When the Way of Improvement Can’t Lead Home: A Brief Review of Tara Westover’s *Educated*

Educated Tara Westover

Sometimes the way of improvement leads home. It did for Philip Vickers Fithian, the eighteenth-century son of New Jersey farmers who got an education at Princeton and spent the rest of his short life wrestling with what that meant for his relationship with friends and family in his “beloved Cohansey.”  Fithian eventually returned home, but since he died in the American Revolution we will never know how long he would have stayed.

Wendell Berry left home to become a writer.  He eventually returned to Port Royal, Kentucky and never left.  The conservative writer Rod Dreher went back to LouisianaBruce Springsteen came back to New Jersey.

Sometimes the way of improvement does not lead home, but the newly educated traveler finds ways to stay connected and deal with the psychological and emotional challenges that come with displacement.  Richard Rodriguez’s education led him away from home on a variety of levels, but he spent the rest of his career writing about his family and his “hunger for memory.”  Sarah Smolinksy, the fictional character in Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers, got educated and left the tyranny of her father’s immigrant Jewish household in New York City.  Yet she figured out a small way to honor her father and sustain a relationship with him, even inviting him to live with her.

But sometimes the way of improvement can’t lead home.  When Frederick Douglass learned how to read he was exposed to a world of abolitionism and anti-slavery that he never knew existed.  Education led to liberation. (This is why we call it “liberal arts education”). There would be no going back to the tyranny of slavery.

We see all three of these models in Educated, Tara Westover’s memoir of growing up among fundamentalist Mormons on a mountain in Idaho.  Westover had no formal schooling, but managed to educate herself well enough to score a 28 on the ACT and win a scholarship to Brigham Young University.

At first, Westover never imagined that her education would take her somewhere beyond the mountain.  She came home every summer and seems to have fully expected a return to her family.  But education changes a person.  Sarah learned that she was becoming something different–something very unlike her physically abusive older brother, her spiritually abusive father (in this sense, her story is most similar to Smolinsky in Bread Givers), and her mother who rejected science and medicine in favor of “essential oils.”

Through the study of psychology Westover learned that her father and brother might be bipolar.  Through her study of history she learned that her father’s conspiracy theories were built on a very shaky historical foundation.  With the help of roommates, boyfriends, and a Mormon bishop in Provo, she learned that doctors and medicine are good things.  With the help of BYU history professor Paul Kerry (a professor who once showed me around Oxford University), she encountered a world of ideas and learning that she never knew existed.  Kerry, with the help of Cambridge historian Jonathan Steinberg, convinced her that she belonged in this world.

Westover not only survived in this world, but she thrived in it.  She won numerous academic awards at BYU, including a Gates Fellowship to Cambridge.  Her way of improvement led her to a visiting fellowship at Harvard and a Ph.D in history from Cambridge.

Yet the longing of home–of family, of place, of roots–continued to pull her back to the mountain. She spent long months during her doctoral program in a state of depression as she came to grips with how education was uprooting her.  When she to tried to bring light to the dark sides of her childhood, address the tyranny, abuse, and superstition that took place everyday on the mountain, and somehow try to bring the fruits of her liberal learning to the place she loved, her family ostracized her.  The way of improvement could not lead home.  There would be no rural Enlightenment.

Westover’s story is a common one, but rarely do we see the tension between “the way of improvement” and “home” play out in such stark contrasts.

The Education of Frederick Douglass


Elizabeth Stice of Palm Beach Atlantic University (and a Messiah College history graduate!) has a nice piece at History News Network on Frederick Douglass and liberal education.  Here is a taste:

The slavery that Frederick Douglass knew was not a metaphor. It would be wrong to suggest an equivalency between his condition and that of American workers or university students today. And there was much more than The Columbia Orator on Douglass’s road to freedom. But the power of the humanities in his life speaks to their significance. He was born into adversity but learned the value of reading at a young age. He was a boy who could not put a book down, even when owning that book might cost him dearly. He grew into a man who could hold and defend his convictions. As a master of oratory, he became a powerful and influential voice for the truth, distinguished both nationally and internationally. The liberal arts alone did not liberate Frederick Douglass from slavery but they gave him mental access to the world even while he was enslaved and, after he escaped from slavery, they propelled him to a speaking role on the world stage. 

