William Pannapacker writes a two-part article in The Chronicle of Higher Education (Part 1 Part 2) in response to the recent book Academically Adrift by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. According to Pannapacker, Arum and Roska find that “at least 45 percent of undergraduates demonstrated ‘no improvement in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills in the first two years of college, and 36 percent showed no progress in four years.’ And that’s just the beginning of the bad news.”
The first half of Pannapacker’s response focuses on locating reasons that support Arum and Roska’s thesis. Among these, Pannapacker lists grade inflation, relaxation of expectations and the shift to adjunct faculty. Pannapacker wonders if the system isn’t so much broken as “actually [is] working the way it is supposed to, according to the dictates of the market. The patterns of selection and resource allocation—and the rising costs of college education—are not driven by educational needs so much as they are the result of competition for the most enjoyable and least difficult four-year experience, culminating in a credential that is mostly a signifier of existing class positions.”
He transitions into the second half of his argument by focusing on “this system from the perspective of students and their parents. What could they possibly be thinking? What kind of interlocking system of perverse incentives is motivating them to make such choices?” The answers Pannapacker provides to these questions include the shift in perspective from student to consumer, students’ lack of engagement and shifts in literacy standards due to the internet. Throughout the second half, Pannapacker acknowledges economic pressures on students and their parents as well as the change in the function education serves in our society.
The conclusion Pannapacker drives toward is that “One hopes for an emerging consensus—another Sputnik moment—that will affirm Arum and Roksa’s position that we need to make ‘rigorous and high-quality educational experiences a moral imperative.’” Setting aside the issue that this conclusion is so far-fetched, Pannapacker must distance himself from it by couching it in “one” rather than “I”, why appeal to a moral order that Pannapacker has clearly enumerated the absence of?
Education is another consumer good. Students pay for a credential in the hope that they will earn more money in the future than their non-credentialed cohorts. The likelier truth of the matter, that the system is providing exactly the results the free market demands, is too deep of an abyss for academics to contemplate. It means that your tiny paycheck and the student evaluations that tell you the discipline you’ve devoted your life to is “boring” and “pointless” are right. You really aren’t there to teach, you’re there to stamp paying customers with the middle-class seal of approval.
There is no moral order higher than the free market.