It Makes a Difference

6 years ago

It has been a wild season for people who care about the liberal arts and sciences. It seems that every time you pick up a newspaper or switch on your digital news source, there’s word about some terrible damage being done somewhere to our capacity to teach and learn in the liberal arts and sciences. It may be cuts in language instruction, or the reports of the hostility of the academy’s new managerial culture to the humanities (See Simon Head’s “The Grim Threat to British Universities” in The New York Review of Books,  Jan. 13, 2011). It may be a recommendation from a congressional committee to remove funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts. (Yes, totally remove — something neither the attacks of the early 1980s nor those of the mid-1990s managed to do.) Maybe it’s news about a liberal education initiative in China, or Singapore, suggesting that other cultures are tapping into the wellhead of American creativity just as we turn off the tap at home. Maybe it’s the new study, Academically Adrift (University of Chicago Press, 2011), showing how little time many U.S. college students spend on their academic work, how little they are asked to do, and how little they learn. 

We’re fighting back. Cornell University president David Skorton, together with the Association of American Universities, is coordinating planning on concerted efforts by advocates of the arts and sciences and especially the humanities. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences is pulling together a commission of national leaders in business, the academy, arts, and entertainment to work on public and political awareness of the importance of the humanities. Soon, the Council of Independent Colleges will have had its conference of major players, partnered with Johns Hopkins, on the humanities. And plans will be in full swing for Phi Beta Kappa’s coordinate work with the American Conference of Academic Deans on advocacy for the humanities. I am pleased to say that Phi Beta Kappa is playing a role in all these efforts.

In the flurry of trends and studies, there is a piece of data our advocacy needs to make much of. I allude above to Academically Adrift, a study by researchers at New York University and the University of Virginia documenting an abysmal state of work and learning in much of American higher education. But guess where the exceptions are!  There are some fields of study where the students are learning, and where their learning seems to proceed from their being asked to read a lot, write a lot, and talk about what they have read and written. It’s the arts and sciences.

Compared with students in business, education, and myriad other fields, arts and sciences students are doing more of what one would have thought leads to learning: reading, writing, and talking about it. This fact emerges in comparisons of scores of the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), an accepted benchmark for gauging progress in critical thinking, problem-solving, and communications skills: Not only do arts and sciences students do measurably better than students in other fields, they actually improve as their collegiate studies go along. Unbelievably, many students in other fields do not. According to Academically Adrift, 45 percent make no gain. 

If all this sounds familiar to Phi Beta Kappa ears, that may be because when we asked our members in 2002 what they valued about their liberal education, they said: critical thinking. In the welter of criticism that is certain to fall upon American higher education as Academically Adrift gains wider currency, remember this: It does make a difference what you study.

This post appears in the “From the Secretary” column in the spring issue of The Key Reporter, the quarterly for members of the Phi Beta Kappa Society.

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Love of learning is the guide of life.