Pockets of this country – and I live in one of them – are full of people skeptical of a liberal arts education. They’ll pit the humanities, for instance, against more practical fields of study like business or engineering. For them, weighing the merits of these respective disciplines is a no-brainer.
I mention this because I’m reading a book review on the state of our universities. Anthony Grafton writes that “In Academically Adrift, Arum and Roksa paint a chilling portrait of what the university curriculum has become. The central evidence that the authors deploy comes from the performance of 2,322 students on the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a standardized test administered to students in their first semester at university and again at the end of their second year… an ingenious exercise that requires students to read a set of documents on a fictional problem in business or politics and write a memo advising an official on how to respond to it.
“Their results are sobering. The Collegiate Learning Assessment reveals that some 45 percent of students in the sample had made effectively no progress in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing in their first two years.
“… Two points come through with striking clarity. First, traditional subjects and methods seem to retain their educational value. Nowadays the liberal arts attract a far smaller proportion of students than they did two generations ago. Still, those majoring in liberal arts fields – humanities and social sciences, natural sciences and mathematics – outperformed those studying business, communications, and other new, practical majors on the CLA. And at a time when libraries and classrooms across the country are being reconfigured to promote trendy forms of collaborative learning, students who spent the most time studying on their own outperformed those who worked mostly with others.”
The review adds that today’s students spend fewer hours studying and more hours socializing, exercising, and gaming, which detracts from the college experience. “For most of them, in the end, what the university offers is not skills or knowledge but credentials: a diploma that signals employability and basic work discipline… Our great, democratic university system has become a pillar of social stability – a broken community many of whose members drift through, learning little, only to return to the economic and social box that they were born into.”
My son will enter college next year and it’s a safe bet we’ll use this piece and others to set expectations. A major in business? I’ll ask him to think that one through carefully. It’s not that I’m biased against business. I’m just being practical.