Read the entire piece here.

Cornel West and Ross Douthat Together at the University of St. Thomas



I have been concerned lately about the lack of open debate and public conversation on college campuses.

All colleges and universities invite guest speakers to campus.  At my college we do a fair job of inviting a range of voices. Some speakers come from within the Christian tradition and some come from outside of it. Some are liberal and some are conservative.

Liberal factions on college campuses bring in speakers who will attract liberal faculty and students.  The speakers tell the audience what they want to hear and basically confirm the audience’s already held convictions.  Everyone oohs and ahhs for 45 minutes.  Then, when the applause is over,  they loft “softball” questions that the speaker can easily hit out of the park.  After the lecture they talk about the speaker for days, hoping that the college as a whole will take note of what he or she said and start to enact meaningful change along the lines that the speaker has proposed.

And then the next week a conservative speaker comes to campus and the same thing happens all over again.  Very few of the faculty and students who were present for the liberal lecture show up for this lecture.  The speaker expounds upon her or his conservative values and everyone leaves feeling pretty good about themselves.  Then comes the usual post-lecture swoon.

Rarely is there a conservative response at the liberal lecture or a liberal response at a conservative lecture.  I imagine that sometimes people worry about this kind of intellectual exchange becoming too contentious.  (This is certainly an issue at my college where Christian peace and the absence of conflict stem from the school’s Anabaptist heritage).  Yet such arguments, when conducted civilly, contribute to the educational and intellectual culture of our campuses.  Rarely do our students see two intellectuals with different ideas engaged in conversation over things that matter.

Last week I was up in Wenham, Massachusetts to deliver the Gordon College Franz Lecture.  My topic was “Why Study History?,” so I used my time to talk a little bit about the ongoing problems that I see with American democracy.  (Readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home or Why Study History? have heard or read this before).

Here is a small part of my talk:

And what is happening to the state of democratic conversation? Public argument and debate over the critical issues of the day too often takes place in 30-second sound bites between talking heads on cable news. This sound-bite culture makes it difficult to fully engage with and even understand the viewpoints of those neighbors with whom we disagree. Cable news encourages a kind of passive approach to public life. Rather than engaging in civil conversation, we sit on our couches or in front of our screens and merely consume it all. This is not citizenship.

As the late historian and cultural critic Christopher Lasch has written:

“The attempt to bring others around to our point of view carries the risk, of course, that we may adopt their point of view instead. We have to enter imaginatively into our opponent’s arguments, if only for the purpose of refuting them, and we may end up being persuaded by those we sought to persuade. Argument is risky and unpredictable, therefore educational. Most of us tend to think of it….as a clash of dogmas, a shouting match in which neither side gives any ground. But arguments are not won by shouting down opponents. They are won by changing opponents minds—something that can only happen if we give opposing arguments a respectful hearing and still persuade their advocates that there is something wrong with those arguments. In the course of this activity, we may well decide that there is something wrong with our own.”

I was thus encouraged when I recently read about a week of lectures and conversations at the University of St. Thomas, a Catholic liberal arts college in Minnesota.

The highlight of the week was a session featuring Cornel West and Ross Douthat.  The topic was “Christianity and Politics in the U.S. Today.”

