[This review was published in the Winter 2011 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 498-505.]


Book Review


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 window-dressing.  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.”  Admittedly, the “students may have developed subject-specific skills,” but the CLA doesn’t measure that and the authors don’t particularly value it. 

          The perception that the undergraduate educational system is academically adrift is supported by several factors.  The students and institutions alike center on superficiality and on careerist rather than academic values.  Students have come to be seen as “consumers” and “clients” who are to be sought and pandered to, themselves calling the shots and setting the tone of the “education” they receive.  The students spend considerably less time studying than in earlier eras, focus on gaining credentials “with as little effort as possible,” gravitate toward professors who grade most leniently in an atmosphere of grade inflation and who emphasize the importance of entertaining their students, think of “social learning as more important than academics,” incur more debt and spend more time on outside employment. 

So far as the institutions are concerned, they are awash with relativism.  This appears in several ways:

 . “Educators became progressively more reluctant to require students to master certain forms of knowledge.”  (The authors themselves make no mention of a “canon,” which is itself some sign of how much the educational experience has become diluted and how little it seeks to pass on an identifiable accumulated intellectual heritage.)

. “Since the student rebellions of the 1960s,… college administrators and staff have ‘largely withdrawn from oversight of manners and morals’” [quoting from Campus Life by Helen Horowitz].  Among other things, this has resulted in a significant increase in cheating on tests, according to the authors.

. The institutions give students “a great deal of latitude in choosing their coursework,” resulting in a “dramatic flight from the arts and sciences” into “occupationally related majors.”

. An array of “new legal rights and entitlements” has “undermined students’ sense of traditional forms of authority relationships in education.”

Teaching has taken a remote second place to other values.  Universities are using more adjunct and graduate student instructors (reflecting what is apparently a lessening of accreditation agencies’ requirements about the percentage of full-time professorial-rank faculty).  There has been a sizeable growth in the number of non-academic professionals and administrators and in their compensation.  Even though tuition continues to rise, the average compensation for presidents in the private sector is $500,000, with “many making over a million dollars per year.”  This means, the authors say, “$800,000 provosts and $500,000 deans.”  Since Academically Adrift is about education per se, Arum and Roksa aren’t so much concerned about this as over-compensation as they are about what it tells us about the focus of the institutions.  They quote sociologist Mitchell Stevens to the effect that although “the College is an academic institution…, it is also proud of its [many] varsity sports teams, its budding artists and musicians, its community services projects, diverse student body, spectacular campus, and loyal alumni.”

One thing that is especially clear is that faculty members’ research is given much higher weight than their teaching.  The number of publications in refereed journals, and most especially in the “better” ones, is about the only thing that counts for promotion and tenure.  Teaching is considered, but as a rather negligible secondary factor, and the assessment of the teaching is almost entirely through critiques filled out by the students, critiques that research shows are influenced by the professor’s grading leniency, easy assignments, and facility at entertaining.  Doctoral programs, we are told, place little emphasis on how to teach.

The faculty research produces much that is of value, especially in the physical sciences and in such technical areas as cybernetics and the health sciences.  The authors don’t speak about it, but this reviewer, who was himself a professor for many years, has long had considerable doubt about the seriousness, objectivity (as distinct from ideological polemics) and overall worth of much of the “research” that is done in the social sciences.  A good deal of it is done through survey questionnaires without careful attention to the sampling and to whether the questions lead to answers that really reveal the respondents’ thinking.   Many of the studies have little or no intellectual or practical significance, contenting themselves to “prove the obvious.”  The academic community in the liberal arts and social science contribute little to the investigation of the myths, especially those from the left, that form the conventional wisdom.  Rather, the contributions come from independent scholars outside academia.  Although a number of economists were notable exceptions, one of the little-recognized intellectual scandals of our time is the extent to which academic economists and finance professors either ignored or actually fed the fires that led into the financial crisis that produced what is now known as “the Great Recession.”

In the experience of this reviewer, scholarship and original thinking, as distinct from “research,”  are given almost no weight at all.  The authors emphasize the importance of teaching “critical thinking” to students, but university faculties are made up to a high degree of careerists who are ever mindful of whether what they say is in the mainstream of their academic peer group.  (It may be cast in a “courageously angry” tone toward the main society, which is not the same thing as showing courage by rubbing one’s peers or the administration the wrong way.)  When they write, what they say must be acceptable to the journal referees who serve as gatekeepers for publication – and hence as gatekeepers for promotion and tenure at each of the institutions, since voting faculties look almost entirely to the number of publications, eschewing any role of themselves evaluating the merit of the work.  Thoughtful intellectual content would be conspicuous by its absence, if only its absence were noticed.  (Years of conversations this reviewer experienced in the faculty lunch room, say, centered entirely on salary, promotion, and internal college politics, never on intellectual issues.)  The hope that an “institution of higher learning” will house a culture of questioning intellect is an aspiration that would seem remote to most professors.

