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Posted at 10:57 AM ET, 01/19/2011

Guest post: 'Academically Adrift,' indeed

By Daniel de Vise

Today's guest blogger is Anne D. Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a nonprofit that has challenged the academy on how little most colleges require their students to learn.

A new study regrettably confirms what the American Council of Trustees and Alumni has been saying for some time: Many students aren't learning very much at all in their first two years of college. As troubling as it is, it comes as no surprise to ACTA, and here is why.

NealPhoto3.jpgAcademically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (University of Chicago Press) by co-authors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa documents the ugly underbelly of American higher education -- a culture that is anti-intellectual and that often produces students who have neither the skills or knowledge they will need to succeed after graduation.

What do I mean? ACTA's study of more than 700 top colleges and universities around the country, enrolling over 6 million students, shows that students can graduate from college without ever having exposure to composition, literature, foreign language or American history. Is it any wonder that students learn little and do little, when colleges today expect little of them?

To be specific, our study found that less than five percent of schools require economics and less than a quarter have a solid requirement of literature. Less than a third require U.S. government or history, or intermediate-level foreign language. Of the more than 700 schools, sixty percent received a "C" or worse for requiring three or fewer subjects.

Can there be any question why America increasingly finds itself at a competitive disadvantage when our higher education institutions are failing to do their job? And all of this failure from a postsecondary system that costs more than twice as much per pupil as the average expenditure in other industrialized nations. We outspend and we underachieve.

As Daniel de Vise pointed out in his November 21, 2010 article on WhatWillTheyLearn.com, "Within the higher education establishment, the A-to-F ratings have not been warmly received ... but the idea behind the ratings has broad appeal." He quotes Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges in Washington saying, "I think the criticism that students may not be learning enough in general education resonates with most colleges." We now have positive proof that higher education is failing at its duty.

So what is to be done? At the end of the day, the goal should not be simply to have more students with sheepskins, but rather to graduate students who have a rich and rigorous education that prepares them to think critically. Trustees need to step up to the plate and turn the higher education ship around. ACTA is reaching out to 10,000 of them to address this national scandal.

Visit: www.WhatWillTheyLearn.com for more on the report.

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By Daniel de Vise  | January 19, 2011; 10:57 AM ET
Categories:  Liberal Arts, Pedagogy, Research, Students  | Tags:  Academically Adrift, What Will They Learn, college learning, core curriculum, general education ACTA  
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Comments

ACTA has always been an organization with a political agenda disguised as an educational agenda, from its founding as the National Alumni Forum by Lynne Cheney to its current incarnation with Ed Meese on the board of directors.

The Arum and Roksa study gives no support at all to the notion that a specific set of required courses fosters student learning. The important criteria are time spent studying alone, reading requirements, and writing requirements. Students who spend substantial amounts of time studying by themselves, and who take courses that require both more than forty pages per week of reading and at least twenty pages of writing per semester learn.

I would bet dollars to doughnuts that even Anne Neal doesn't believe the rankings on WhatWillTheyLearn.com. On this site, East Tennessee State University gets an A, the University of Chicago gets a B, Stanford and Princeton get C's, Harvard gets a D, and Yale gets an F. Anyone want to bet that Anne would send her kid to East Tennessee State in preference to Yale? Would anyone reading this take the ACTA ratings seriously enough to consider sending her kid to East Tennessee State rather than one of these other schools on the basis of ACTA's rating?

Yeah, I didn't think so. So, Daniel de Vise, why are you turning your column over to this propagandist?

Posted by: dissentingwren | January 19, 2011 12:12 PM | Report abuse

A little more research, and it just gets better and better. Anne Neal, better known on the circuit as Dede Petri, is married to a Republican congressman from Wisconsin, worked for Lynne Cheney, and once upon a time showed her commitment to high academic standards by working for the Discovery Institute (that's right, the "intelligent design" folks). She sent her daughter to Harvard - that's right, the "D" school. Because, at the end of the day, it's all about the right connections, isn't it Dede? And in this case, Alexandra's connections got her a job at . . . wait for it . . . the Washington Post!

But wait, maybe there is something to ACTA's claim that Harvard is a D school. Check out Alexandra's body of work at http://voices.washingtonpost.com/compost/ and see if you don't agree that it's WaPo's answer to Us magazine!

Posted by: dissentingwren | January 19, 2011 12:47 PM | Report abuse

Wow, I can barely believe that this essay was written by a college educated person. She throws around completely unsupported claims as if they were universally accepted facts. For example: "America increasingly finds itself at a competitive disadvantage" and "students learn little and do little, when colleges today expect little of them." Where is the evidence for these claims? The title of the class has no information about how much students learn or do in it. The U.S. is not going to be at a competitive advantage by churning out a bunch of robots who took U.S. History 101 and Shakespeare 101. Students are writing, thinking, debating, challenging, and being exposed to new ideas all across the curriculum. It is this set of skills and abilities that will promote personal and national success.

Posted by: drl97 | January 19, 2011 12:51 PM | Report abuse

Clearly "dissentingwren" and "drl97" have snarky axes to grind, as evinced by their posts' dearth of thoughtful comments. For starters, "dissentingwren" falsely conflates the message and the messenger and indulges in a gratuitous ad hominem attack against Anne Neal. Where she worked in the past and where her daughter went to college and works today may be titillating fodder, but they do nothing to addess the core of what ACTA and the new study reveal about what our children are learning in college. If "drl97" wants evidence, she should visit the WhatWillTheyLearn.com website as I did just now. I was chagrinned to see that my alma mater got a F. I assume the new study/book thoroughly supports its claims, but I haven't read it.

These snarky posters aside, a legitimate question remains: should more colleges require their students to graduate with a basic knowledge of U.S. history, literature, math, and science (i.e., should they be able to demonstrate they can write well, think critically, and have a basic grounding in the Western canon), or should colleges remain consumer/student driven, letting them choose to study whatever they want? Given President Obama’s consistent drumbeat about the importance of going to college, and since the U.S. taxpayer finances so much student debt (not to mention how much parents pay in tuition), this is a worthwhile debate. Too bad “dissentingwren" and "drl97" do nothing to advance or illuminate the discussion.

I hope they and others chime in with more thoughtful points of view.

Posted by: RBSamuelson | January 19, 2011 3:14 PM | Report abuse

Oh my, this couldn't be the RB Samuelson who played an economist for a publication owned by WaPo, could it? To be dismissed by someone who has been so wrong for so long . . . it brings tears to the eyes!

Well, RBSamuelson, let's review, shall we? I read the Arum and Roksa book carefully as soon as it was released (and living in Hyde Park helps you get an early copy of a University of Chicago Press book). So, unlike you, I'm speaking from knowledge rather than confessed ignorance. The fact is that the criteria for excellence embraced by ACTA on WhatWillTheyLearn.com have nothing whatsoever to do with the practices that Arum and Roksa identify as fostering student learning. None. Zip. Nada. Anyone who can read can compare ACTA's website to the book and verify this. RBSamuelson should read the book before he makes a fool of himself like this. (But then again, if he's who I think he is, he's immune to the sting of that particular peccadillo by now).

As for the snark - well, if you think documenting a case of hypocrisy is a mere snark, tant pis. And the fact that the snark is so delightfully juicy once you explore a little . . . well, that's just icing on the cake. And now, RBSamuelson, if you are indeed who you appear to be, you've added nice little florets to the top of the cake. It's a nice incestuous little world you live in there, isn't it?

Posted by: dissentingwren | January 19, 2011 9:19 PM | Report abuse

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