The American university system is, as the saying goes, wasted on the young. Reading is down, writing is down and so not surprisingly learning seems to be down too. With the ridiculous rising costs of college these days this doesn’t say a lot about the principle of return on investment. The popular majors these days – the new majors of business, marketing, management and communications – don’t demand that much from their students, and everyone knows matriculation is more about experience than learning. What this research might be missing, however, is the immeasurable (outside of maybe Facebook) aspect of networking. While it might be the case that students read less Aristotle, it might also be the case that all their socializing benefits them in other, networky, ways. Here’s what The New York Review of Books has to say:
The Collegiate Learning Assessment reveals that some 45 percent of students in the sample had made effectively no progress in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing in their first two years. And a look at their academic experience helps to explain why. Students reported spending twelve hours a week, on average, studying—down from twenty-five hours per week in 1961 and twenty in 1981. Half the students in the sample had not taken a course that required more than twenty pages of writing in the previous semester, while a third had not even taken a course that required as much as forty pages a week of reading.
Second, and more depressing: vast numbers of students come to university with no particular interest in their courses and no sense of how these might prepare them for future careers. The desire they cherish, Arum and Roksa write, is to act out “cultural scripts of college life depicted in popular movies such as Animal House (1978) and National Lampoon’s Van Wilder (2002).” Academic studies don’t loom large on their mental maps of the university. Even at the elite University of California, students report that on average they spend “twelve hours [a week] socializing with friends, eleven hours using computers for fun, six hours watching television, six hours exercising, five hours on hobbies”—and thirteen hours a week studying.
For most of them, in the end, what the university offers is not skills or knowledge but credentials: a diploma that signals employability and basic work discipline.
Americans don’t like reading; Czechs don’t like not having credentials
This last point about credentials brings me to the state of education in the Czech Republic. Perhaps reflecting their previous membership in the great bureaucratic state of Austria-Hungary, Czechs love credentials. Everywhere you look in the country there’s a title begging to be recognized. And neglecting to recognize your interlocutor’s title is generally considered a major faux pas – he isn’t simple a Mr., he’s a Mr. holder of diploma X. The whole thing strikes an outsider as an absurd charade; in America this kind of thing is only done to recognize the fact that someone’s job involves sticking knives into people and fixing them. But in the Czech Republic, the love of credentials has resulted in major corruption scandals within the country’s educational system. Some universities are being described as mere diploma mills where degrees can be obtained after a few months and a plagiarized thesis, or even no thesis at all. Mayors, policemen, lawyers and potentially judges have been caught up in this, as the Czechs say, skandál. To be honest, I’m not sure if this is a big deal or just another example of corruption in a corrupt state.