One-Third of Students Don’t Learn Much in College!! (Part 3-Our Society, Business and the Liberal Arts)

Part 3 of my series on American Higher Education. (Part 1 is here.) (Part 2 is here.)

For those of you who are new to these postings, I include the brief recap below.

From CBS Money Watch –

A new study suggests more than one third of parents aren’t necessarily getting a great return on their investment in their kids’ college education. Two college professors tracked more than 2,300 college students at 24 colleges and universities from their freshman year in 2005 through senior year, testing them along the way to gauge their critical and analytical thinking. According to the authors of a new book based on the study, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, 36 percent of college students did not learn much in the way of those cognitive skills.

But at least that was an improvement over the learning curve through sophomore year: In the first two years of school, 45 percent of college students had no significant improvement in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing.

Part 3 –

We live in a time where thinking “from the gut” is popular. Where the President of the United States (President Bush) can brag about his low grades and get laughs rather than looks of disapproval. This is a country where a likely presidential candidate’s favored means of communicating with her followers are twitter postings seldom more than one sentence long. Does this encourage students to believe that there success is based on the skills acquired in college? Or does it clearly indicate to them that success is based on personality and a fast quip?

There is no more obvious place to find the American contempt for education than the field of science. We live in an era where the government has been censoring scientific data and findings from public web sites and official documents. What’s the message here? If you are learned and you say the wrong things, your writings disappear. What message does that sent to young people entering college? Don’t disagree. Don’t think.

If you want to be on the front lines of the culture wars, indicate a belief in global warming or evolution.  One of the most disgusting public spectacles I have to endure is some person telling another “Look at all the global warming.” whenever it gets cold. If there is anything more indicative of sloppy mindless thinking, there it is. By the time, you can feel global warming in the temperate zones, most of human life has perished. If the most plebian mundane mindless joke preempts years of careful research, does that inspire students to rigorous study?

But the business world wants critical thinkers, don’t they?

Don’t be silly. They want people with a “practical” education. That means business school. Business schools have several functions as far as the business world is concerned. The first is an education in the philosophical doctrines friendly to business operations and profit. The second is what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior in the world of financial endeavor. The third is critical thinking into carefully designated zones: markets, government regulations, banking practices etc.

And we’re not talking about a lot of critical thinking. This is critical thinking in specified areas. Businesses do not encourage thinking outside these areas. It is troublesome to them.

Let me give you an example. I teach business ethics. I was given a variety of business ethics text books to examine for possible use in my class. I went through them, tossed them and wrote my own class. Why? The books offered a pathway to ethical thinking carefully designed to limit choices. There was only a very limited discussion of ethical systems. By avoiding this, the textbooks avoided giving the students ethical choices outside of a few limited ones acceptable to the business world. My introduction of Christian and other moral systems as subjects of discussion in the realm of business ethics was almost revolutionary but long needed.

How do you get critical thinking?

We know how. It’s been embedded in Western culture for six hundred years. It is the kind of education that the founding fathers had. It is the kind of education that has inspired and ennobled human development. It is the kind of education that is the basis of the idea that humans are not limited in station to that of their fathers and that kings do not rule based on authority given by God.

That type of education is called the liberal arts.

There are seven liberal arts, the quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy and the trivium: grammar, logic and rhetoric.

Over time, these have evolved into the study of a separate subjects, philosophy, literature, art, music, English, etc.

These “impractical” subjects are the basis of learning critical thinking skills and living life as a whole human being capable of fulfilling the duties of citizen.

My son’s school gives students money awards for success in early college classes just as long as the classes are in practical subjects not the liberal arts.

I think that illustration sums up business thinking about education in the United States.

So there you have it. Critical thinking. Society despises it. Businesses don’t want it save in small inoffensive pieces and we are no longer interested in teaching the subjects that develop it.

This society wants uneducated, highly emotional bloviators to dominate television commentary. This society wants science as long as it is producing an amusing new game. Once science says something about the beginnings of humanity or the dangers of our country’s addiction to fossil fuels, the Attorney General of Virginia is talking law suit. Business want smooth operations unhindered by dissent and are willing to finance college success only in areas not inclined toward critical thinking.

And what are many of those commenting on these findings saying, “These students are lazy.”

We live in a time and place of such blatant hypocrisy the we can blame the students for the failures of No Child Left Behind, the way undergraduates are taught in universities and colleges, the business community’s preference for vocational teaching and our society’s disdain for learning.

James Pilant