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Why Are We Doing This Anyway?

Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa's Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011)
Why Are We Doing This Anyway?

The authors, sociologists Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia, have given us a book that chronicles what many people have thought of higher education in America for some time: the university has changed—some would say lost—its purpose for its students, and this is creating an institution, which is becoming increasingly useless in our society. Here one finds a rich and detailed account, extensively researched, of the decline in the acquisition of skills like critical thinking, complex reasoning and clear writing by undergraduates in the American academy today. Though most university mission statements “echo [a] widespread commitment to developing students’ critical thinking” (p. 2), for a number of reasons, that development is simply not happening.

The failure is attributed to a number of factors. The number of students who view the university experience as more a social one than an academic one has dramatically increased. The infamous disease of “grade inflation” has allowed grade point averages and degree completion rates to remain stable. Faculty who want better student recommendations in order to secure tenure are blamed for making their classes easy and entertaining rather than doing the hard work of teaching students how to think. In their introductory chapter, Arum and Roksa discuss these and other reasons for the decline. They also outline their testing procedures and outcomes and answer questions that have arisen about testing such a subjective thing as reasoning skill in the first place. I believe they answer these questions more than adequately.

The book is a dense read, though not overly so. I am no specialist in sociology, but with work, I felt like I grasped what was being offered. It would be a superb book to read slowly and discuss with those who are deeply interested in higher education and what its purpose is. More importantly, since it is replete with footnotes, appendices, and bibliography, the book serves as an especially important work for Study Center staff to read and know.

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