At the liberal arts college where I used to work, we did some of our most interesting teaching in the context of academic advising. Each faculty member had five to six nonmajor advisees and a dozen upper-level major advisees. Advising meant having a lot of conversations, ostensibly about credits, requirements and majors. Yet those conversations also became the foundation for teaching students how to build a relationship with an adult who was not a parent, boss or guidance counselor.
We faculty advisers offered ourselves as mentors to nonmajors, and by spring of sophomore year, were helping students find new mentors who matched their intellectual ambitions. We supported young people as they struggled to survive the routine traumas of the first 24 months at college: discovering that other students were as, or more, capable than they were; coping with a sudden illness; managing heavy reading burdens; and dealing with divorcing parents, class anxiety or coming out -- to name a few. Those conversations helped to solve problems, but they also encouraged students to reconnect with their own resilience and self-confidence -- essential qualities that college can quickly whittle away.
I thought about this last week as I read about Nayla Kidd, the 19-year-old Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Science undergraduate who went underground -- prompting fears that she was in danger and a police search for her -- rather than finish her sophomore year. A formerly good student whose mother is a research scientist, Nayla attributed her need to disappear to the “high pressure and unreasonable expectations” of a selective science program. But she also told a reporter from The New York Post, “School just wasn’t interesting to me anymore because I didn’t have any close connections to my teachers.”
Although it caused her mother a great deal of worry and pain, Kidd then demonstrated the kind of pluck that a faculty adviser could do a lot with. She turned the act of dropping out into a carefully planned, and successful, adventure in taking back her life. She raised a stash of money by working hard and selling personal belongings. She found a place to live in New York. She went off the grid, closing out her regular phone and her Facebook, and refusing to take calls on the new number she had given to friends.
Could Nayla Kidd have used that initiative to make a connection with a teacher? It’s hard to say. Because faculty members do less advising than they ever have, the mentoring relationship that might have kept Kidd at Columbia may be less likely to occur now than it ever has been.
The urban university where I work now, which has made the shift to centralized advising, is typical of that. Although students may have a faculty adviser and even a peer adviser, the ordinary meetings that became the foundation of student-faculty relationships -- preregistration, making an academic plan, adding and dropping classes, solving institutional problems -- are now usually handled by administrators who specialize in advising.
This is true at the vast majority of schools -- even at Columbia, which has a far higher proportion of full-time faculty than my own university -- and it has consequences for students in crisis over an academic career that has gone off the rails. A 2011 survey by the National Academic Advising Association revealed that 22 percent of colleges and universities use full-time professional advisers exclusively, 18 percent use full-time faculty advisers exclusively and everyone else uses a mix. Whatever the approach, according to a 2014 article in The New York Times that cited the survey, “rarely do faculty advise in the first two critical years of college when students are more likely to transfer or drop out.”
That means that, during those years, students at a whopping 82 percent of colleges and universities may have, as their most structured adult contact, someone who is not an intellectual mentor or role model. These students will need to come to campus with the self-confidence and skills to reach out and establish relationships with faculty members -- whether their own teachers, or those they hope to learn from in a major, on their own. At large, multicampus universities like Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, students might not even create a relationship with a single professional adviser. The business of advising can be accomplished by dropping in or making an appointment at an advising center on any of the four campuses, through careful use of the advising website, or through online chat.
I don’t know what opportunities Columbia offered Kidd; they also have an advising center that handles routine institutional tasks. And I do know that faculty members don’t always do a terrific job as advisers, are sometimes frustratingly unavailable and can be ill informed about things outside their department.
I am also not implying that professional advisers are not good at what they do, or that faculty, peer and professional advisers do not function as the wraparound service teams that many university websites claim they do. “Think about your academic adviser as a partner as you go about developing your network of success,” a short video on the New York University advising website proposes.
The mission of advising offices, as their websites will tell you, is not relationship building: it is “student success.” This concept includes steering students away from courses of study where they have struggled in the past and toward majors in which good grades and on-time graduation are more likely. It includes making sure students have the right credits in the right departments to graduate in a major and a minor or two, can be sent on to postgraduate education, and can identify internships that, in turn, will lead to employment.
These are not small things. However, professional advising websites also imply that academic problems, which must bring in a healthy number of clients, are linked to failures of character. Columbia’s advising office lists six attributes that a student needs to bring to the advising “partnership.” They include active engagement with the adviser, being “forthcoming about perceived obstacles to success” and looking for information on their own. The Office of Academic Services at Rutgers instructs a student that he or she must “accept responsibility for making your own plans and decisions” and “become an educated consumer.” At Liberty University, “Professional advising exists to help students build ownership and critical thinking skills as they work to achieve their spiritual, academic and professional goals.” The University of Pennsylvania devotes a whole page of its advising website to student responsibility, a virtue that includes the making and keeping of appointments (something that demoralized students are even less good at than their peers, in my experience), being “active and informed participants,” and “learn[ing] to take responsibility.” Rutgers advises students that one key to making good use of an adviser is to “be on time.”
