Book: Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses

Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses

I’ve been saying this for years.
300 pages, ★★★

The book’s opening quote:

Colleges and universities, for all the benefits they bring, accomplish far less for their students than they should. Many students graduate without being able to write well enough to satisfy their employers… reason clearly or perform competently in analyzing complex, non-technical problems.

The book then demonstrates, somewhat repetitively (because each chapter was written by a different author) that students aren’t learning anything in university. They’re studying less than 40 years ago, putting less effort in, and preferentially choosing the easiest classes, but at the same time expecting much more: an amazing job, a salary high enough to repay their giant student loan, and lots of prestige to bask in after graduation. Invariably, they will get none of the above.

This book blames universities, not just students, for post-graduation disappointment and the looming student debt crisis that’s intertwined with it. According to this book, while universities are waxing lyrical about the “critical thinking skills” and “good writing skills” that are supposedly important to “success”, university courses do very little to train the critical thinking skills and writing skills of their students. Reading lists are short and optional (most students don’t read); writing assignments are few and not taken seriously (plagiarism largely goes unnoticed, and the plagiarising student receives a grade anyway); and students make very little progress in their three years of study (at a huge cost).

I saw a lot of these troubles while I was doing my undergraduate degree in Britain. Much of this is true there, too: students are lazy, spoiled and expect fantastic jobs despite being completely incompetent. Writing essays isn’t important and nobody notices plagiarism. (The list goes on…)

Two key findings stand out from this book:

(1) Education starts at home. Most of the variation in high-school test scores in the US can be explained by gender, race, education level of parents, number of parents in the household, and occupation of parents. Your parents are your biggest teachers.

(2) Test scores of people who drop out of high school, on average, improve at a faster rate post-dropout than the scores of students who go to college. This is shown in the graph on page 56. Amazing!

I didn’t learn anything new here, but I did feel comforted that I’ve been right all along. Some university students are lazy, spoiled and have an unjustified sense of aggrandisement. They expect too much after graduation and, especially in the current economic climate in the US and Europe, will ultimately be very disappointed.

I saw no evidence of any of these problems in Australia, though :) ★★★


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