Maranto: Higher Ed Has Lost its Sense of Purpose

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has published a letter by Robert Maranto, the 21st Century Chair in Leadership at the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, who writes that sometime since the universities were held as the beacon of knowledge in the world, they have lost the sense of higher purpose. With the schools' focus now being on attracting research funding and professors spending less time teaching than writing grant applications, the purpose of a higher education degree has become muddled.

Maranto says that in light of that ideological drift, it isn't surprising that many students are checking out and spending only 12 hours a week on studying — and as a result, Maranto argues, learning less and less. It takes half as much effort now to earn top college grades than it did in 1961 when students spent an average of 24 hours a week doing their work.

Maranto borrows and tinkers with a Communist-era joke to summarize this attitude, describing the relationship between professors and students as, "They pretend to teach us and we pretend to learn." This kind of disillusionment on the part of students could be directly contributing to a declining four-year graduation rate that now stands at below 30%. Higher rd leaders talk derisively about "diploma mills," little realizing that the current state of apathy is quickly turning even the most prestigious universities in the country into diploma mills, too.

We professors must take back college. We must recreate a culture of intellectual engagement. Students are never as pliable as in the months before and after starting college, making this a unique time to influence them. Yet with our usual inattention to undergraduates, faculty leave orientation to student affairs administrators, who emphasize recreation, vocation, and politically correct victimization–not learning.

Professors need to inspire passion in their students, Maranto says — a passion for attending a higher education institution when many can't, and a passion for their chosen field. However, the message will ring false unless the instructors unearth their own passion and commitment as well.

One of the first things that professors can do to reclaim that commitment is to abandon the long-held practice of relegating teaching of introductory classes to graduate student assistants, instead taking back the reins themselves. Instead of saving themselves for advanced seminars, Maranto says that professors should put their experience and teaching skills in front of students at the time when they are most passionate about the choice of major they have made as they introduce young adults to the full complexity of the intellectual world:

Finally, colleges should be intellectual environments, yet they rarely hold debates on controversial matters like same sex marriage, affirmative action, progressive taxation, and America's role in the world. Some academics presume that only "progressive" stands are acceptable. This sends a clear message that we do not value or even tolerate serious intellectual engagement and ideological diversity. Accordingly, colleges must sponsor regular debates on the same issues contested in the vibrant democracy of our host nation.

09 26, 2012
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