize that it is good. They just don't believe in it enough to overcome their own agenda.

  3. Also, it is really unfair to accuse Arun and Roksa of decrying a "crises" in higher education when they go out of their way in the conclusion to point out that they have not used the language of crises and explain why they have done so.


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