Most pundits agree that higher education is in trouble. “Very serious trouble,” says Ethan Miller. Crises abound. Especially ones related to the economics of college: the influence of free-market economics, the declining status of the humanities in relation to vocational fields, unfair labor practices for adjuncts, rising student-loan debt, the use of technology for inexpensive mass education, and drastic cuts in public funding. But as Richard P. Keeling and Richard H. Hersh argue, economic crises are not the only ones facing higher education, nor the most important. What is the most important problem? “To say it as plainly as possible: students do not learn enough in college, period.”
Certainly, economic and educational problems intersect. Without adequate funding, for instance, colleges and universities cannot do as much as they should improve learning. And yet, at the same time, increased funding would not automatically result in increased learning. We could hypothetically solve the many economic problems facing higher education and still fail to better facilitate deep and lasting learning for more students.
Too often debates in higher education neglect or fail to adequately prioritize questions of learning. Thankfully, a growing number of writers make just that their top priority. Three books on the learning crisis stand out.
1. Derek Bok’s Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2007). Bok proposes that higher education should develop students in a broad range of important capacities, including thinking, communicating, living in a global society, and other areas. Chapter by chapter, he explains what such a vision for higher education would look like and surveys the available empirical evidence on how colleges and universities are doing in each of these areas. His conclusion? We’re not doing as well as we could or should. But we can move forward through broad and sensible reforms—particularly including adopting better teaching methods. For more on this book, see: “If We Rethink Our Purpose and Pedagogy, Students Will Learn More.”
2. Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2010). Controversially, Arum and Roksa present bad news upon bad news. The core finding: most students develop little or not at all in writing and critical thinking, the very skills widely agreed to be among the most important aims of college. Not only that but students don’t even seem to try to learn—and aren’t really even asked to. Less controversially but just as importantly, Arum and Roksa also present good news and a proposal for reform. Some students actually develop quite a bit. Not only that but good teaching makes a difference. For more on this book, see: “While Most Students Don’t Learn, Some Do” and “Reform College by Making Learning a Priority.”
3. Rebekah Nathan’s My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2005). An anthropologist, Nathan spent a year enrolled at a public university as a student to study student culture. The resulting book, a breakout bestselling ethnography, offers an important picture into how students view and experience college from the inside. The picture Nathan paints is both troubling and humanizing. Our suspicions are confirmed. Most students are simply not at college to learn. But there are understandable historical, social, and personal reasons that this is the case. And, thankfully, some students are not like most students. For more on this book, see: “Students Don’t Go to College to Learn.”
When considered together, these books present several common themes:
First, they confirm and document Keeling and Hersh’s point (quoted above) that “students do not learn enough in college, period.”
Second, they insist on a complex view of the learning problem. In Grafton’s words, they stay clear of “monocausal explanations.” The roots and solutions to the problem include students, teachers, administrators, legislators, and others constituents and involve economics, culture, pedagogy, and other factors.
Third, they sound alarms but avoid alarmism. They make strong cases for improving teaching and learning but also insist that quality teaching and learning already take place—in pockets of innovation, where teachers, students, and others work together toward authentic learning and succeed. And, finally, they insist that such pockets represent the way forward for all of us.