It’s hard not to see the heavy hand of the market in this language. Every personal quality I have listed above is a useful character trait and a foundation for success in any moneymaking endeavor, including being a college professor. But they are qualities students develop at college and should not be prerequisites for accessing higher education or for making a successful mentoring relationship with an adult. They smack of the ideology of individualism that has transformed economic, social and political citizenship since 1980: if you can’t stand on your own two feet and make good decisions, we can’t help you. Yet students often end up in academic trouble because they haven’t made good decisions, a skill generally cultivated as a mature person.
One great obstacle to students’ overcoming the various forms of failure they will encounter in their first two years at college is the mistaken belief of many otherwise successful young people that they ought to be able to solve problems on their own, and certainly without bringing their teachers into it. One way to change this is to have students practice making relationships with faculty for no practical reason at all. As Harvard School of Education Professor Richard J. Light wrote in How to Make the Most of College (Harvard University Press, 2004), after having a general discussion with each of his first-year students, he would give each one a task: to have a conversation with one faculty member other than himself that semester. It is an “obvious idea,” Light writes, “that part of a great college education depends upon human relationships.” The attenuation of faculty advising eliminates a crucial opportunity for a student not only to practice these relationships but also to do so in ways that may be self-revealing and not entirely goal oriented.
As an experienced adviser, I can testify that it isn’t unusual, even at a small New England college that prides itself on advising, for students to disappear or for a graduating senior to not know more than one faculty member whom they feel comfortable asking for a recommendation. Nor is it unusual for a student to respond to profound unhappiness, and the isolation and fear often tangled up in that, by embracing solitude and self-reliance. I once had a student who went to bed about a week after arriving on campus, leaving her room only to eat and to visit with me, her adviser, every two weeks. She assured me her classes were all going well. Not one of her instructors let me, or her dean, know she had stopped attending.
It’s easy for faculty members to slam professional advisers, and I don’t mean to do that. I am pretty sure that many who work at colleges and universities where they partner with faculty members have a lot to say about how unavailable many of us are often are for the conversations that bright, capable students might require. Yet that relationship with a faculty adviser prior to establishing a major program may be the key to making college seem worthwhile to students like Nayla Kidd, who expect, and need, a conversation -- not a prepackaged path to success.
Claire Potter is professor of history and director of the Digital Humanities Initiative at the New School in New York City.
“The university seeks to foster in all its students lifelong habits of careful observation, critical thinking, creativity, moral reflection and articulate expression.”
“… University fosters intellectual inquiry and critical thinking, preparing graduates who will serve as effective, ethical leaders and engaged citizens.”
“The college provides students with the knowledge, critical-thinking skills and creative experience they need to navigate in a complex global environment.”
These are but a tiny sampling of the mission statements from higher education institutions around the country where critical thinking is a central focus. Indeed, in many ways, critical thinking has become synonymous with higher education. Yet we have not found evidence that colleges or universities teach critical-thinking skills with any success.
The study that has become most emblematic of higher education's failure to teach critical-thinking skills to college students is Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift (2011). The researchers found that college students make little gain in critical-thinking skills, as measured by students’ scores on the Collegiate Learning Assessment. This study has been criticized for relying too much on the CLA, but that overlooks a much more fundamental issue underscored by a growing body of research: we don’t know what critical thinking actually is, and we can’t be sure that it even exists.
Those of us who work in higher education have assumed that we know what critical thinking is -- how could we not? Don’t we see it happening every day? Don’t we do it? Yet, if we realize that “critical thinking” implies a set of general thinking skills that transfer from one subject or domain to another, then the task of identifying exactly what those skills are becomes extremely difficult, and perhaps impossible, to accomplish.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that higher education has gambled on critical thinking, and it makes sense: given that so much information is accessible via digital technology, and given the rising costs of tuition, classrooms must move beyond being places where content is delivered and become places where students learn how to process that content -- or, in other words, where they learn to think.
The question remains, however, can we actually teach students that skill?
The Thinking Skills Debate
The debate over whether or not general thinking skills, or GTS, actually exist is well traveled within a relatively small circle of researchers and thinkers, but virtually unknown outside of it. Given our belief in the importance of critical thinking and our assumption that students learn it, I would argue that this debate is one of the most overlooked and misunderstood issues in higher education today.
