Category Archives: Liberal Arts

Is Our College Students Learning?

A few weeks ago, a friend passed along this piece of disturbing information:

The study that is the subject of the article claims that 45% of American college students show no demonstrable learning in standardized assessments after two years of “study.” As a college English instructor and aspiring professional writer, this hits me in my wallet and my soul.

Part of the problem may be that college is simply not for everyone. As shocking as it is to say it, neither, perhaps, is literacy. Throughout the time of human writing, only a small portion of the population could read. Of course, most had no time to read, even had they the skill, while our society gives us some measure of leisure time. In my own classes, it’s been my impression that only about a quarter of my students are fully engaged in the process and another quarter are at least willingly doing the work. The rest are only there to get a piece of paper that will declare them to be graduates.

Many see this as deplorable and likely my fault–college adminstrators, for example–but I can’t agree. College is a self-selective experience. Broadly speaking, college students get out of their classes exactly however much they want to get, usually depending on how much they’re willing to put into the class.

And the material that we study is not comprehensible to everyone. I can often teach anyone who is willing to learn, but there are limits. Some students just can’t get it. I’m not addressing the general population, but I suspect that I would find the same results outside of academe: Some would understand and some would not. What would the numbers be? I guess about half and half, but that may just be because I’m aware of the bell curve of I.Q. distributions.

Raising that point brings along with it one of my complaints about the study. It’s statistics about a standardized test. While it may be possible to analyze human beings with statistical methods, I find most such studies to be excessively reductive. We’re too complex to play games of twenty (or seventy) questions with our minds. (See the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory for an example of such dubious tools of analysis.) I reject standardized tests as means of evaluating learning. A standardized test only tells me how well the taker can take standardized tests.

If it were up to me, there would be no grading at all in college, with the possible exception of giving an assessment of honors, pass, or fail whenever the student decides to leave the experience. The humanities are not subjects that lend themselves to quantitative analysis, and as a teacher of writing and literature, I have no idea how to give percentage grades for the work of my students. If I’m assigning points out of a hundred on an essay, that forces me to attend only to things that are quantifiable–errors in commas, spellings, etc. Such details are important, but they are the lowest level of writing skills. I grade essays based on the Trivium of the classical Liberal Arts: Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric. Only grammar (or an artificially mechanical form of the others) can be assessed numerically, and even then, that method is a blunt instrument. It took me a few years of teaching to come to this position. I had been mostly to schools that grade by points, and just about all of my colleagues have followed the same system. The method that I use now comes in part from what I saw in use at my graduate alma mater, St. John’s College.

All of this leads me to the question of what ought to be taught in college. What we need to do is divide college into the two parts that it actually has at the moment. The popular impression of any level of education seems to be that its purpose is to be a trade school. Most go to school to learn skills that will be useful in their future careers. We do need to impart job skills to students, but that’s training, not education. I’d like to see trade schools separated from colleges, where the focus would be exclusively on training. The skills required to perform most jobs could be learned in two years, if that long.

But what about college? The purpose of a college is to provide an education, in other words, the experience that makes us good citizens and developed human beings.

Yes, I’m making something of an elitist statement here, but look at what an education gives. An educated person learns the liberal arts, the subjects that free people (the nobility, through most of human history) were expected to know. Today, this means world history, composition, the best of literature, the basics of the sciences and mathematics, a general understanding of world cultures and religions, at least two modern languages and one classical language, and political theory and government. It is for the best also to gain an appreciation of music, philosophy, painting, architecture, sculpture, and other such subjects. Ideally, such a person will also gain physical skills, what the Greeks called gymnastic. (You knew that I’d bring in shooting somewhere, didn’t you?)

All of what I just described is at best tangential to one’s ability to perform most jobs. In my experience, such learning actually makes many jobs more difficult. If we can agree that the portion that covers American government ought to be taught at the trade schools as well, I see no reason for most jobs to have a college degree (understood properly) as a prerequisite. In fact, we could teach basic good citizenship in high school, if such schools can be run effectively.

The problem with my idea here is that no one who cares only about money can find a way of assessing the value of my kind of college. To that person, I say that money is like grammar. It’s a necessary, but not sufficient condition for the good life, and I refuse to reduce humanity to merely that order of existence.