I didn't end up taking the job. The hours were too demanding for a grad student in the last stages of his thesis. But it was all I could think about when I was reading Chapter 4. I don't think college professors needed to be told that students are spending less and less time on studying and other learning related activities. But it's nice that Arum and Roska actually give us numbers. That 75% of student time is spent either socializing or sleeping tells volumes about the amount of learning one can expect. It's not the worst theory to guess that classes with "rigor" (basically extensive requirements backed up by a credible threat of doing very poorly in the class) work the magic they do because they give strong incentives to take a little time back from the 75% and redirect it to academic work.
The consequence of not running good military academies is having a bad military. Highly armed, under-educated officer corps are a recipe for despotism and deadly accidents in the field. So military academies absolutely have to work. The fact that we don't see the same worry about the consequences in the rest of the academy can keep one up at night. (And I take it that's what Martha Nussbaum's book — the subject of our last ISW bookclub — was supposed to do.)
Obviously I don't think the solution is to run all academic institutions like military academies, but the results are impressive and bear further investigation. If it turns out that the results aren't merely a consequence of forcing students to follow orders, perhaps the rest of academia could benefit from some of the ways that military academies educate future officers. And I don't see any reason why we should assume that the results are merely the effects of threatened punishments. That technique may be effective in the field, but ultimately the kind of students I saw in the classroom that day have to be the product of a culture of learning.
So aside from a threat of punishment, what do military academies do in order to get such good student outcomes? My answers are speculative and anecdotal (if anyone else has actual literature or experience, please educate me), but here they are:
- Military academies offer a clear career path to students who progress and excel in school.
- Military academies establish a culture of learning centered around respect for officers and professors.
- Early on, military academies grab the opportunity to define the college experience as something other than socializing.
Perhaps all three are necessary, but (1) involves the (in my opinion mistaken) strategy of designing college curriculums around business needs as opposed to social needs. (2) would of course be nice, and something like it is probably true at upper-echelon universities, but ultimately it may be a larger cultural problem that universities can do little to solve. That leaves us with (3).
I don't have a lot of specific suggestions on how to accomplish (3), but the recent trends aren't good. Students arrive on campus the week before school starts and attend orientation weeks that are increasingly social affairs. Student retention experts say correctly that these activities dramatically increase the chances that students will gel with a couple of friends and thus have a social experience that will keep them at the university. But while this may be true, it also gives in to the picture that college is free time with your friends that is occasionally interrupted by classes and classwork. Professors are also largely invisible on campus until classes start, as we have turned over the first-week duties to administration.
If the state of student learning is dire (and if we are to believe Academically Adrift, it is), then it might not be the worst time to re-think what students experience when they first get to college. The model I'm imagining is a little like West Point's Cadet Basic Training without all the grenades, guns, and yelling. (West Point has apparently been taking strides to turn itself into a better liberal arts institution.) A university could make a big name for itself by opening two weeks early and requiring students to attend a class in which they have a highly regimented routine, eat meals together, participate in (ethically acceptable) rituals, do memory drills, have opportunities for physical exercise, take inventories of their current levels of knowledge and preparation, and so on. Sort of like Hogwarts, but for muggle university students. A program like this seems like one of the few things that might be able to change student priorities and prepare students for the academic rigor that professors will be called upon to provide in the near future.