Here is a taste of University of St. Thomas theologian Michael Hollerich‘s description of the event at the website of Commonweal

Then on Friday, St. Thomas’s Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law, and Public Policy hosted a conversation between Cornel West and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat on “Christianity and Politics in the U.S. Today.” A cynic might have derided this as a celebrity event. It was much better than that, and the planners deserve warm congratulations for pulling off a remarkable success. The Murphy Institute is named for the late Msgr. Terrence Murphy (d. 2004), for over thirty-five years the university’s president and chancellor, and sometimes referred to as St. Thomas’s Fr. Hesburgh. The institute is jointly administered by the university’s Center for Catholic Studies and the law school. Apart from its legal-education programs, for much of its twenty-year history the institute stuck to topics and speakers from the conservative end of the Catholic spectrum. The last few years it has been braver about going outside the usual suspects. A good example is the seminar led by German sociologist Hans Joas on his 2013 book The Sacredness of the Person, which draws on American pragmatism and German historicism for a new genealogy of human rights.

Cornel West was a reach well beyond that. I am not privy to whatever dealing brought him and Ross Douthat, a very public Catholic conservative, to our campus. It turned out to be an inspired match. Anyone who expected Crossfire-style vituperation would have been disappointed. West, who looks like an aging Frederick Douglass in cufflinks, was funny, powerful, and lightning quick on his feet, with a daunting expressive range and a limitless supply of intellectual and cultural allusions. He played his audience like a maestro conducting an orchestra. Douthat was the real surprise. His journalism didn’t prepare me for his self-deprecating humor and charm. There wasn’t a trace of the sometimes-churlish voice of the columnist. West’s booming greeting to “Brother Ross” set the tone. Douthat also showed impressive self-possession in not being bowled over by West’s bombast. He seemed mostly willing to play the straight man to West’s shtick (did he have a choice?), while slipping in his own sly cracks. The humor and the moral and intellectual passion were infectious. Who expected a spirited detour on John Dewey (Douthat called him an aggressive secularizer and a defender of amoral instrumental reason; West said his love of democracy was mystical and almost religious)? Or Cornel West invoking “Gilbert Keith Chesterton”? It helped that they shared a common contempt for Donald Trump (and possibly Hillary Clinton as well). On Trump, Douthat was unsparing—when I referred above to Trump’s “racialized politics,” I was borrowing Douthat’s phrase.

Read the rest here.  We need more events like this on our campuses for the purpose of modeling conversation and intellectual exchange about important matters.


On Liberty University, Bernie Sanders, and "Coddled" Undergraduates

This tweet comes from Robert George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton.  His tweet raises an interesting question.  Would a conservative speaking at a public university or secular private college receive the same kind of welcome that Bernie Sanders received at Liberty University?

Over at New York Magazine, Jesse Singal notes how Liberty University students “survived the unsafe space created by Bernie Sanders and his pro-choice views.”  She writes:

No one should mistake this for a group of conservative students eagerly flocking to hear a dissenting voice — attendance was mandatory  for everyone who lives on campus, and this is not a school where protesting is welcome.

But it’s still interesting to put this event in context, given what some other university students have done when faced with controversial speakers or events. For example, Emily Yoffe, who has written about the connection between alcohol and sexual assaulthad a speaking offer at a West Coast college rescinded after a student organization told her that her presence would make victims of assault “feel unsafe.” At my alma mater of the University of Michigan, for example, a showing of American Sniper was canceled (though later un-canceled) after students complained that the movie’s depiction of Iraqi Muslims would make “students feel unsafe and unwelcome.” Unsuccessful attempts to get Bill Maher and George Will canceled as speakers at the University of California – Berkeley and Michigan State, respectively, involved similar arguments about creating dangerous-feeling environments. Sometimes the tactic works, and sometimes it doesn’t, but there’s definitely a trend of students arguing that allowing certain speakers to speak poses an emotional risk to some members of the student body.

Without jumping into the broader debate about political correctness, it’s worth pointing out that, if we’re going to buy the theory that the mere presence of a certain type of speaker on campus creates an unsafe space that expands across that campus, bringing the risk of psychological harm to students, Liberty must have been an incredibly unsafe place today. Many, if not most, of its students, after all, deeply and viscerally believe that abortion is murder. And here was a speaker who didn’t agree with them on that — he was, from their point of view, in favor of mass murder. And yet they let him talk respectfully, they asked him questions, and it seemed like everyone was able to have a civil conversation (albeit a mandatory civil conversation).
As of yet, there are no reports of widespread psychological trauma out of Lynchburg.

