Thursday, September 10, 2009

What Will College Students Learn?

Millions of students started a new college year last week. Here’s a good question: What will students learn?

A few years ago I reviewed an interesting and important book by former Dean of Harvard College, Harry Lewis. In Excellence Without a Soul: Does Liberal Education Have a Future?, Lewis looks at the state of higher education in America through the story of Harvard College. For better or worse, Harvard is looked to as one of the premier colleges in America and around the world. As Harvard goes, so will much of higher learning around the globe. According to Lewis, colleges in America (Harvard included), “have forgotten that the fundamental job of undergraduate education is to turn” teenagers into adults, “to help them grow up, to learn who they are, to search for a larger purpose for their lives, and to leave college as better human beings.”

Central to Lewis’ concern is that colleges have gotten away from giving students a well-rounded education. To prove his point, Lewis has launched a website (What Will They Learn?) that helps “college shoppers” better understand what is and isn’t being taught at colleges and universities across the country. The website is easy to use. It simply tells you how much a school costs and whether or not there are required courses in the following areas: English composition, literature, foreign language, U.S. government or history, economics, mathematics, and science. Why does this matter? From the website:

According to a recent study, only 31 percent of college graduates can read and understand a complex book. In another recent survey, only 24 percent of employers thought graduates of four-year colleges were "excellently prepared" for entry-level positions. College seniors perennially fail tests of their civic and historical knowledge. And rates of leisure reading have taken a nosedive. What you see on What Will They Learn? illuminates why these statistics are so dismal: Students seldom learn what they are not expected to learn. This is because our colleges and universities have largely abandoned a coherent, content-rich general education curriculum… We examine general education because these requirements encompass the courses the vast majority of students must take, regardless of major. Ideally, these courses—commonly known as the core curriculum—ensure that students encounter broad, foundational knowledge in both the arts and sciences, knowledge that provides the intellectual backbone for lifelong learning and informed citizenship.

The website gives schools a letter grade based on the required courses taken by students. It is fascinating browse. You will be surprised by how poorly most schools are graded. Now, I’m sure the website will be met with criticism, especially from highly selective colleges that receive an “F.” But it is a good conversation starter, to be sure: Just was exactly are students (parents) paying so much money for?

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