Academically Adrift Redux: 10 Good Things to Say

Academically Adrift Redux: 10 Good Things to Say

There are some good things to say about Academically Adrift -- even if the study ends up obscuring the important issues more than illuminating them.

The Academically Adrift study continues to influence public discourse about education, most recently in David Brooks's recent New York Times article about "Testing the Teachers". Kevin Carey's February 2012 Chronicle of Higher Education piece offers a good summary of how the Academically Adrift memes have coursed through the opinionsphere, including a mention of Doonesbury's take on it. (In my opinion, the usually sure-footed Doonesbury stumbled badly on this one, but that's a topic for another day.)

Whenever I severely critique someone else's work (as I've done with Academically Adrift in a recent ETCJ article), I usually try to temper that criticism by finding good points about it as well, most commonly by coming up with the list of ten good things to say about the work. So here is my list of ten good things to say about the Academically Adrift study:

1. Academically Adrift (AA) does a good job of identifying the customary list of concerns about higher education, for instance that colleges and universities do less for students than they should (p.1), and noting the need to avoid romanticizing the collegiate past (p.2).

2. AA asserts higher education's traditional "responsibility to define appropriate educational goals" (p.17), which is a welcome bulwark against the market- and standards-driven forces which seek to impose alien values in ways that disrespect the culture of education.

3. AA includes a useful discussion about "college for all" (pp.54-57).

4. AA points out that multiple sources -- social learning, faculty, institutions -- all have a role in producing an academically-focused peer culture (pp.59-61), also reminding us that peer and parental influences are most important on peer climate (p.67-69) and are reflected in institutional climate.

5. AA's discussion re faculty interaction (pp.62-67) is not definitive, but is useful for suggesting departure points to explore more.

6. AA identifies the need for a "rigorous & challenging curriculum" as an important issue (p.79).

7. AA asserts that colleges & universities can do more than just sort if they try (pp.91-92).

8. AA's discussion of cultural factors such as social isolation of Afro-American adolescents and "stereotype threat" is useful (p.114).

9. AA notes that a focus on improving instruction and demonstrating student learning gains is all too rare (p.122).

10. AA cites numerous great sources, for example Adelman on curriculum and Damon's "paths to purpose" (p. 126), and it has a good list of learning improvement strategies (p.129-134).

I'll even throw in a bonus #11: college rigor, student learning, and the value of students' time are important issues. It's good that Academically Adrift sought to address these issues -- which is why it's all the more unfortunate that the results the AA study produced, and the memes that it has propagated, ultimately obscure these issues more than they shed light on them. More on that in my next post...