Free Markets, Free People

College students not being taught critical thinking skills–does that surprise you?

A recently published study has found that many college and university students aren’t taught critical thinking skills while enrolled in their course of study. The study "followed 2,322 traditional-age students from the fall of 2005 to the spring of 2009 and examined testing data and student surveys at a broad range of 24 U.S. colleges and universities, from the highly selective to the less selective."

What they found was that about 45% of those students showed no significant improvement in their critical thinking skills during the first two years of enrollment.  After 4 years, 35% showed no significant improvement.

The study is unique in that it is the first time a group of students was followed through their college careers to determine if they learned specific skills.  As might be expected, academia is not at all pleased with the results.

"These findings are extremely valuable for those of us deeply concerned about the state of undergraduate learning and student intellectual engagement," said Brian D. Casey, the president of DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind. "They will surely shape discussions about curriculum and campus life for years to come."

The students involved in the study were tested using a standard test used to measure critical thinking ability:

The study used data from the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a 90-minute essay-type test that attempts to measure what liberal arts colleges teach and that more than 400 colleges and universities have used since 2002. The test is voluntary and includes real world problem-solving tasks, such as determining the cause of an airplane crash, that require reading and analyzing documents from newspaper articles to government reports.

As noted a significant number of students were unable to break out fact from opinion, make a clear written argument or "objectively review conflicting reports of a situation or event", the study found. In fact those students who fell into this category had a tendency to be swayed by emotion and political spin.

An interesting finding of the study was that students majored in liberal arts courses of study were more likely to develop critical thinking skills than were those that majored in courses of study such as business, education, social work and communications.

Other findings were that students who study alone, rather than in groups, tend to develop critical thinking skills and that courses (such as the liberal arts) which require heavy loads of reading and writing also help develop those skills.

Obviously the answer, if the study is to be believed, is to increase the reading and writing workload of all students. The study found some obvious problems as it is today in many of the universities and colleges included:

The study’s authors also found that large numbers of students didn’t enroll in courses requiring substantial work. In a typical semester, a third of students took no courses with more than 40 pages of reading per week. Half didn’t take a single course in which they wrote more than 20 pages over the semester.

While it would be easy to fob this off on students seeking the easiest path to graduation, it is the school that puts the curriculum together and designs and approves the classes taught. The bottom line is the school is being paid handsomely to turn out graduates that can indeed think critically – a skill in high demand everywhere. Failing in that area at the percentages noted isn’t a student problem – it is a problem of academia.

The findings shot that colleges need to be acutely aware of how instruction relates to the learning of critical-thinking and related skills, said Daniel J. Bradley, the president of Indiana State University and one of 71 college presidents who recently signed a pledge to improve student learning.

"We haven’t spent enough time making sure we are indeed teaching — and students are learning — these skills," Bradley said.

Indeed.  And it appears a "back to basics" approach would be most appropriate to bring the students not being taught those skills up to the level they need to be when they graduate. That means tough courses which test those skills routinely. That also means more work for those teaching the courses.  The question is will colleges and universities take these findings seriously and do the work for which they are being paid? Or will it, despite the rhetoric to the contrary, remain as it is today, with universities and colleges turning out a high percentage of graduates for whom critical thinking is still an unknown skill?



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74 Responses to College students not being taught critical thinking skills–does that surprise you?

  • But was it ever any better?  Well at least anytime after world war 2? I remember my college experience in the late 1970’s.  The professors would put out the most insipid liberal cant and the proles lapped it up like milk.

    It was at this time that I started smelling that something was not right and I started reading those evil “forbidden” libertarian writers like Murry Rothbard and Milton Friedman.  But I was one of just two in my whole campus that I can remember did not toe the lefty line.

    • I don’t see this as being about political ideology as much as the skills associated with critical thinking which would give you the ability to then sift through the ideologies and form some well, or at least better reasoned positions vs. those positions grounded in “emotional arguments and political spin”.

      • No, Kyle’s right. Ideology plays a big part in this.  Any time you have a culture that is completely dominated by one ideology, that ideology will ignore (when it can) and suppress (when it must) challenges to its dominance.  Critical thinking is a challenge to ideology in general, since ideologies are prescriptive rather than descriptive.

