Academically Adrift?

The release of Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s new book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, is inspiring a great deal of discussion among higher education types and with good reason.  After several years of research, the two authors discovered that many college students are learning absolutely nothing.  No improvement in four years.  Nada.  Obviously, this is a deeply disturbing finding and it should rightly keep a lot of faculty and administrators up nights.

The problem with the extensive coverage, as blogger Philip Nel points out, is that precious few commentators acknowledge a vital part of what  Arum and Roksa learned: humanities majors see “significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study.”  Vocational programs, of which there are a proliferating number, are where the problems exist. The traditional liberal arts degree continues to produce well spoken, literate, and thoughtful graduates who are impressively prepared for whatever career path or graduate program they decide to pursue.

Parents and students think that they are learning the skills to pay the bills when undergraduates opt for a vocational bachelor’s degree, but the reality is quite different.  Turns out that there is a reason that employers find themselves in the position of needing to pay rather a lot to provide their workers with the very skills that those employees would have learned had they majored in history, English, philosophy, music, fine arts, religion, and so on.

Commentators ought to point out this finding, stressing that there is a bright spot in higher education and that this shining light is found in humanities programs.  Parents, meanwhile, ought not ask: “What can <insert name> do with a humanities degree?!”  Instead, they ought to encourage their kids to pursue the liberal arts.  What can you do a with a humanities degree?  What can’t you do?!

Leave a Reply