Thoughts on 'Does college make you smarter?'

Thursday February 3, 2011

"for many young Americans, college is not about learning" (Leef)

Thanks to the most recent Bard College alumni email, I found out that college president Leon Botstein, super cool guy, had a new thing on the New York Times web site.  I don't know if it was in print or not.  Looks like not.  Anyway, it was part of this "Room for Debate" thing that NYT does on its web site.  It's not really debate, but it's cool.  A bunch of invited people write on some issue and all the pieces are up together so you can see a bunch of different opinions.

Anyway this Room for Debate was a response to some research that says that (surprise) US college kids aren't studying very much, and aren't learning very much in their first two years.  The topic was ostensibly "Does college make you smarter?" Nobody answered the question exactly, but it was an interesting look at the what people think the goals of education should be and how US schools are doing.

Things I noticed: My biggest revelation was something I guess I was sort of aware of already, but it really popped out for me: These days colleges are basically occupational schools.  They're super job-focused.  They're not idealistic, they don't pursue goals like truth and justice - it's an expensive tech school.

Teachers' opinions reflect this, students' opinions reflect this.  College is a big party.  For a long time I've kind of given UW-Madison a psychological pass.  I've told people that yeah, it's a big school, and there's a lot of drinking, and no, I didn't have any senior thesis, or really any unifying organization to my four-became-five years there.  I had a heck of a good time, mostly, and it's possible to get yourself an education there if you go and find it.

But it's possible to get yourself an education by going and finding it without going to UW-Madison too.  Revised opinion: UW-Madison is defunct as an educational institution.  My one year at Bard's MAT program was so much more educational than five years at UW-Madison, it staggers the mind.  Botstein is god.

New opinion: When choosing colleges, either go for a famous place like Harvard, where the name alone will help ensure that only relatively smart people are there and the standards will be set high (although I don't have personal experience at a place like that I guess it would probably be that way) - or go to a small liberal arts school like Bard, where they have vision and intelligent curricula for doing real education (again, I didn't go to undergrad there, but it seems like they really have the right idea).

Botstein's piece is called "Products of rote learning" and he links the college educational problems to high school educational problems and too much reliance on (as in the title) rote learning for standardized tests, and so on.  I agree that what might be called cognitive skills ("close reading, habits of disciplined analysis, skills in writing reasoned arguments and a basic grasp of the conduct, methods and purposes of science") are vitally important, but I have also seen what I think is evidence that focusing on these skills without a matching focus on knowledge, however rote, can similarly fail.

Really a lot of the articles are about how colleges are basically for making money, they're businesses.    Even one guy that I really agreed with a lot, as he was saying the following quote, framed it so that it focuses on the economic competitiveness of his educational model, while criticizing schools with more explicit, direct professional focuses:

Yet two interesting and significant findings from this study lie just below the results that have garnered sensational headlines: students who take traditional liberal arts and science courses fare better in terms of the increase in skills measured by the Collegiate Learning Assessment than students who take undergraduate course in more pre-professional fields; and courses demanding more work from students (for example, courses with larger quantities of reading or writing required) tend to raise learning more.

The last thing, which I was really pleased to see, is that a lot of these folks seems to agree with what is kind of coming out as my fundamental thesis on education: work leads to thinking leads to learning.  It's in that last quote, and also here:

"Most of us in higher education believe that the skills that are truly worth acquiring involve hard work. Put simply, thinking requires effort."

A good read, this "Room for debate" thing.

This post was originally hosted elsewhere.