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Who is most “academically adrift” – and why?

Seven years ago, sociologists-turned-education-experts Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa published a book (under the same name) in which they made a startling argument. Unveiling a study involving 2,300 American students, they claimed they had observed very “limited learning on college campuses.” A majority of students were allegedly showing no or negligible improvement in their thinking after 4 years of higher learning. Arum’s and Roksa’s methods and conclusions attracted much flak from more optimistic experts and observers. There was one curious assertion, however, which almost got lost in the whole debate. Arum and Roksa had found that students majoring in business administration and education were making the least progress of all. To the extent that their data can be trusted, what could be a plausible explanation for this curious finding?

The overall explanation the authors offer is that students are not sufficiently challenged in their classes, and not doing nearly enough academic work. This is, in fact, a rather common argument. It was made, for example, by university administrators and professors interviewed for the 2005 documentary, Declining by Degree – who pointed to a tacit “non-aggression” pact between students and faculty. And in a 2011 article (“Who Are You, and What Are You Doing Here?”), English professor Mark Edmundson warned incoming students that they were entering an academic environment in which the majority on both sides would rather be “elsewhere.” The same year, the NYT published an article called “The Default Major: Skating Through B-School.” But are students majoring in business (or education) doing the least amount of cognitive work? Less than, say, arts majors?

Perhaps. Perhaps too much groups work does not help either (this is another controversial argument in the Academically Adrift book). And business education at all levels may be bedeviled by other problems, too – as argued in a 2009 op-ed piece published in The Times of London (“Harvard’s Masters of the Apocalypse”). Or maybe the two maligned majors are taken by a different kind of students – who are less driven to learn and grow intellectually. But there could be a different explanation. A cursory look at business and education textbooks shows that they include mostly chewed-up, dry exposition, and are peppered with bullet points, tables, charts, and other schematic props. Such texts would leave students with the impression of clear understanding of various theories and data. But they may not be the learning material most conducive to student learning.

Australian-Canadian “science communicator” Derek Muller has argued that we need to “confuse students to help them learn.” Some psychological studies seem to corroborate his epiphany. They show that students are more likely to recall information presented in an unfamiliar or blurry font (apparently, the human brain is predisposed to interpret information that is harder to process as more important). The problem, though, is that very few people like to be confused. Most might prefer the illusion of clarity and understanding offered by schematic textbooks and similar instructional material.

For years, I have told – and tried to demonstrate to – my students that there is a much less disagreeable way. Based partly on my personal experience, partly on observation in my classes, I have come to believe that reading texts that are cognitively complex and sophisticated, yet with strong emotional appeal, provides that best mental exercise that can help students develop their thinking and sense of English grammar and syntax (which does not come easily to native speakers either – perhaps because “English Is Not Normal,” but is a rather weird language if linguist John McWhorter is to be believed). The first examples that come to mind is Aldous Huxley’s classic, Brave New World, or Graeme Woods feature in The Atlantic, “What ISIS Really Wants.” This is explained in some detail in my previous post on “the power of deep reading” – and, of course, in my book. Too bad the caravan only keeps moving…

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