As the name implies, GTS are those skills that supposedly transfer from one discipline to another. A key question in the debate, therefore, is whether thinking skills can exist independently from discipline-specific content in a meaningful way such that transfer is possible. Writing on this, Tim John Moore, a senior lecturer at the Swinburne University of Technology in Australia, called this “the generalizabilty debate.”
On one side are the generalists, who believe “critical thinking can be distilled down to a finite set of constitutive skills, ones that can be learned in a systematic way and have applicability across all academic disciplines.” Some notable proponents of this position are Robert Ennis, emeritus professor of philosophy of education at the University of Illinois; Peter Facione, former provost at Loyola University of Chicago; and Richard Paul, director of research and professional development at the Center for Critical Thinking.
On the opposing side are specifists, or those who argue that “critical thinking … is always contextual and intimately tied to the particular subject matter with which one is concerned.” Thinking, in other words, is always about something. John McPeck, professor of education at the University of Western Ontario; Daniel T. Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia; and, to a certain degree, Moore himself have defended the specifists' position.
The generalist position, the one that many of us simply assume to be true, is the philosophical basis for the stand-alone, generic “thinking skills” course, in which students supposedly learn skills that transfer across subjects and domains. But Daniel Willingham points out that evidence shows that such courses “primarily improve students’ thinking with the sort of problems they practiced in the program -- not with other types of problems.” That suggests that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to separate the thinking skill from the content. In other words, Willingham argues, critical thinking is only possible after one acquires a significant amount of domain-specific knowledge, and even then, it’s no guarantee.
As educational researcher Stephen P. Norris wrote in Teaching Critical Thinking: “There is no scientific legitimacy to [the] claim that critical-thinking ability involves ability to control for content and complexity, ability to interpret and apply, and ability to use sound principles of thinking. If anything, scientific evidence suggests that human mental abilities are content and context bound, and highly influenced by the complexity of the problems being addressed.”
More recent research that Moore has conducted continues to support the finding that the existence of a set of thinking skills applicable across disciplines is indeed dubious. In Critical Thinking and Language, he explored how critical thinking is understood and taught by faculty from a range of disciplines at an Australian university. While he outlined certain relations among disciplines, he found nothing to suggest that the complexity of those relations could be reduced to a core set of cognitive skills.
Again, given the rising cost of education and the increasing accessibility of information, instructors and professors must move beyond being deliverers of content to remain relevant. Yet, what to do if the research is telling us that teaching GTS is extremely difficult, if not impossible?
If higher education is to come to terms with its promise of producing critical thinkers, it must take some specific measures. First, no matter what they teach, professors must become much more familiar with the thinking skills debates occurring in the cognitive science, educational psychology and philosophical domains. In fact, if institutions disseminated essential readings in this area as a sort of primer to get people started, it would be time and money well spent.
With a wider appreciation of the debate, faculty members must then begin to think about thinking within the context of their own disciplines. It does not make sense to impose some set of critical-thinking skills onto a subject area independent of the content being taught. Rather, professors of literature, science, psychology, economics and so on must reflect on how they think as scholars and researchers within their own disciplines -- and then explicitly teach those cognitive processes to students. If there is one thing that we know for sure, it is that thinking skills, general or otherwise, can’t be learned if they’re not taught in as overt a manner as other content in college courses.
Finally, we need to adjust the metaphor of “transfer” that drives how we view thinking skills in general and critical-thinking skills in particular. That metaphor leads us to look for a packaged set of thinking skills that apply with equal relevancy to virtually any situation or domain, when, while still debatable, it seems increasingly clear that no such skills exist.
When it comes to thinking skills, it would be much more productive if we stop thinking “transfer” and start thinking “overlap.” That is, once thinking skills become more explicitly taught, especially in general education classes, both professors and students will notice how thinking in the context of one domain (say, economics)overlaps with the kind of thinking processes at work in another (biology).
Moreover, the metaphor of overlap -- like a Venn diagram -- makes the differences between sets of thinking skills as instructional as the similarities. So, as thinking skills become explicitly taught in different subjects, the student, proceeding through college, will gather overlapping investigative experiences based on his or her efforts to employ said thinking skills in various courses. The student can then manage those overlapping experiences as a kind of portfolio that shows him or her how content is processed and problems are solved. If a core set of thinking skills can be distilled from this portfolio, great. If not, the student still has a rich picture of how different ways of thinking overlap, even if they are always tethered to a specific domain or problem.
Ultimately, we in higher education must recognize that money is on the table. We have gambled on critical thinking, and if we are not to lose our shirts on this bet, we can no longer expect students to magically become critical thinkers. Instead, we must move toward a pedagogy that foregrounds the explicit teaching of thinking skills.
