Holding Up a Mirror to Higher Education

Obviously the headlines Academically Adrift has generated concern the findings themselves, the rather depressing portrayal of undergraduate student learning and experience. Even though some might debate aspects of the work (e.g. issues regarding the CLA), few if any would say that the overall portrayal is inaccurate.

In my mind, however, there are two less commented on aspects of the book that are every bit as important. The first is its account of why we are in this unhappy state, what I would call the Gandhi factor. Asked what he thought of Western civilization, Gandhi replied, “I think it would be a good idea.” The same goes for learning in undergraduate education. It would be a good idea, but as Arum and Roksa point out on several occasions, no one has any particular incentive to put student learning front and center. To oversimplify (but not by much), students prioritize obtaining credentials over learning and social life over academics, faculty view scholarship—as opposed to (rigorous) teaching—as a source of rewards and advancement, and institutions have no incentive to compete with regard to learning outcomes as opposed to status and amenities.

Second, and equally important, what Academically Adrift does regarding higher education as a whole is really within reach of institutions separately. That is, most institutions have or can obtain data on important indicators of outcomes, surveys of student experiences, and other data and could do similar kinds of analyses and carefully and openly discuss what they see. Just as the book is holding up a mirror to higher education generally, so too institutions could find out what learning and student experience looks like on their campuses—and respond accordingly. This book models the kind of analysis that should be an ordinary part of the practice of higher education.

David C. Paris is Executive Director of the New Leadership Alliance for Student Learning and Accountability, and a Professor of Government at Hamilton College.