We’re Losing Our Minds:
Rethinking American Higher Education

By Steven S. Volk, Professor of History, and Director, Center for Teaching Innovation and Excellence, Oberlin College

Are we “losing our minds?”  Richard Keeling and Richard Hersh, of Keeling & Associates, argued as much in their panel of the same title.  What they mean, of course, is that by having allowed the petrification of a culture of higher education which stressed everything from rankings and athletics to student life and “throughputs,” but somehow ignored student learning, we are not just “adrift,” but at risk of losing student learning, and all that would come from it.  Where, they ask, is the higher learning in higher education?

Critiques of higher education have stacked up over the past two decades, largely focusing on important issues such as escalating costs or the decline of the full-time professoriate. But Keeling and Hersh point to the value of Richard Arum and Josipa Roska’s Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (University of Chicago Press, 2011) in providing demographic and research data to sustain the argument that the attributes we value most in higher learning – critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills, among others – are not being achieved at institutions of higher education.

Keeling and Hersh’s talk, which summarized their just-published book of the same title (Palgrave Macmillan) suggested that we are not fully developing the human and intellectual capacity of today’s college students because the current culture of higher education does not foster, require, or reward higher learning. This, they argue, is an unacceptable and costly failure that must be resolved if, as a nation, we are to avoid weakening our political, social, economic, scientific, and technical leadership. Further, if we attempt to solve the problem by removing resources from higher education, then we will likely succeed in becoming more efficient at producing less learning.

Colleges and universities often place predominant value on “throughput” – recruiting, admitting, enrolling, retaining, and graduating students.  Once in a university, the student will often find herself in what Barr and Tagg called the “instructional paradigm,” where faculty deliver knowledge, rather than in a “learning paradigm,” where faculty focus on creating learning environments and facilitating learning. Further, they argue, the entire higher education enterprise is vertically organized (think of our frequent talk of “silos”), whereas  student learning, characterized by its cumulative and collective organization, is much more horizontal, spanning across the student’s time at university rather than one course. Learning for students, as a myriad of studies have demonstrated, is achieved across a cumulative experience.

Decades of learning about learning suggest that this is a product of the complex, dynamic interaction among students and others, shaped by the introduction of new knowledge, experiences, and events as well as by students’ own histories and aspirations. Learners, as John Dewey taught nearly a century ago, construct knowledge by making meaning from the raw materials of content and their experiences.

So, what do we know about learning that can help us think about what students should be getting as a “higher” education? While the panelists spoke of a number of issues, the most important were the need for students to spend more time on task and to be presented with higher expectations: practice, repetition, expectations.

These factors, they suggest, cannot be addressed by a single “silver bullet,” nor can solutions be purchased with a sudden infusion of funds. They can only be addressed by a change in the culture that has sustained a “non-learning” mode in higher education for too many years. American higher education needs to rethink assumptions, principles, priorities, values, organizational structures, reward systems, and usual and customary practices, and we need to rethink these in light of what we know empirically about how students learn.

And what is to be a part of this new culture? For Keeling and Hersh, among many points, the following are most important:

* An explicit, and intentional, emphasis on learning (and not “throughput”);

* A recognition that student learning is holistic: you cannot divide the cognitive, social, personal, or emotional aspects of a student’s learning;

* A focus on cumulative and collective learning; learning over time, across experiences; and intentionally organized learning. This does not happen in only two classes or through four extra-curricular activities, but rather as a part of an intentional structure of thought-out design;

* Learning needs to be coherent and integrated, and for this to happen, the work of integration must be co-determined by student and institution. It is not in the ability of (most) students to knit their higher education learning together into the needed level of coherence;

* Higher education curriculum must be challenging and rigorous, with high standards as a common practice;

* Students must be asked and expected to engage in far more learning outside of the class than is currently the case; and

*Students need to come into greater contact with full-time faculty, who are also engaged in advising and mentoring.

Keeling and Hersh recognize that for institutions that are already strapped for funds, this can throw them into the most difficult of decisions. But, they argue, by placing student learning as the fundamental goal of higher education, the answers to those questions should follow.

Demands are made on students (who are expected to spend greater time on task; to engage actively rather than letting their education happen without their input; and to build up a tolerance for challenge and risk-taking); on educators (who are expected to play a leadership role in promoting student learning by raising their expectations, their support of students, and their willingness to challenge students); and on administrators (who are called on to create the environment where learning, not rankings, becomes the priority, to revise faculty reward systems to emphasize learning and account for the value of teaching, advising, and mentoring; and to provide regular faculty development to strengthen teaching and learning). It is the synchronous coordination of all these efforts that will change the culture of higher education and produce different outcomes.

Keeling and Hersh’s work appears to be the next logical step after Academically Adrift, suggesting ways to address the problems that Arum and Roska raised. And yet, if the points were powerful and the argument persuasive, the current environment doesn’t seem a propitious one for imagining massive culture change in the world of higher education. For many legislators, it is easier to blame the teacher and to focus on training students for the job than to wrap their heads (and budgets) around what learning is about. For faculty at most institutions of higher education, not only will their own employment be determined by a reward structure that treats serious teaching as a third rail, but as part-time faculty take up more jobs, they find themselves without even an office in which to meet students during the few hours they are on campus before the drive to their next adjunct position. And for students, who live increasingly complex and demanding lives, the notion that they may have to spend more years (and funds) on “learning” will not be an attractive one. I fundamentally support Keeling and Hersh’s conclusions … yet I remain less than optimistic about their chances for success.

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