John Schlueter is an instructor of English at St. Paul College.
A stint at a liberal arts college as the cure for economic hardship and social despair? As a way out of poverty and dead-end, low-wage employment?
That's hardly the conventional wisdom. Just ask around, and it’s easy to find someone who will tell you how useless it is to indulge yourself in the humanities or to become immersed in a broad selection of old-fashioned courses in the traditional arts and sciences, rather than going for marketable, albeit elusive, "skills." After all, as former Republican presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio said in a Milwaukee debate last fall, welders make more money than philosophers. (Not true, as it turns out.)
Yet a detour back to the liberal arts is the subversive suggestion tucked away in Sweat, a stinging postindustrial stage drama of economic injustice by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, which has played to mostly rave reviews in Oregon and Washington, DC, and will open next fall in New York. At a critical moment in the action, the 21-year-old black factory worker Chris, looking for a way to improve his lot in life, tells his foil and white friend Jason, during a scene in the bar where they hang out, that he is thinking of enrolling at Albright College, a small, private, nonprofit liberal arts institution in Reading, the small city in southeastern Pennsylvania where the play is set. This is, to put it mildly, a counterintuitive turn in the plot.
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival commissioned Nottage, a recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant, to write one of her searing social dramas about America’s “de-industrial revolution.” She located Sweat in Reading (pronounced “redding”) because it was ranked as the country’s poorest city in 2012.
That distinction came as a shock to me. Having grown up 80 miles to the north near Wilkes-Barre, a town that since the late 1950s has seemed to define the term “depressed,” I always thought of Reading as a bit on the spiffy side. They made pretzels and steel there (a lot more exotic than Wilkes-Barre’s coal mines and shoe factories) and boasted one of the country's first outlet malls. The Cleveland Indians at one point actually moved a minor league baseball franchise from Wilkes-Barre to Reading, which seemed to be quite a statement. Besides, Reading was much closer to sophisticated Philadelphia, and its eponymous little railroad had a glamorous presence on the Monopoly board.
Indeed, as Nottage noted to me in a recent telephone conversation, there was a time, not so very long ago, when Reading and other old-line communities like it “had such an abundance of industrial jobs available that a person could practically stand on a street corner and get hired.”
In those days, she added, “a really good, solid factory job was a way to move up the ladder and get into the middle class. You could have a paid vacation every year, health insurance and a pension.” After 25 or 30 years, a worker in Reading could hope to earn $40,000 a year, support a family and have a good life.
But the evolution of the American economy has ravaged such places. New realities have wiped out old appearances and reputations. By the time Nottage, who is African-American, arrived in Reading to do research, she found severe economic deprivation and a host of social ills -- crime and violence, drugs, and a bitter racism that sets desperate people against each other and especially against immigrants.
Sweat takes place in 2000, when a plant in Reading begins to lay off its workers, presumably because the jobs are being moved to Mexico and elsewhere outside the U.S., and in 2008, by which time the dire consequences of economic decline can be more fully appreciated. The talk is tough, fear of the inevitable pathological and a secure future hard to imagine. Sweat is, in a sense, a morality play, in which an explanation lurks for the rise of both of this year’s most surprising political figures, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, each with his distinct appeal to the dispossessed.
The protagonists, who include two mother-son pairs, one black and one white, have clearly placed far too much faith and confidence in their paternalistic employer. When things begin to unravel, they have no good place to turn. The bartender, their psychological and social adviser, permanently crippled as he is from his own accident at the plant, where he, too, used to work, could have told them this was coming -- but no one was listening.
So how is it that one of the victims, even before everything begins to fall apart at the plant, looks to a liberal arts college for salvation?
Chris, says Nottage, his creator, “is a kid who was always aspirational. But it was drilled into his head as he was growing up that he could make much more money in the factory” than he ever would with a college degree. Clearly, when he got out of high school, “a skilled-labor person was in greater demand than someone with a B.A.”
What Chris has realized by the time he makes his seemingly random remark about going to study at Albright, Nottage says, is “how taxing, physically and emotionally, his factory job was. It took him a long time to come around to a new idea” -- that he could go to college after all and perhaps train to be a teacher -- “and he met great resistance in his peer group and his family.”
For his part, Lex O. McMillan III, now completing his 11th year as president of Albright College, finds this anomalous twist in the plot of Sweat totally logical. As he notes, Albright, once a more elite institution, has become a very diverse place. Today a majority of its students are members of minority groups, and about half of the student body is eligible for federal Pell Grants that go to the economically disadvantaged. Surprisingly enough, the average family income of students at Albright and other similarly situated private colleges in the region is lower than of those at Penn State, the flagship state institution in Pennsylvania and one of the largest public universities in the United States.