This lack of integrated intellectual culture is itself one of the things most missing in the educational lives of the students.  We may hope that among themselves college students still have the lively “bull sessions” on profound subjects that they used to have, but the institutions themselves do little to wrap the students in an atmosphere of thought and culture.  The authors see this when they say that “institutions need to develop a culture of learning.”  When, however, they view this as something of an administrative issue, reflected in the need for “purpose” and “vision” (to which, by the way, endless attention is already given in “mission statements”), they see it in a way quite different from the way this reviewer sees it.  If there were an engrained intellectual culture permeating a campus, fine art would appear in the classrooms and hallways, the university symphony orchestra would perform regularly on the university commons and not just in a hall separated off from all else, the faculty would be made up of intellectuals, and intriguing outside speakers of diverse views would hold forth often in well-attended assemblies. 

Of course, the ideal that a university will be something of a contemporary Athens is almost ludicrously distant from what is possible, given the human material that contemporary American society makes available to the institutions.  Arum and Roksa are clearly on the mark when they observe that “many students come to college not only poorly prepared by prior schooling… but they enter with attitudes, norms, values, and behaviors that are often at odds with the academic community.”  They say that “a growing number of adolescents lack a sense of purpose.”  This is especially meaningful when we recall that the authors’ research sample was weighted toward the better, not the worst or even the average, students.  If these things are true among the better students, they are exacerbated by the presence of millions of attendees who don’t attain that level.  We are told that in recent years American high schools have been encouraging all their students to go to college, “regardless of their academic performance”; and President Obama has been in line with this when he has called for a federal program that will assure that “every child is able to go to college.”   

In light of all this, it is strange that Arum and Roksa end their discussion with an equivocation.  They say “the situation in no way qualifies as a crisis.”  Why?  Because “the system works.”  It works in the sense that “no actors in the system are primarily interested in undergraduate student academic growth, although many are interested in student retention and persistence.”  They continue: “The institutional actors implicated in the system are receiving the organizational outcomes they seek.”  From the students’ point of view, they are receiving the credentials the job market requires, and along the way are enjoying the experience of “socialization” and the enhancement of their marital prospects.  Despite saying there is no crisis, the book’s content most certainly reveals that Arum and Roksa are not really satisfied with the picture they have had to paint.

As we indicated at the beginning of this review, there are several things the authors omit that are crucial to understanding the modern American university.  An odd omission, in light of the emphasis they place on teaching “critical and analytical thinking,” is that they have nothing to say about what goes into such teaching.  Maybe they think the specifics of teaching method or content are obvious.  But when we consider that a course on something like the Holocaust, for example, will eschew any examination of the serious scholarly literature questioning several aspects of the accepted account, we know that the desire for “critical thinking” isn’t really present, and that what is intended is indoctrination, not thought.  Another example would be the exaltation of “diversity,” about which only the current ideological emphasis is allowed.  A look into such evasions should be central to Arum and Roksa’s discussion.  Its absence reflects negatively on them, since we are forced to ask how much they themselves are committed to critical thinking.

One of the themes of the book has to do with the “inequalities” that exist in education before students enter college and that studies show are actually increased while they are there.  If it is taken for granted that the book is staying nicely within the parameters of “politically correct” thinking, it isn’t surprising that the authors make no mention either of variations in intelligence and of the social pathologies that exist in American society and that lay the foundation for so much human failure such as the poor attitudes, values  and behaviors the book speaks of.  The Index indicates no mention, for example, of Herrnstein and Murray’s seminal study of intelligence differences, The Bell Curve.  Nor do the authors discuss the distorting effects of “affirmative action,” which elevates some beyond the level of their demonstrated ability and simultaneously pushes others into the background.  Instead of talking candidly about the roles of intelligence, social pathology and ethnic preference, Arum and Roksa use the usual array of euphemisms and evasions: “disadvantaged,” “less advantaged families,” “lack of academic preparation,” and the like.  There is, at least, a tacit admission that all students are not alike when the authors express their opposition to the “college for all” nostrum.  One of the central premises of today’s conventional ideology among the American establishment is that everyone is equally capable, so that any “inequality” must be caused by discrimination or some other wrong being committed by the main society.   That is the land of make-believe that Arum and Roksa accept without critical examination.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that the book is consistent with the prevailing outlook that has governed within American higher education in recent decades that deprecates the value of learning “facts.”  It is as though critical thinking and analysis are to take place within a vacuum, assuming that students can “think critically” about something, such as the renaissance or the causes of World War I, without first knowing anything about it.  This comports with this reviewer’s own experience in the college environment, where much value was placed on “student discussion” in the total absence of any prior preparation that would make an exchange of informed views possible.   This supposition that meaningful ideas can flow spontaneously from the uninformed underlies, by the way, the fashionable denigration of the “lecture method.”  It also lies behind the “cafeteria style core curricula” that consider it satisfactory that students satisfy a requirement, such as in the humanities, by taking a course that explores a small niche rather than by taking one that gives them an overview of the entire area.  That such fatuous premises can be popular is perhaps just another indication of the lack of true intellectuality in academia, since no one who is really serious in the approach to intellectual issues would entertain them.

It is no equivocation on our part to say again that the book is worth reading.  The caveat is that the reading must be done as a genuine exercise in critical thinking.

                                                                                                                                                      Dwight D. Murphey