A few years ago, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa (2011) made an extraordinary splash in the already roiling waters of American higher education. They published a book called Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. It followed in a long and anticipated a still growing line of critiques of postsecondary schooling that involves “conservatives” such as Allan Bloom (1987) who approved of Plato and disapproved of rock ‘n’ roll on the one hand, and an eclectic collection of anarchists, Marxists (neo and otherwise) and housebroken progressives who are conveniently lumped and labelled exponents of “critical pedagogy” and who generally have kind things to say about alien theorists such as Paulo Freire (1970) and Ivan Illich (1971) who, to be honest, were much more concerned about primary and secondary education than the reform of the senior institutions.
Together and with allies and antagonists, they confirmed what many people had variously accused, alleged, feared and denied; namely, that higher education in the United States of America wasn’t performing properly. Although there was probably an even greater debate about what, precisely, that job was or was intended to be, Arum and Roksa made a compelling case that, whatever it was, colleges and universities weren’t doing it. With more meticulous documentation than is normally invoked to support critical screeds, Richard Arum (a professor of education and sociology at New York University and a beneficiary of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) and Josipa Roksa (an associate professor of sociology and education, associate director of the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education and Special Advisor to the Provost at the University of Virginia) ruffled an unusual number of feathers with their first book. They may wet a few more hens with their sequel, Aspiring Adults Adrift: Tentative Transitions of College Graduates.
Academically Adrift took data from almost 2,500 students in a variety of institutions using an empirical, quantitative instrument called the Collegiate Learning Assessment which purports to measure generic “competencies” (or “literacies” as now seems fashionable in some places). These include “critical thinking, analytic reasoning, problem solving and writing.” (I have expressed my reservations about such concepts elsewhere (Doughty, 2006a); Doughty, 2006b; Doughty, 2014) and need not rehearse the arguments here. That said, the authors found plenty of weaknesses in the intellectual development of first-year and second-year students and, in fact, in 45% of the cases they were unable to detect any significant development at all.
The new book is an aspirational longitudinal analysis as Arum and Roksa track the subjects of the original volume through their undergraduate careers and into the labour force. They are pretty thorough. They base their arguments and conclusions on interviews with and surveys of over 1,600 of the originals who have recently graduated from over two dozen colleges. They report that all is not well in their worlds. We had previously been informed that, while in school, they studied little and seemingly learned less. Now, they seem similarly adrift, but with greater stakes than an occasional poor grade or a failed “relationship.” Equipped with a degree of dubious value, they must now make their way in an unforgiving world.
The authors report that their subjects are experiencing some difficulties in securing meaningful, satisfying and lucrative employment in the fields for which they were allegedly trained. Some twenty-five percent are in the sometimes humiliating position of having to return to what their parents may have thought to be a permanently empty nest. About seventy-five percent are still being financially supported by their parents two years after graduation. Twenty-five percent are unemployed or working fewer than twenty hours a week. Less than half are working full-time in jobs that pay $30,000 or more yearly. This is, by official American standards, much higher than the poverty line of $23,850 for a family of four (US Department of Health and Human Services and almost three times the $11,670 set as the bar for the contiguous United States (US Department of Health and Human Services, 2014). Still, they seem to remain cheerful and optimistic (or delusional) about their prospects for life, love and a litany of future entitlements―albeit sometimes tempered and explained by the claim that they are not as materialistic as their largely late-boomer parents.
As undergraduates, Arum and Roksa had previously reported that this cohort of scholarly conscripts had commonly achieved academic success without expending a great deal of effort or displaying the discipline that had, we are told, previously been expected and even required for a decent degree and a gratifying GPA. All sorts of reasons for grade inflation can be found, not least the fact that student retention is a frequent requirement for educational institutions that hope to maintain financial stability. The change in language from “student” to “customer” or to the inglorious “FU” (financial unit) is at least symbolic of the transition from elite to mass to universal education which approximates the “business model” of commerce and industry” and relies in the slogan, “the customer is always right” (or permitted to pass with negligible effort and less commitment to what were once deemed “academic values” and to achieving what were once assumed to be “academic standards.” In any case, it seems that students across a broad range of four-year institutions fail to improve in their abilities to be critical, analytical thinkers and to express their thoughts well for the simple reason that they are not asked to do so. Therefore, they find that a desultory hour per day is adequate to ensure graduation.
As someone who negotiated the path to an undergraduate degree half a century ago, I have a vested interest in claiming that those values and standards have declined; yet, in thinking so, I may not be entirely self-serving. Speaking anecdotally only, I can nonetheless testify that the quality of thought and expression has systematically declined (and I do assign a minimum of fifty pages of written work per semester. In any event, Arum and Roksa are here not only to test the Woody Allen proposition that “eighty percent of success is showing up,” but more importantly to assess its effects.
One of the more disconcerting effects, though no news to anyone who faces college and university classes, is the demonstrable disengagement of students. Not many read newspapers or magazines and few display even rudimentary knowledge of current events. A large number coat their fundamental apathy with a thick veneer of easy cynicism and, while they are willing to profess a vague concern about economic disparity and environmental degradation, only a rare few seem to want to do anything about either and only some of them have a clue about how to operationalized their urges. Again, I am reluctant to ascribe too much to such impressions and even empirically valid generalizations since, again to be honest, even in the hey-day of student dissent and the seemingly ubiquitous “counterculture” of the 1960s, it does us well to recall that in the middle of that iconic decade Billboard (1964, 1965, 1966, 1967) listed such songs as Louis Armstrong’s “Hello, Dolly,” Dean Martin’s “Everybody Loves Somebody,” Elvis Presley’s “Crying in the Chapel,” and Frank & Nancy Sinatra’s “Something Stupid” in the top 10 of its annual top 100―with Sgt. Barry Sadler topping the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and even the Beach Boys in 1966. At the same time, I cannot ignore the seemingly willful disinterest in anything more engaging than constant series of texts and tweets ... signifying nothing.
According to Arum and Roksa’s second collaboration: the prospects of young people without postsecondary certification are dismal and perceived to be so; and the prospects of young people with such certification aren’t as much better as they have been led to expect, especially since many graduate with tens of thousands of dollars worth of personal debt―an amount in excess of all credit card debt plus automobile loans in the USA (Vultaggio, 2014). In fact, as Noam Chomsky (2014) put it:
Students who acquire large debts putting themselves through school are unlikely to think about changing society. When you trap people in a system of debt they can’t afford the time to think. Tuition fee increases are a disciplinary technique, and by the time students graduate, they are not only loaded with debt, but have also internalized the disciplinary culture. This makes them efficient components of the consumer society.
Such thoughts, of course, do not dominate in the Arum and Roksa narrative. We may not be able to tell a book by its cover, but sometimes it’s possible to tell a book by its publisher and the University of Chicago Press is not known for its attachment to critical pedagogy. This does not mean, however, that they have become abject apologists for an educational system that their research seems to undermine. For example, in an interview with The Times Higher Education (Reisz, 2014), it was explained that “colleges don’t seem to be providing students with the tools to realize their high expectations” and that Arum and Roksa “are working within a system that they claim is letting down America’s youth.” So, they try to do what they can as individuals.
Arum, reacting to the fact that “30 per cent of graduates reported reading newspapers in print on online once a month or never,” has altered his teaching. “I realized that it was important to give students an understanding of why reading a newspaper is a regular part of being a democratic citizen in our society.” Good for him!
Roksa, too, says that she is about to teach a small seminar called College Life to some first-year students. She’ll assign readings from Aspiring Adults Adrift and hope to “really get students focused on: why I’m here, what I’m doing, what my purpose is, what I hope to accomplish.” I hope I’m not being churlish when I speculate that almost every one will get an “A” or at least a “B” for “showing up.” Anyway, good for her!
Arum and Roksa seem to be in earnest. By today’s standards, both their books are academically credible and both seem to be being read by people who seem to matter. What’s more, despite available evidence, they seem to share the recent graduates’ optimism. They certainly believe that, no matter how poorly or for what reasons colleges and universities are not performing optimally, it remains possible to do better―both in setting achievable objectives and in meeting them. Good for them!
The problem with Academically Adrift and Aspiring Adults Adrift is not so much in the authors or even the results. Rather, it is with how the lessons of the books have been received, interpreted and applied. By focussing on the dismal results of postsecondary education, Arum and Roksa―wittingly or unwittingly―have fired up the American right-wing which is besotted with neoliberal ideology and eager either to privatize education or, at the least, persuade public colleges and universities to emulate private sector business practices.
Put more lyrically than is within my pay grade, Christopher Newfield explained the consequences of Arum and Roksa’s work as follows:
The Eye of Sauron now fell on America’s colleges, but Frodo did not appear to restore their powers. [Arum and Roksa] gave comfort to the Right, which has been trying to downgrade public colleges for decades, and to people who thought that colleges should be run like corporations, and to educational technologists like the 2012-13 class of MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) enthusiasts, who would excuse their products’ poor educational results by saying that yes MOOCs weren’t perfect, but they could not be worse than what professors were doing in person.
We cannot dismiss the clinical signs of postsecondary educational disrepair. We can, however, have a better diagnosis and therapy. Otherwise, the prognosis may be almost as bad as right-wing “reformers” hope.
Arum, R. & J. Roksa. (2011). Academically adrift: Limited learning on college campuses. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Billboard. (1964). http://www.bobborst.com/popculture/top-100-songs-of-the-year/?year=1964
Billboard. (1965). http://www.bobborst.com/popculture/top-100-songs-of-the-year/?year=1965
Billboard. (1966). http://www.bobborst.com/popculture/top-100-songs-of-the-year/?year=1966
Billboard. (1967). http://www.bobborst.com/popculture/top-100-songs-of-the-year/?year=1967
Bloom, A. (1987). The closing of the American mind: How higher education has failed democracy and impoverished the souls of today's students. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Chomsky, N. (2014). Retrieved from http://d3lgc28rsiigal.cloudfront.
Doughty, H. (2006a). Critical thinking & critical consciousness, The College Quarterly 9(2).
Doughty, H. (2006b). The Limits of Critical Thinking, The Innovation Journal 11(3)
Doughty, H. (2014). Critical theory, critical pedagogy and the permanent crisis in community colleges. International Journal of Adult Vocational Education and Technology 5(2) Special Issue on Critical Theory.
Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, NY: Herder & Herder.
Illich, I. (1971). Deschooling society. New York, NY: Harper & Row.
Newfield, C. (2014, September 29). Is college still worth it? Los Angeles Review of Books. Retrieved from https://lareviewofbooks.org/review
Reisz, M. (2014, September 11). Interview with the author of Aspiring Adults Adrift. Retrieved from www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/features
United States Department of Health and Human Services. (2014). 2014 HHS poverty guidelines. Retrieved from aspe.hhs.gov/poverty
Vultaggio, M. (2014, May 13). US student debt reaches $1.1 trillion, surpasses credit card debt and auto loans. International Business Times. Retrieved from http://www.ibtimes.com/us-student-debt-reaches-11-trillion-surpasses-credit-card-debt-auto-loans-1583980
Howard A. Doughty teaches Cultural Anthropology and Modern Political Thought at Seneca College in Toronto, Canada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org