But as the action unfolds in Sweat, Chris never makes it to Albright. His job disappears before he can come up with a plan, and in a cruel twist, his own mother, cynically drawn from the factory floor into management with a mandate to help downsize the workforce, seems to be partially responsible.
Nottage defends her somewhat surprising choice of Albright, rather than the more predictable option of a community college, as the place her fictional hero thinks of attending. “In Chris’s community,” she says, “it would not necessarily be identified as a ‘liberal arts college,’ but it might be seen as a place where someone with his background and experience could aspire to succeed.” She was particularly drawn to Albright’s website, which, among other things, features a college-completion program geared for adults returning to school.
Then there is the fact that she herself is the product of a liberal arts curriculum at Brown University, “which allowed me to have as broad an education as I could imagine.” Originally pegged as a math and science scholar, Nottage entered Brown from New York as a pre-med student, but found that “no part of me had any interest in being a doctor” -- so she escaped to the humanities.
McMillan has not yet seen Sweat performed, but he and his colleagues have greatly enjoyed the unexpected attention it has focused on Albright.
Has the case been made widely and convincingly enough that a traditional college education has a role to play in solving America’s plight? “The B.A. is a path to economic advancement,” McMillan says, mounting his newly polished soapbox. “It is the most practical education you can get, and it will be useful all your life.”
Nottage agrees. “Some students,” she acknowledges, “cannot be served fully by a liberal arts institution.” But a liberal education, she believes, “makes a whole vocabulary available to another group of people.”
Sanford J. Ungar, president emeritus of Goucher College, is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Georgetown University and a Lumina Foundation Fellow. He teaches Free Speech at Harvard University and Georgetown.
“We can give you three dollars,” the clerk at the campus bookstore told me.
“That’s all?” I asked. I had hoped to get more for the book I wanted to sell back, given what I had paid for it just months before.
“Sorry. It’s not assigned next term.” She shrugged.
“Well,” I decided, “for three dollars, it will look good on my bookshelf.”
That was the moment I kept my first college book.
At the end of every term, college students lug piles of books across campus to sell back to the bookstore (or post the books online to sell directly to next term’s students) for a fraction of what they paid for them. Selling back books is so ingrained in college culture that it seems natural, inevitable. Strapped for cash, most students accept the few dollars joyfully.
But there’s something to be said for keeping books, too. In the years since my own small beginning -- just the one book, just three dollars, just to look good on my bookshelf -- I have developed a lasting commitment to having books around.
These days, as each semester nears its end, I find myself on the losing side of a friendly argument with my own students. I tell them they should not sell their books back. They raise objections:
“The book’s not in my field.”
“I already read it, and I remember what it says.”
“I can always get another copy if I need it.”
“I can find the same text, or the same facts, online.”
“The information will be outdated soon.”
“The edition will be replaced with a new one soon.”
“I want to put this class behind me!”
“It’s too expensive to keep. I need the money.”
I do my best to respond. Then, of course, the students make their own decisions. I’m afraid I’m not very convincing. And I understand why. Most of the reasons to sell back books are quite reasonable. In certain cases, I have to concede the point.
Yes, I do agree, some books are just fine to sell back. I have little fondness in particular for stereotypically textbookish textbooks: repositories of facts, good for exam prep but not for actually reading, likely to be replaced by a new edition in a year or two, apparently written by a committee or a machine, duplicating material available online for free. By all means, students should sell those back.
Even with these caveats, I still insist students should keep books. As college teachers, we usually focus more on what students do (or do not do) with books during our courses, not after. But I think we can do more. Just as we would like students to remember what they learn in our courses and to continue learning after the courses have ended, so should we also care that they keep the very books that can help that remembering and learning along.
With the loudest voices (including bookstore advertisements) telling students to sell their books, it’s up to us to teach them otherwise. We can assign books worth keeping. We can help students connect with the books for themselves. We can talk to students about keeping books, telling them something like this:
Keep your books. Not every single one, necessarily, but keep many. Keep most, if possible. Do not let a book go without deliberation. Begrudge the ones truly not worth keeping. Grieve the ones you truly cannot afford. Keep books from your field and from other fields as well. Be well-rounded in your keeping.
Yes, appreciate what the internet can offer (through sites like Project Gutenberg), but also appreciate what books can offer. Yes, some books contain nothing but information with a short shelf life, but keep the books that are not of this sort. Keep books with ideas, argument, voice -- books in which writers say something to readers. Keep books you know you will use again and books you think you won’t, just in case.
