Robert Maranto is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership at the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. He has taught at ten colleges and universities, and produced 11 books, including “The Politically Correct University.”
He has written essays for us before and we are delighted to share another one from him:
By Robert Maranto
For the hundreds of college towns across America, like mine, it’s back to school time. Confused first year students and their parents snarl traffic and ask directions at every street corner. Our local economy depends on that spending.
For 18 million students, higher education offers a bit of everything, with dozens of majors, programs, certifications, clubs, institutes, study abroad opportunities, counselors, clinics, sports teams, Olympic swimming pools, rock climbing walls, bike paths, restaurants, and deans and deputy deans of every variety. Our local economy depends on that employment.
Unfortunately, the one thing higher education is missing is a higher purpose: Data show that today’s college students learn little. As Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa report in “Academically Adrift,” professors now do less teaching and mentoring of undergraduates, instead focusing on the status and income from grants and publications. Students have responded by spending a mean of 12 hours a week studying compared to 24 hours in 1961; even while “earning” far better grades from professors who do not take the time grade seriously. The lost study time is filled with jobs to pay for all those amenities and deputy deans, not to mention nice clothes and spring break in Cancun—all of which take precedence over learning. Politicians are all too happy to subsidize the college years since as Thomas Sowell wrote four decades ago, a young person asleep in class is a “student” while a young person asleep on the beach is unemployed. Generally speaking, politicians prefer the former statistic to the latter.
In the old Communist systems workers joked of party bosses: “they pretend to pay us and we pretend to work.” Many college students might now say of their professors: “they pretend to teach us, and we pretend to learn.” Students are so disengaged from their studies that at public universities, only 29% graduate in four years, 55% in six years. As Richard Keeling and Richard Hersh show in “We’re Losing Our Minds,” unless colleges rediscover their purpose, they will evolve into diploma mills, and eventually fade away.
We professors must take back college. We must recreate a culture of intellectual engagement. Students are never as pliable as in the months before and after starting college, making this a unique time to influence them. Yet with our usual inattention to undergraduates, faculty leave orientation to student affairs administrators, who emphasize recreation, vocation, and politically correct victimization–not learning.
Faculty must take over student orientation, using it to communicate to students that they are lucky to attend college and are subsidized by others who cannot, that integrity matters, that the life of the mind is vital, and that with hard work they will grow smarter while with little work they will flunk out. Make the college “one book” Carol Dweck’s Mindset, which shows that intelligence grows with academic work. Students also need grounding in their school’s history and traditions, connecting themselves to something larger than themselves.
Orientation cannot work without follow-through showing that we really mean it, so our best rather than our worst faculty must teach first year courses. Those first courses must have high standards to set demanding expectations for the years ahead. Back in 1976 my first two grades at the University of Maryland were a C- and an F+. This unsubtle feedback clarified that unlike high school, college required effort. I buckled down, and eventually excelled. (Years later, I tracked down the professors who gave me the grades I deserved, and thanked them for their role in my success.) I want my kids to have that same experience.
Finally, colleges should be intellectual environments, yet they rarely hold debates on controversial matters like same sex marriage, affirmative action, progressive taxation, and America’s role in the world. Some academics presume that only “progressive” stands are acceptable. This sends a clear message that we do not value or even tolerate serious intellectual engagement and ideological diversity. Accordingly, colleges must sponsor regular debates on the same issues contested in the vibrant democracy of our host nation.
Since undergraduates constantly turn over, it would take only four years of this regimen to make any college an intellectual environment. Do any college leaders have the guts to go forward?
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog