Ardors Wrenched Here

High schools, even those whose missions aim to produce “motivated global contributors” and “inspired life-long learners,” usually try to prepare their students for college. But what should a student be prepared to do in college?

In many cases, the answer appears to be “not much.” Louis Menand reports in The New Yorker on a study showing that the average college student studies thirteen hours a week and that a third of college students study less than five hours a week. If these incredible figures are true, they explain why nearly half of the students in the study did not engage in significant learning during their first two years of college.

(Now this study was itself the object of a blistering critique of its statistical methods, which included, as such studies so often do, an arbitrarily chosen standard of “significance.” Even one of its proponents notes that selection bias has not been controlled for and that the data are not randomized, and he notes criticisms of using tests as the basis for making “consequential decisions[1],” but he recommends using the test anyway. Why? I recommend that it be pushed away with a barge pole.

(I would also add that the Collegiate Learning Assessment, the basis of the study, is deeply suspect as an “instrument” for “measuring” learning or, as the test’s proponents themselves have it, “added value.” It asks students to demonstrate how they have learned in college by pretending to make an aircraft-purchasing decision on the basis of examining FAA reports and stories about plane crashes. I have said elsewhere that the transfer effect is real, but I have also said that it can take a long time for an education to ripen. Are the only fruits of education that matter the watery ones whose growth has been forced? And will colleges under the gun to produce students who can “think critically” on this test start requiring courses in procurement administration?)

The news flurry over the “worthlessness” of college hid an issue worth discussing: What kind of college should high school prepare its students for? The study mentioned above, flawed though it may be, notes that liberal arts majors “learn more” than majors in other fields like business, engineering, and computer science. Menand notes that liberal arts majors tend to have had better preparation in reading and writing than majors in other fields, and that the ability to read and write well tend to fit one for success in learning. Thus, in the “debate” between Bill Gates and Steve Jobs about what kind of education to pursue, Jobs seems to be right: the collegiate place to be is the College of Arts and Letters.

It is possible that some Colleges of Arts and Letters are suspect as loci of learning, but I don’t want to address that issue in any detail now. It is also possible that education in the US should stop thinking that one sort of education is suitable for everyone. Instead, it might consider adopting the European model of multiple tracks of education with schooling for some that culminates in A Levels or Baccalauréat or Arbitur, though my own preference would be for culmination in a variety of types of assessment such as the I.B. program offers.

In that case it would follow that academic high schools should offer preparation for a solid and rigorous liberal arts education. That would mean a comprehensive program of many complementary elements, and one that prepares its students to read and write well. It should be generous in the assignment of reading, writing, and other homework and inventive and various in its techniques of assessment.

All the prevailing emphasis on education’s instrumental value overlooks, however, an important result less easy to fit into the voc. ed scheme. When my students ask me what I thought of going to college, and I think they will not suspect my answer of being humbug, I tell them that it was like being born a second time. You can probably guess that this sentiment was not due to my having learned at last how to interpret FAA reports. Closer to the mark might be a line from Whitman that I first read in my poetry class with Professor Koch. It said of listening to an orchestra, “It wrenches such ardors from me I did not know I possessed them.” I could say that about some of the material I experienced in college. And just as Whitman must not have expected his every hour to be like an orchestral concert, I did not expect that kind of response to every item I encountered as an undergraduate. Professor Barzun notes that a simple count of buildings and their types will not reveal that Manhattan’s dominant building is the skyscraper. By analogy, a statistically based test of “value addition” will not reveal the dominant type of learning in a good college education. If I were to place a sign above the gates of an excellent college describing in five words or less what lies ahead, I would propose this one: “ARDORS WRENCHED HERE.”

[1] Such as that they violate Campbell’s Law


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