Start small, if it helps: keep one book you otherwise would have gotten rid of. Next time, keep two. Keep keeping books until you’ve built a library. Why? There’s value in having books and being the sort of person who has them. This value often outweighs the cost. Sometimes books are even worth a little sacrifice.
Finally, while asserting there’s value in having books, we teachers can also explain just what that value is. We might communicate to students the following points:
Having books around can make a difference in students’ lives. Analyzing decades of data from dozens of countries around the world, sociologists found that the number of books in a home correlates strongly with academic accomplishment for children in the family. Specifically, the more books around, the farther in education the children go. That holds true across time, culture and socioeconomic status. The connection between books and academic accomplishment is so strong, the researchers comment, that there almost seems to be “an intrinsic advantage in growing up around books.”
Of course, merely having books around is “not enough,” they add. One does not imagine books that are just sitting there unread, unnoticed and ignored doing much good. But there is a high “correlation between owning books and reading.” Books offer “skills and knowledge.” Having books around demonstrates “a commitment to investing in knowledge.” Having books around indicates that people in the house “enjoy and value scholarly culture, that they ﬁnd ideas congenial, reading agreeable, complex and intellectually demanding work attractive.” In a home that has books, it is likely “conversations between parents and their children will include references to books and imaginative ideas growing out of them.”
Students who are (or hope to become) parents should certainly keep books for the sake of the children. But if children benefit from books, no doubt adults do as well. It’s not that books are magical (at least, not in the strictest sense of that word). It’s that deciding to have books and to be the sort of person who has books can change a person’s life and the lives of those closest to them.
Students might want to read certain books in the future. Sometimes students feel finished with a subject once they complete the final exam. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t. They do not know what they will want to read or reference in 10, 20, 30 years. But if they have built up a library over that time, it will be all the easier for them to grab the right book when they want it.
Students might want to lend books to someone someday. It is easy for students to ask, “Will I use this book again?” But building a library allows students to be a resource to others. One of my fellow professors calls it a “joy” to have the right book on hand to give to someone. He compares it to the proverbial “word fitly spoken.”
Books can serve as physical reminders of what students have read. Reading doesn’t end when one puts a book down for the last time. Reading ends when one thinks about a book for the last time. When students read enough, they will likely forget not just what they read in certain books but even that they read certain books. “Out of sight, out of mind” applies here.
But so does the opposite. Books as physical objects sitting in plain sight on a bookshelf, glanced at regularly and browsed through from time to time, can remind students of what they have read, keeping that reading alive, active in their minds. (For this to work, of course, books can’t stay boxed up in storage.)
Books can serve as physical reminders of what students have not read. As Umberto Eco and Nassim Nicholas Taleb know, unread books remind people of what they do not know. Some unread books eventually get read. Others don’t. In that way, sitting on bookshelves, unread books can remind students to be both curious and humble.
Books shape the meaning of a place. According to place theory, places are not mere locations; they are laden with meaning. The physical environment of a place shapes its meaning (including walls, doors, furniture, the lack thereof, etc.). What happens in a place also shapes its meaning. So do names, memories, objects and so on. A grass field marked by the lines and plates of a baseball diamond means something different than a grass field marked with tombstones and flowers. The apartment wall lined with books means something different than the apartment wall lined with family photos, band posters, sports memorabilia, works of art, bottles of wine or nothing. Having books around says, “This is a place where thinking and learning are valued.”
Books shape students’ identities. Of course, people are more than their books, degrees, careers, relationships or experiences, more than their thoughts, feelings, even bodies. And yet, these all shape how one lives in the world, the kind of person one appears to be, one’s identity. Having books around says, “I am the sort of person who values thinking and learning.”
Keeping books allows students to return to them over the years. The most meaningful connections people can have with books play out over a lifetime. The weeks or months during a course count as an introduction. That’s enough for some books. Others offer more. Students can return to a book after 10 or 20 years, reread the notes they wrote in the margins the last time they read it, observe how their thinking has changed, see what new layers of meaning they can find in the text at different times in life.
Books are a tangible investment in lifelong learning. College students’ finances vary vastly. It’s not my place to tell students whether they can or cannot afford books. At the same time, I know many students already sacrifice a lot to attend college, as an investment in something that matters to them. All I can add to that is that books are a good investment, too, a real commitment to continue learning long after graduating.
Distinguished scholar bell hooks testifies to this final point. Growing up poor in a patriarchal, segregated town, she learned the value of books from her mother, who had never graduated high school. “Against my father’s wishes,” hooks recalls, “she was willing to spend money on books, to let me know the pride of book ownership and the joy of possessing the gift that keeps on giving -- the book that one can read over and over and over.” Reading books, she continues, “empowered me to journey to places with the mind and imagination … expanded my consciousness … made the impossible possible.”