And I also think it is appropriate to put all of this in the context of Barack Obama’s recent response to the “coddled” college and university students discussed in a recent article in The Atlantic.  Here is the president:

Sending the Right Message to Incoming Freshmen: The Gettysburg College "First-Year Walk"

It is freshman orientation time at colleges and universities across the country.  Most schools have become very good at planning events and information sessions for first-year students.  Some colleges have games and picnics.  Other schools send freshmen into the streets to serve others.
But few of these freshman orientation traditions beat the Gettysburg College “First-Year Walk.” Students walk from the campus through the streets of the historic town of Gettysburg. Along the way they learn about the three-day battle that took place there in July 1863.  The walk ends at the Gettysburg cemetery where Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is read at the spot where it was original delivered on November 19, 1863.
What impresses me the most about the “First-Year Walk” is the message that it is sending to incoming students.  In an age in which so may colleges and universities are trying to ride the STEM wave, and humanistic learning is under attack in the academy, the good folks at Gettysburg are letting its freshman class know right from the beginning that history, ideas, memory, place, speech, and political philosophy matter and will be an important part, if not the defining part, of their four-year college career.
Here is a brief video of the 2015 “First Year Walk.”  I was also pleased to see that my friend Jill Ogline Titus was picked to give this year’s keynote presentation.  Jill is the Associate Director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg and her husband Sean has done some adjunct work in the Messiah College History Department.

William Cronon on the Traits of a Liberally Educated Person

William Cronon

Mark Cheathem at Jacksonian America blog has reminded me of Willian Cronon’s essayOnly Connect: The Goals of a Liberal Education.”  I have read and taught this piece several times and I don’t know of a better short treatment of the virtues of liberal learning.  Everyone should read it.  

Cheathem summarized and condensed Cronon’s traits of a liberally educated person.  Here they are:

  1. Liberally educated people listen and hear. They pay close attention to others and show empathy.
  2. Liberally educated people read and understand. They possess the ability to read not only the written word but also the visual world that surrounds them.
  3. Liberally educated people can converse with anyone. They are able to speak on many topics and are interested in listening as well.
  4. Liberally educated people can write clearly, persuasively, and movingly. They are able to express themselves in writing,  not just in the technical sense of correct grammar and syntax but in conveying their inner selves.
  5. Liberally educated people can solve problems of various kinds. They can deconstruct complicated problems and reconstruct them into something meaningful.
  6. Liberally educated people respect rigor as a way of seeking truth. They value wisdom and seek to combine knowledge and values.
  7. Liberally educated people are humble, tolerant, and self-critical. They recognize and value different perspectives.
  8. Liberally educated people accomplish something with their lives. They see a higher purpose in their time on earth and do something to improve it before they die.
  9. Liberally educated people understand the power of community. They acknowledge that individuals cannot operate outside of communities and that communities do not exist without individuals. Cronon adds later in his essay, “Education for human freedom [i.e., individualism] is also education for human community” (5).
  10. Liberally educated people connect. As Cronon puts it, a liberal education “means being able to see connections that allow one to make sense of the world and act within it in creative ways. . . . [It] is about gaining the power and the wisdom, the generosity and the freedom to connect.” (3-5). 

More From Chris Gehrz’s Students on "Confessing History"

The posts keep coming from Chris Gehrz’s Bethel University (St. Paul, MN) senior history seminar.  Needless to say, I am thrilled that Chris’s students are connecting so deeply with Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation (Notre Dame, 2010).

