Two Questions for Professors: Are You Demanding and Do You Teach Critical Thinking?

The following is in Salon today:

[W]hat if the downward trend in learning extends into the echelons of higher education? That’s what Richard Arum argues in “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses.” Arum, a sociology and education professor at New York University, wrote the book with University of Virginia sociology professor Josipa Roksa, and they say an increasing number of undergraduates are moving through college without working particularly hard, and without learning key skills like complex reasoning and critical thinking. Using the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a standardized test, as well as transcripts and self-reports from students, Arum and Roksa assembled disturbing data that reflects declining academic rigor across the board: at state universities, research institutions, liberal arts colleges, even highly selective schools.

And in Salon’s interview with Richard Arum, he summarizes some of his findings with Josipa Roksa this way:

Fifty percent of the kids in a typical semester say they haven’t taken a single course where they’ve been asked to write 20 pages over the course of the semester. And 32 percent have not taken a single class the prior semester for which they’ve been asked to read more than 40 pages per week on average, and in terms of homework, 35 percent of them say they do five or fewer hours per week studying alone. . . . Full-time college students spend 50 percent less time studying than they did several decades ago. We also know that in terms of grades, students expect to receive higher grades and do receive higher grades in spite of less effort.

And here’s why Arum says that the findings ought to be a cause for concern:

Even if you have subject-specific skills, the labor market is so uncertain that people are increasingly moving from job to job as adults. You need to have developed these higher order skills: critical thinking, complex reasoning and the ability to communicate in writing. If you haven’t, you’re going to be at a lifelong disadvantage in the economy. Equally or more troubling, if you’re graduating large numbers of kids that have not developed critical thinking and complex reasoning, how are they going to function as democratic citizens?

So there it is. If you’re a professor and not particularly demanding—and not modeling for your students how to read, write, and dialogue critically, carefully, and patiently—then you’re not really doing your job (and seriously disadvantaging your students for the global economy).

Food for thought and soul-searching.

Here’s a depiction of Antigone helping Oedipus find his way—a nice model, I think, for the professor’s calling. For a dissenting view on the professor’s role, see AC Grayling here:


About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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