At the end of each semester, when the line at the bookstore to sell back books is at its longest, one of my dear friends and fellow professors walks by crying out, “Traitors! Traitors!” His joke -- and, of course, he does this playfully -- contains a historical pun. The Latin root of the word traitor, traditor, was the name given to those early Christians who under persecution handed over their sacred texts to be burned by the Roman authorities. The Latin cognate literally means “to hand over.” To hand over one’s books is a betrayal of our common purpose -- although if it’s that or die (or miss the rent), one will surely be forgiven.
We hope students leave college with memories, friends, knowledge, skills and a diploma, and we do well when we remind students to obtain them. We need to add a library to the list. When students sell back their books, they sell back part of their education. I care much more about what books students keep, and what notes they wrote in them, than what courses they passed or what grades they earned. Students’ bookshelves say much more than their transcripts.
Paul T. Corrigan is associate professor of English at Southeastern University.
Only 40 percent of college seniors say their experience in college has been very helpful in preparing them for a career, according to the results of a survey by McGraw-Hill Education. Students majoring in arts and humanities are more than three times as likely as other students to say they feel “not at all prepared” for their careers (18 percent compared to less than 6 percent of all other students), according to the survey.
The third annual version of McGraw-Hill's workforce readiness survey found a rise in the perceived importance of preparing for careers in college. While students report that they are increasingly satisfied with their overall college experience (79 percent in 2016 compared to 65 percent in 2014), an increasing percentage said they would have preferred their schools to provide:
More internships and professional experiences (67 percent in 2016 compared to 59 percent in 2014).
More time to focus on career preparation (59 percent compared to 47 percent).
Better access to career preparation tools (47 percent compared to 38 percent).
More alumni networking opportunities (34 percent compared to 22 percent).
The survey also queried students about whether they would have chosen a different college path if community college were free, with some of the responses below:
A new report from the Century Foundation examines how to improve outcomes for students who begin college needing remediation. "When College Students Start Behind" offers a redesign of how community colleges should approach remedial courses.
The authors state that to produce more college-ready students colleges should accelerate remedial courses, supplement college placement exams with GPA, connect pre-course work topics to students' individual interests and shift from a "drill and practice" type of teaching to more contextual, real-life applications.
The report also points to the City University of New York's Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, or ASAP, as an example of where these types of reforms have been implemented. A recent study of the program found that it nearly doubled graduation rates.
Students at Johns Hopkins University are objecting to a plan to end the practice of "covering" the grades of freshmen during their first semester, The Baltimore Sun reported. Under the policy, students receive either satisfactory or unsatisfactory as their grades. Even though students learn the letter grade they would have received, the information is not shared on transcripts for future applications to graduate school or for employment. University officials said that they fear the system delays students who need extra help from seeking it out. But students say that the current policy works well, reduces pressure during the first semester and is especially important to disadvantaged students who arrive at Hopkins without the benefits of the high school preparation wealthier students have received.
I have spent a lot of time in the past year visiting college campuses with my daughter. She is a senior in high school and has recently made her college choice. We visited all kinds of institutions: elite private schools, liberal arts colleges, Christian colleges and public universities. My daughter is a humanities person. She will most likely major in something like English or history. If she dabbles in the social sciences, she will probably pursue anthropology or sociology.
She was also very perceptive about the vibe that she got from the colleges that she visited. She did not merely want an institution with strong humanities programs. She wanted one with a humanities ethos that pervades the campus.
A few months ago, on back to back days, we visited two very prestigious private universities. The first institution, despite its reputation as a world-class research university, presented itself, first and foremost, as an undergraduate liberal arts college. The admissions office and tour guides noted that many of the professional schools, including the graduate school, were located in remote parts of the campus. The layout of this campus exuded a sense of community rooted in ideas and questions about what it means to be human.The departments of History, English and African-American Studies were all located at the center of campus. When my daughter told some of the current students that she was thinking about majoring in English or history she was greeted with enthusiasm.
The second institution -- another world class research university -- offered a very different feel. Little was said about the humanities and liberal arts. Our tour did not even venture to the location on campus where these departments were housed. Instead the presentations stressed professional programs: business and engineering. When we talked to some students at an off-campus residential community, we learned that none of them were majoring in humanities-related fields. I think my daughter was embarrassed to tell people on the campus that she was interested in the humanities.
Last fall, we also attended a few Christian colleges. One of these colleges had a strong tradition of liberal arts and humanities education. During her evening in the dorms, my daughter met several humanities majors. The next day, during presentations, tours, and classes, she was deeply impressed by the way the questions raised by the humanities-oriented disciplines animated everything that happened in the curriculum of this institution. (This college is not defined as a "liberal arts college" by the Carnegie rankings.)