Christina Anderson reflects on my own essay in the volume: “Coming to Terms With Lincoln.”  She picks up on some of my thoughts about working together with my students to understand the moral and political vision of our 16th president and compares my experience in the classroom with her own experience as a student at the Oregon Extension campus..  Here is a taste:

John Fea’s experience of learning alongside his students in order to understand history at a deeper level is admirable. Often an education occurs through the impersonal passing of knowledge from professor to student in a lecture. Bethel University professors attempt to bridge this gap of impersonal lecturing to “partners in the process” of learning by promoting smaller class sizes and discussions. Professors at Bethel show an interest in the educational development of their students, but a disconnect still exists with the professor being the all-knowing higher authority. I have not had the feeling that Fea describes as being co-workers in understanding history with professors at Bethel, but I have found a piece of this feeling while studying at the Oregon Extension for a semester…

Thanks, Christina.  I know a bit about the Oregon Extension program and it is indeed a very unique place.  It is very difficult to duplicate that kind of learning environment in a traditional classroom.  In fact, I would probably guess that what I describe in “Coming to Terms with Lincoln” is much less interactive than the kind of intense communal learning that goes on at the Oregon Extension.

For more of these posts on Confessing History click here and scroll down.

Community Colleges Are Liberal Arts Colleges

While we normally think of community colleges and junior colleges as places where students go for vocational training and hands-on skills, Rob Jenkins, an English professor at Georgia-Perimeter College in Georgia, reminds us that most students who transfer from a community college to a four-year institution receive nearly all of their liberal arts and humanities coursework at the community college level.

Jenkins wants to rid academics of the idea that liberal learning is at odds with work-force development.  He suggests several reasons why this is the case:

Here is a taste:

I wonder, though, if those seemingly conflicting views of the community-college mission are as mutually exclusive as they appear. Employers rank communication and analytical skills among the most important attributes they seek in new hires, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. Perhaps those of us who teach those very skills at community colleges should embrace the integral role we play in preparing the nation’s workers rather than rejecting the idea of work-force development as somehow beneath us.
Such a paradigm shift would have at least a couple of happy consequences. For one thing, we would be able to argue more persuasively for the importance of the liberal arts, especially in this era of draconian budget cuts and increased oversight by external bodies.

More important, this new perspective could have a positive effect on student success. If we come to see ourselves as preparing students not just for transfer but ultimately for the work force, students may be more likely to understand the relevance of the skills that we teach them and better able to use those skills for some purpose other than just getting a passing grade. That, according to Susan de la Vergne, a nationally recognized expert on preparing liberal-arts graduates for careers in non-liberal-arts fields, could give them a tremendous advantage.

“Businesses spend a lot of money on ‘training’ classes for their employees,” she says. “Classes in business writing, presentation skills, business analysis, conflict resolution, emotional intelligence, and cross-cultural teamwork are deemed critical to success in today’s business environment. But most are aimed at essentially backfilling the liberal arts, making up for education gaps.”

Community-college faculty members are well positioned to help alleviate the need for so much “backfill.” But to do so, we must reimagine the way that we teach. Here are a few suggestions that might help make our courses more practical, relevant, and useful for non-liberal-arts majors.

Dispatches from Graduate School–Part 33 and So What CAN You Do With a History Major–Part 33

Cali Pitchel McCullough is a Ph.D student in American history at Arizona State University.  For earlier posts in her series “Dispatches from Graduate School” click here.  This week, Cali’s post doubles as an entry in our series So What CAN You Do With a History Major?  Since this is the 33rd post in both of these very popular series, I thought this was appropriate.  Enjoy!  –JF

Four weeks ago, I accepted a full-time summer position as the Marketing and Communications Associate at a boutique wealth management firm in Scottsdale, Arizona. (I have a fancy email signature to prove it). Primarily, I control the social media strategy for the firm. I created, designed, and now implement our strategy using a variety of channels—Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. My goal is to provide value-adding content for our clients. I curate articles and essays from the finance world, and I write email blasts to help educate our clients and provide them with timely and appropriate news and updates.

My largest project is our website launch. I work closely with the creative agency designing the site, and I am responsible for some copywriting and content editing. This might be the most enjoyable aspect of the position. Reading and writing—what I do best. I cannot say that I have a solid grasp on finance. Honestly, I hardly remember the difference between a Traditional and Roth IRA, and I easily get lost between FTJ, GTFC, IMA and FAP.

