U.S. Intellectual History Blog

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I’ve been reading both Academically Adrift and Ginsberg’s book on the explosion of staff positions (and junkets for them). Grafton is on the mark with his critique of Ginsberg. Too much of the book reads like a snippets from chats between faculty members at conferences about the dunderheadedness of their administration. At the same time, though, Ginsberg is a solid political scientist and his point that the we should understand higher ed in terms of administration as much as in the work of individual administrators is an important insight. Rather than create jobs to tackle problems of a systemic nature, higher ed now hires legions of assistant administrators to staff offices that will not (and were never designed to) take action. Most of these offices collect and repackage data on the institutions themselves. They rarely have folks who are trained to advise what actions should be taken.

    That is why Academically Adrift makes a more significant argument. The problem of run away costs, declining academic abilities among students, and the focus on facilities over faculties are problems that assistant-level staff members cannot solve.

    My question running through my reading of this topic is who or what sets expectations for students in college? It seems, like so much else, that business communities are driving the crisis in “skills,” though there is no consensus on what those skills are. The world of assessment is driving the idea that everything we do in classes can be measured–but again, there is almost no consensus on how to measure by university and the large state schools in the state of Indiana.

    I would like to think that, as Ginsberg concludes, the faculty can claim to play a major, determining role in setting expectations, holding students to them, and finding ways to create students who will achieve at levels commensurate with truly higher education.

  2. Ray & Andrew,

    The expectations are set by recruiters—both academic and athletic—who sell institutions on the basis of athletics, “the college life,” and career attainment (i.e. vocationalism). When those lead off your sales pitch, it should be no surprise that the measures of success—the expectations—center on retention, entertainment, and job placement.

    We’re getting the higher education that we both demand and sell.

    – TL

  3. Parents and popular culture are also setting expectations. When was the last time you saw a movie or television show that portrayed college life as anything other than parties, rampant nudity, and out of touch faculty. Sometimes there is a montage of cramming during which the main characters pack a year’s (or career’s) worth of learning into a night and pass all of their exams. The only film I can think of right now that depicts academic life realistically is The Paper Chase and that film is as old as I am.

    Schools most certainly advertise themselves as something akin to summer camp with faculty and RA’s serving as counselors. At my institution the faculty were invited to take part in move in day and the president makes a big show out of carrying boxes into dorms for the first years. Actual classes come as quite a shock to some student since they are rarely mentioned during the week of orientation (which is taken up with discussions of drinking and social life).

    The one thing that always leaps out at me in these crisis in higher-ed books is that none of the ones I have read place enough emphasis on how truly ill prepared most college students are nowadays due to the changes in high school education. Everything is driven by testing and assessment at the high school level which has given us a generation of high school students who can memorize and take tests but have not been encouraged to make connections, think critically and creatively, or ask questions. They are passive drones before we ever see them yet it is our responsibility to turn them into creative critical thinkers that will reinvigorate the business world.

    Finally, parents are often part of the problem. When I was in school if there was a disagreement between a student and a teacher, most parents sided with the teacher. Now, if a student gets a bad grade the parents are calling the teacher or the dean and demanding to see grading rubrics and qualifications. Parents are enabling their children’s poor preparation and contributing to the students’ belief in their own infallibility.

    And now the solution that we are stumbling towards is to make our colleges and universities more like the failing high schools. Welcome to No Undergraduate Left Behind.

  4. Here’s another recent review of the Newfield book. Here’s the full citation:

    Keith A. Erekson. Review of Newfield, Christopher, _Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class_. H-Education, H-Net Reviews. November, 2011.

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