My daughter was not sure if she wanted to attend a Christian college, but if she decided to do so, she wanted an institution with a strong commitment to the integration of faith and learning. She was aware that such integration is difficult, if not impossible, without robust support for the humanities -- history, English, theology, philosophy, languages and the like. Those disciplines raise the “big questions” about what it means to be a human being in the world -- the kinds of questions more compatible with religious faith. She felt at home in this place.
The other Christian college that she visited attracts more students interested in professional majors. The humanities programs are solid, but the faculty spends a lot of its time fighting for the importance of the liberal arts. During the course of the visit, a few students asked my daughter about her intended major. In every case, when my daughter said she was interested in history or English, her new acquaintances asked her if she wanted to teach. When my daughter said she was not interested in teaching, her hosts responded: "Then what are you going to do with that [degree]?" She also sensed that the admissions staff did not know how to talk about the humanities.
My daughter came home from the visit wondering if she could find any conversation partners or friends with the same interests. Everyone she met, it seemed, was majoring in athletic training, nursing or business. I told her that she certainly would meet people at this institution who had the same passions and interests as she did, but, in the end, what my daughter sensed was correct: this college did not have a humanities or liberal arts ethos. She felt it.
I have enjoyed seeing these various colleges and universities through my daughter’s eyes. I have concluded that the liberal arts and humanities are still strong at the small institutions of higher learning that continue to define themselves as “liberal arts colleges” and are categorized as such. But beyond those elite colleges, the chances of finding an institution in which the humanities define the academic culture are slim at best.
In my experience, students are still interested in subjects like history and English, but they see these more as a "hobby" than a legitimate focus of undergraduate study. I can't tell you how many times I have heard a talented undergraduate tell me something like this: "I love history, and I would love to study it, but I am not sure what I can do with it, and neither are my parents."
For the last several years, I have been arguing (along with a lot of other people) that humanities departments need to do a better job of showing students how the skills they learn in our courses are transferable in the marketplace. As part of their college experience, humanities and liberal arts students should know how to articulate those skills to potential employers. We want our students to get jobs in the business and nonprofit sectors not in spite of the fact that they majored in a humanities discipline, but because they did. I have made these arguments in my book Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past and at my blog “The Way of Improvement Leads Home” through an ongoing series of posts that I call "So What CAN You Do With a History Major.”
As a history department chairperson, when I speak to potential history majors, or even curious students in my general education courses whom I am trying to "convert" to the history major, I emphasize not only the content that they will learn in history courses but also the transferable skills. I would encourage professors in liberal arts colleges to work with admissions officers about making sure students know that humanities majors can make a decent living in a variety of different professions and careers. If trained well, they should know how to think clearly, write well, communicate effectively, tell stories, empathize with others and take small bits of information and make meaning out of them.
A move in that direction may also require curriculum changes or additions. For example, at the college where I teach, we added a one-year "Introduction to History" course that contains a substantial unit devoted to careers. The students read the pertinent chapters of Why Study History? and hear from career-center staff about how to sell themselves as history majors to potential employees. Our department even added an "administrative studies" concentration to our curriculum. Students in that concentration take the full history major, but they use some of their non-history electives to take courses in business, leadership, economics and politics.
I have worked hard at trying to transform my department along these lines, but sometimes I wonder if I have gone too far in this direction. Instead of championing transferable skills and all the things students in history can "do" with their majors, maybe I should have spent more time challenging this market-oriented approach by defending humanities learning for learning's sake. We don't spend as much time anymore talking about the non-marketable values of the humanities or the benefit of humanistic learning to make us better people or citizens. I know that my faculty colleagues care about this, but I'm not so sure about the majority of the students whom I encounter. I worry that the success of a particular humanities discipline is now being measured by utilitarian ends such as career outcomes.
This career-driven approach to the humanities is the new reality for those of us who teach at tuition-driven schools with smaller endowments. I am aware of the high-profile cases in which politicians with control over state budgets have attacked the humanities. I realize that unless we start focusing on careers and transferable skills we will continue to have depleting enrollments in humanities majors, continue to lose faculty lines in our departments, and see government funding for our disciplines dry up.
But I still believe this: STEM and other professional fields may help to build a strong economy, but the humanities -- and the liberal arts more broadly -- provide education for a democracy.
I understand that my daughter's interest in a college with a humanities ethos is unusual in today's day and age. In the end, she decided she wants to attend a college with a culture where the humanities define the warp and woof of everyday life and where she will not have to explain to dorm mates and other friends why she is majoring in history and what, beyond teaching, she is going to do with such a major.
John Fea is the chair of the history department at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, PA.