My Turn: Puzzling optimism about higher education

Last modified: 1/13/2014 9:56:30 AM
Given Josh Kim’s position – director of digital learning initiatives – the rather self-congratulatory tenor of his “College Revolution” column (Monitor Forum, Jan. 3) is not surprising. Without denying many of the points he makes, I would offer a different perspective. In light of the seemingly endless stream of press about the dismal position of American students relative to their peers in other countries, such optimism as Kim’s is puzzling.

Here is an even more disturbing excerpt from a recent interview with Richard Arum, co-author of Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, published by The New England Journal of Higher Education: “Analysis suggests that more than a third of American college seniors are no better at crucial types of writing and reasoning tasks than they were in their first semester of college. Furthermore, 45 percent of these students demonstrate no significant improvement in a range of skills – including critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing – during their first two years of college. Other findings show that, on average, students devote only slightly more than 12 hours per week to studying.”

Kim’s column blithely posits, and talks about “demolishing,” the assumption that “authentic learning is about the transmission and receipt of information” and “regurgitation of information in the form of multiple choice exams,” and trumpets as new the idea that “learning requires active engagement with ideas.”

I graduated from college in the year that Kim was probably born (no “crowded computer labs” in sight!), and no professor I encountered as an undergraduate, or later in graduate school, held or practiced on the basis of such a “transmission and receipt” model; all encouraged active engagement. Furthermore, it’s been clear since Socrates roamed the agora in Athens that active engagement was the way to improve critical thinking and complex reasoning. Neither he nor his student Plato used PowerPoint.

Kim’s enthusiasm about today’s undergraduate education, and his exhortation not to blanch at its rising costs, seems based to an embarrassing degree on the technology they have – “using all these tablets and mobile platforms” – and the information – “once a scarce commodity” (oh? libraries?) – they have access to. He goes on to praise “vast online databases” and “discussions and collaboration . . . whenever students have access to their computers.”

I would suggest that those “vast” sources of information can easily seduce students from generating their own ideas (“I’ll just Google ‘Hamlet’ and see what I should think about this scene”), or can overwhelm a general inquiry with so much data – whose sources may well go uninvestigated and all too easily trusted – that no way to discern or develop a way through so many trees and out of the forest seems possible.

As to collaboration, with an average of less than two hours a day (compared with how much total daily screen time? Seven and a half hours, a Google search reveals), a conscientious student may find that she or he is doing most of the work, while others in the group, neither physically nor virtually present, don’t pull their weight – an old, old pedagogical challenge in 21st-century form. To what extent do today’s professors hold their students accountable for cyber-slacking?

Kim asserts that “the value of higher education has also increased dramatically.” The flip side is that the growing income gap between those with and without a college degree reflects the sad decrease in social mobility in the United States. Perhaps more money spent on preschool and less on collegiate digital initiatives might benefit the country more in the long run.

Finally, in the days when STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – is all the rage, and talk of adding an “A” for liberal arts of any kind seems a “vox clamantis in deserto” (Dartmouth’s motto), the low-tech experience of holding a book, a paper book in which you can make marginal notes and whose pagination and font match those of other folks with whom you might discuss the book, has much to offer.

There are “vast databases” devoted to Virgil, Shakespeare and Faulkner, but nothing beats the experience of simply reading, and re-reading, and going back, and reconsidering, the work itself, by oneself, and only then talking with others. I’d recommend a recent article in the New York Times, “How do E-Books Change the Reading Experience,” as a thought-provoking balance to Kim’s “College Revolution.’’ You can read it online!



(Chip Morgan of Alexandria taught English, humanities and classics at St. Paul’s School for 41 years.)




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