Academic journal article The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies

Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses

Academic journal article The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies

Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses

Article excerpt

Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa University of Chicago Press, 2011

This book has much to say that is perceptive about today's undergraduate higher education in the United States. It will be valuable to review the authors' insights. At the same time, it will be as instructive to note the book's weaknesses, and especially what is omitted from the discussion. It is a discussion that is truncated intellectually by the authors' close adherence to the selective awareness that so greatly typifies the mindscape of the contemporary American "establishment" in academia and throughout the commanding heights of American society. That mindscape allows a recognition of many things, but not of others.

The authors are both faculty members at major American universities. Richard Arum is a sociology professor at New York University with a tie to the university's school of education. He is the author of several books on education and director of the Education Research Program sponsored by the Social Science Research Council. His co-author, Josipa Roksa, is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia. That the book is published by the University of Chicago Press attests to its presumptive merit.

Academically Adrift furnishes an example of something that has long been common in social science writing: a rather thin empirical study serving as the work's own contribution, combined with considerable additional material coming out of the literature on whatever subject is being explored. The function of the authors' own research is thus often to serve more or less as scientistic windowdressing. The reason we say the empiricism for this book is "thin" is that the "longitudinal data of 2,322 students," while seemingly ample, involves students spread over "a diverse range of campuses," including "liberal arts colleges and large research institutions, as well as a number of historically black colleges and universities and Hispanic-serving institutions," all "dispersed nationally across all four regions of the country." This must necessarily mean that the "sample" from any given institution or program was quite small. We are told that the authors didn't concern themselves with the appropriateness of each sample, but left the recruitment and retention of the sample's students to each of the respective institutions. The authors acknowledge that the study included fewer men than women, and more good students than those of "lower scholastic ability." So far as this book is concerned, however, the thinness doesn't particularly hurt the content, since so much of what is said doesn't especially depend upon anything unique found by the authors' own research.

A brief summary is provided when the authors say that "we will highlight four core 'important lessons' from our research." These are that the institutions and students are "academically adrift" (which is the basis for the book's title), that students gain surprisingly little from their college experience, that there is "persistent and growing inequality" in the students' learning, and that "there is notable variation both within and across institutions" so far as "measurable differences in students' educational experiences" is concerned.

Following the lead of former president Derek Bok of Harvard and of the Council for Aid to Education, the authors' ideal for higher education is that it will enhance students' "capacity for critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing." These are the three ingredients measured by the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), which the authors value most among the various assessment tools. The CLA results, they say, show that "growing numbers of students are sent to college at increasingly higher costs, but for a large proportion of them the gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication are either exceedingly small or empirically nonexistent. …

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