Despite my financial illiteracy, I was an attractive candidate for this summer position. Why? There are several reasons, including the aforementioned ability to read and write. If you spend any amount of time perusing the corporate websites of small and mid-level businesses, you might find grammatical errors, dangling modifiers, and incorrect noun-pronoun agreement dispersed throughout the content. Even on the second round of copywriting for our own site, I found plenty of errors.


“As an affluent investor, our staff of experienced, dedicated professionals monitors your time horizons, milestones, goals and incorporates realistic assumptions bout the economy – both present and future.”

I made my comments and sent the draft back to the agency. Easy fix. It might not take a history major to make those minor adjustments necessary. But after being steeped in a liberal arts education, I absorbed the skills necessary to write a grammatically sound sentence. Not all college grads can boast of the same skills.

The main contribution I make, and I owe this to my history training, is my ability to immerse myself in this finance culture and make valuable, often creative, suggestions regarding how we disseminate information to our clientele.  During my undergraduate courses, I learned to eschew my presentism and put on the shoes of historical actors. In a similar vein, I enter the all too foreign world of numbers and acronyms and must make sense of my surroundings.

Further, my history education enabled me to synthesize large amounts of information and distill historical evidence into a cohesive narrative. Seemingly, this skill might seem out of place in the wealth management industry. I find, however, that I use this capability on a daily basis. I gather a great deal of information about markets and mortgages and investing and am given the task of condensing the material into easily digestible snippets for the clients. The way I choose and organize certain articles needs to make sense for our readers. I can confidently say that my years in the history classroom facilitate my success in a territory as seemingly foreign as the past. 

Reading and Christian Cosmopolitanism

Over at the Comment magazine blog, Susan VanZanten offers her thoughts on the relationship between Christianity and cosmopolitanism.  Christians, according to VanZanten, should be pursuing cosmopolitan values as part of their vocations as Christ-followers because all human beings are created in the image of God and all human beings have been created to dwell in relationship with other human beings. In this sense, we are all “citizens of the world.”  VanZanten makes a very compelling and inspiring case for the way that reading can help to cultivate this kind of Christian cosmopolitanism. 

I couldn’t agree more with VanZanten, but her piece only addresses one side of the story.

VanZanten writes (the bold-face is mine):

A crucial second aspect of human identity for Christians is the fact that we are created to dwell in relationship with other human beings. We are communal, like our triune maker. Human identity is premised on relationship both with God and with other human beings. While the Enlightenment emphasized individual identity and many non-Western traditions understand identity in communal terms, the Christian story includes both components. In Jesus and the Victory of God, N.T. Wright says that within the Christian worldview, corporate meaning enhances personal meaning. While individualism and collectivism cancel each other out, corporate and personal meaning reinforce one another.

This personal/corporate character leads to a particular plot: the way we are summoned to live. The respect for all humanity grounded in their common imago dei and the love for neighbour stipulated by the Scriptures are not limited to national, religious, or even geographic proximity. When Jesus relates the story of the Good Samaritan in response to the question, “Who is my neighbour?” he tells of how those of similar religious and cultural identity ignore a man who has been assaulted and robbed, while a Samaritan, a man from an ethnic and religious group loathed by the Jews of Jesus’ day, stops and assists the victim. The character who embodies neighbourliness is the ultimate outsider. All first-century Jews knew that they were to love their neighbour, but Jesus has the Samaritan doing the loving. The neighbour is not someone who lives next door, or goes to the same synagogue or church, or claims the same national identity; the neighbour is anyone in need who we encounter. This kind of neighbourliness has been made more apparent and less easy to ignore with globalization.

Again, I can’t argue with anything VanZanten has written here. But I would say this: Cosmopolitanism always has the potential of undermining a flesh and blood sense of community and neighborliness.  For most of us, our neighbor IS “someone who lives next door.”  While our neighbors are certainly not limited to the people who live on our street, neighborhood, or town, being a neighbor in these local contexts remains the most practical and effective way of carrying out Jesus’s command in the Sermon on the Mount.

