The two most e-mailed articles in my cohort last week seem to have been the “Tiger Mother” piece from the Washington Post (and various responses to it) and Scott Jaschik’s report on the new book, Academically Adrift. It’s an interesting synchronicity that puts the two together, I think. (A brief caveat here: I have not read either book yet, though I hope to find the time soon!)
Both books seem to be claiming that something many Americans take for granted as a value—a particular kind of parenting, a particular kind of higher education—may actually not be as good for our kids as we had thought. Interestingly, while the responses to Amy Chua came thick and fast in defense of modern attachment parenting and its variations, the responses to Academically Adrift appeared to accept its premises and immediately start pointing fingers. Here’s a sampling of headlines: “New Book Lays Failure to Learn on Colleges' Doorsteps,” “Many college students show no learning gains,” and “New Study Confirms The Obvious: First Two Years of College Spent Sleeping and Partying.” (I particularly like that last one, although as a parent of a college student I’d question whether all that much sleep actually happens at college…)
As a guilty party in both cases—I’m an American mother of the “friendly” type, and an academic, after all—I had some questions about both indictments. Susan O’Doherty has already raised some of my questions about “Tiger Mother”ing, so I won’t rehearse them further here, except to note that David Brooks’s response, which emphasizes emotional intelligence, seems to me to deepen the conversation considerably. (And, as an aside, how can anyone who’s seen a daughter through the teen years not resonate to this point: “Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls.”?)
I’ve been surprised, however, at how few of the responses to Academically Adrift seemed to note what struck me as one of the most interesting points in Jaschik’s piece. As my friend and colleague Phil Nel did manage to point out, the study does note that “Students majoring in liberal arts fields see ‘significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study.’”
I still have questions about the study, I must say. It relies on transcript analysis and student surveys as well as scores on the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a test I have not seen, though it appears to have admirable goals. In the first-year seminar program I coordinate, we’ve been trying to come up with workable measures of critical thinking skills, for example, and it’s difficult to do so. I find it admirable that folks are trying, and I’m heartened to learn that humanities students may indeed see an increase in those skills during their time in college. I just hope we start doing better at defining the skills we value before we decide that we aren’t teaching them.
As I read the continuing commentary, I’m relieved to find—according to Brooks, Nel, and others—I may actually not be to blame, as either a mother or a professor, for the declining skills others are observing among children and college students. Not that I mean to rest on my laurels. But in both cases, an examination of the central terms of the argument—“success,” in Amy Chua’s case, and “critical thinking,” among others, in the case of Academically Adrift, may help us get to what really matters: the health and well-being of our students and our children. Because until we know what our goals are, we won’t be able to reach them.