I am a strong supporter of the kind of cosmopolitan imagination that reading and liberal learning in the humanities and arts can foster.  I have used this blog on many occasions to preach about the way that the study of the past can instill us with the virtue of empathy.  But I have also been a strong advocate for a cosmopolitanism, and even a Christian cosmopolitanism, that is grounded or “rooted” in a particular locale.

Herein lies the tension.  As Lavar Burton used to remind us on the PBS show Reading Rainbow, “I can go anywhere..take a look, it’s in a book….”  Liberal learning, as Barbara Nussbaum and others have noted, leads us outward.  It saves us from the darker elements of our provincialism.  But we also must remember that while we are off engaging in the global world, there are still people living in the midst of those provinces. 

Is it possible to engage the world–even if it is in an imagined sense–and still remain connected to the local attachments that for many of us give our lives meaning? On the one hand, we want to bring the best of our common humanity–in a truly global sense–to the places where we live, work, and have our being.  On the other hand, we do not want to be itinerant, placeless beings who live in an abstract academic or intellectual “community.”

As some of my readers know, I flesh these questions out in an eighteenth-century historical context in The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  You may also want to look at my forthcoming piece in The Cresset: “Does the Way of Improvement Lead Home? Rooted Cosmopolitanism and the Church-Related College.”

Thanks to Susan VanZanten for this thought-provoking piece.

Mark Bauerlein on the "Challenge of ‘Academically Adrift’ "

Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, continues to make waves.  Over at Brainstorm, Mark Bauerlein warns academics that if they do not do anything to address the book’s criticisms of higher education, somebody else will:

…statement after statement in the book lays out the conditions of non-learning relentlessly.  Here’s another from the beginning:

“Policy makers and practitioners have become increasingly apprehensive about undergraduate education as there is growing evidence that individual and institutional interests and incentives are not closely aligned with a focus on undergraduate academic learning per se.”

This is a particularly disturbing assertion because it says that poor academic learning outcomes for undergraduates are not the result of faculty failure or dereliction or incompetence. They are the logical result of a system that pushes professors toward other concerns. Low CLA scores, then, cannot be corrected by simply telling professors, “You’re not doing your job very well—fix it.”  Rather, faculty members may be doing their jobs quite well, but the duties of their job don’t include ensuring that undergraduates leave their classrooms more educated than before.  It’s a systemic problem.

The criticisms aren’t going to go away, and they will be used to bolster the rising movement of accountability in higher education.  Arum and Roksa, in fact, have a statement about that, which appears in this document on pages 12-13, which concludes, “Efforts to mandate the use of specific measures for accountability purposes (as opposed to promoting their use for research and internal formative assessment tied to improving instruction) would likely be counterproductive at this time.”

But with the opinion spreading that learning isn’t happening on campus as much as it should, accountability demands will likewise spread.  If academics don’t get out in front of the reform, others will take the lead.

Louis Menand on Why We Have College

In the current issue of The New Yorker, Louis Menand has a review essay on two recent critiques of American higher education: Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses and Professor X’s In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic.

In the course of the essay, Menand puts forth three different theories on the meaning of college.

Theory 1:  College is a means of sorting out the more intelligent members of society from the less intelligent members of society.

Theory 2: College “exposes future citizens to material that enlightens and empowers them, whatever careers they end up choosing.

Menand writes:

If you are a Theory 1 person, you worry that, with so many Americans going to college, the bachelor’s degree is losing its meaning, and soon it will no longer operate as a reliable marker of productive potential. Increasing public investment in higher education with the goal of college for everyone—in effect, taxpayer-subsidized social promotion—is thwarting the operation of the sorting mechanism. Education is about selection, not inclusion.

If you are friendly toward Theory 2, on the other hand, you worry that the competition for slots in top-tier colleges is warping educational priorities. You see academic tulip mania: students and their parents are overvaluing a commodity for which there are cheap and plentiful substitutes. The sticker price at Princeton or Stanford, including room and board, is upward of fifty thousand dollars a year. Public colleges are much less expensive—the average tuition is $7,605—and there are also many less selective private colleges where you can get a good education, and a lot more faculty face time, without having to spend every minute of high school sucking up to your teachers and reformatting your résumé. Education is about personal and intellectual growth, not about winning some race to the top.

And then there is theory 3, a theory embraced by many non-liberal arts students:
Neither Theory 1 nor Theory 2 really explains how the educational system works for these non-liberal-arts students. For them, college is basically a supplier of vocational preparation and a credentialling service. The theory that fits their situation—Theory 3—is that advanced economies demand specialized knowledge and skills, and, since high school is aimed at the general learner, college is where people can be taught what they need in order to enter a vocation. A college degree in a non-liberal field signifies competence in a specific line of work.

Theory 3 explains the growth of the non-liberal education sector. As work becomes more high-tech, employers demand more people with specialized training. It also explains the explosion in professional master’s programs. There are now well over a hundred master’s degrees available, in fields from Avian Medicine to Web Design and Homeland Security. Close to fourteen times as many master’s degrees are given out every year as doctorates. When Barack Obama and Arne Duncan talk about how higher education is the key to the future of the American economy, this is the sector they have in mind. They are not talking about the liberal arts.

Read the entire essay here.

Which theory do you embrace?  Why do we have college?

The Problem With a Business Degree

Richard Arum, one of the co-authors of the Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, rips the academic quality of most business degrees.  Here is just a small taste:

Business-related fields account for slightly over 20 percent of all undergraduate degrees in the United States, the most popular field of study. But the quality of that education is facing growing scrutiny and criticism, as detailed in an article by David Glenn in the Education Life section of The Times as part of a joint project with The Chronicle of Higher Education. A recent study found that undergraduate business majors study less than other students, and lag behind in assessments of critical thinking and writing skills — scoring lower than students in education and communications, and well behind liberal arts majors.

Is it worth majoring in business, particularly in the so-called softer fields like marketing and human resources? 

And here is one more taste:

We found that students concentrating in business related coursework were the least likely to report spending time studying and preparing for class. If one considers simply hours spent studying alone, undergraduates concentrating in business coursework invest less than one hour a day in such pursuits. Given such modest investments in academic activities, it is not surprising that business students show the lowest gains on measures of critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication. The implication of these troubling patterns, however, goes well beyond these particular types of programs.

America’s Empathy Problem and Why We Need More History in Schools

Inside Higher Education reports on a study showing that college students today are 40 percent less empathetic than those who graduated two or three decades ago.  Here is a taste:

Are you often quite touched by things you see happen? Do you try to look at everybody’s side of a disagreement before you make a decision? When you see people being taken advantage of, do you feel protective of them?

If you are a college student or recent graduate, you are more likely to answer “no” to the above questions, which are excerpts from a University of Michigan test designed to measure the presence of empathy in people of different ages. What they found was disconcerting: College students today are 40 percent less empathetic than those who graduated two or three decades ago.

This is sad.  Empathy is at the heart of civil society. Without empathy and its sister virtue, understanding, we are left with culture warriors screaming at one another in two-minute soundbites on cable television.

Empathy is also a virtue that is essential to the Judeo-Christian tradition.  If we understand all human beings as being created in the image of God, with inherent dignity and value, then such a belief should influence how we treat one another, even those with whom we disagree.

As I have argued elsewhere on this blog, and will be arguing in greater detail in a forthcoming book entitled “The Power to Transform: A Christian Reflection on the Study of the Past,” empathy is something that is best taught through the study of history.

Now some might say empathy is a dangerous thing.  Those who learn to empathize are in danger of embracing the views in which they are trying to empathize with.  For example, if a person tries to empathize with Hitler, he or she will become a Nazi.  Empathy, according to this view, is just too risky.

While I understand this concern, I still think it is important to take the risk.  Indeed , risk and wisdom are at the heart of liberal learning.