      • Bear in mind the whole notion of “thought police”…which is a Collectivist urge as well as a system.
        Much of the time, the Collective makes no bones about thought policing, and is quite unabashed about suppressing inquiry in ways both subtle and gross.  Nowhere is this more evident than on college campuses, where repressive speech codes abound.
        The co-opting of the educational field…and the broader academe…by the Collective coincides with the dumbing down of America across the board.

      • McQ,  It is not about political ideology specifically, but that ideology lays the foundations for this failure.  When I first began college, situational ethics was a hot new topic – a byproduct of leftist theology.  For example, stealing wasn’t wrong if you were poor and needed food.  With the overpopulation of center-left to far left professors in the past three decades this kind of mushy emotion laden “reasoning” has shifted what people think constitutes education.  No, people aren’t taught to think critically, for if they do, the foundations of the left ideologies necessarily will fall prey.  (It surprises me not that I can put together a more logically sound argument for leftism than many of my lefty friends.  Problem is, the logical argument forces an acknowledgment that equality trumps liberty.)
        Moreover, in the quest for ephemeral equality and promotion of illusory self-esteem, teachers are much less inclined to be the task-masters they once were and really need to be to impart substantive lessons.  A majority of students (of all ages) will seek the easiest path towards the goal, and these days many teachers have set very low intellectual, and proving,  obstacles along that path.  And then there is the sense of privilege.   Many students in today’s colleges shouldn’t be there to began with.  They have neither the gumption nor the skills.  But they have been told the way to progress is via university, and that path has also been made too easy.
        The Dumbing Down of America, an unintended consequence of a political ideology that eschews critical self-evaluation.

  • Colleges can’t teach critical thinking, IMO, because by then it’s too late.

    If you can’t do this:   “As noted a significant number of students were unable to break out fact from opinion, make a clear written argument or “objectively review conflicting reports of a situation or event”,  then why are you even in college?  Heck, how did you graduate High School?

    BTW, those were rhetorical questions.

    • There is such a thing as practice.  And perhaps this is more reflective of consistent use of those skills vs. atrophy. 

      • Indeed.  The point I was attempting to make is that the basic skill should have been taught in grade/high school.

        Clearly as you advance to higher levels of rigor, the detail, depth of analysis etc must greater.

    • I don’t disagree, but then when those who are trained to “educate” our youngun’s aren’t taught it to begin with (note that “educations” is one of the areas of study in which critical thinking appears not to be taught), what can you expect?

      • A fair point.  Those who have to teach ‘it’ don’t know how to do ‘it’ themselves.

    • I actually took Critical Thinking courses in college.  When I was at UMASS , you could get a degree in CT.

    • Colleges can’t teach critical thinking, IMO, because by then it’s too late.
      Don2 is exactly right.
      Critical thinking boils down to hanging a banana from a string and teaching a monkey to use a ball, a cardboard box, and a few bricks to assembly.    This is not the tutorial expected at the collegiate level.  The failure lies at the elementary.  It is the earlier, formative years in development that require such skill building.

  • Note that students who majored in the liberal arts fare better.   Teaching at a public liberal arts college, where critical thinking is a priority, I see this as one of the most important issues for the future of this country.  If our citizens, especially the educated leaders, aren’t able to think critically, they’ll either just follow whatever media flow happens to be in place, or be unable to problem solve and come up with creative and innovative ideas.  And I agree with McQ here that the only way to do this is to demand work, and set standards that students have to work hard to meet.  It can’t be acceptable to simply give an opinion, one has to be able to analyze a situation, state a conclusion, and explain why it’s superior to other possible interpretations of the evidence.
    The good news is that when challenged, students respond.  They’ll take the easy way out if teachers let them, but if they realize they can’t get away with skipping the reading (my courses average over 100 pages a week) and writing (I think weekly writing assignments are better than big midterms), they’ll respond.  I also think students need to learn public speaking skills, that’s very important and tends to be under emphasized these days.
    I can’t say I agree with Kyle about Rothbard being worth reading, but I do have students in political economy courses read Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek (as well as Marx and Wallerstein).   The key question: why do really smart people have different takes on this?   Can you explain their view and give it justice, even if you disagree with it (that’s key to critical thinking — to understand the other side’s perspective and why a smart, honest person might believe that).    How is it that you decide which you agree with, or (as is usually the case) how you choose some point inbetween.   Explain that in writing, build your case, cite the various works, analyze.     It takes a mix of reading, reflection, writing, and analysis to develop critical thinking skills.   Most important is the ability to recognize that ones’ personal perspective at any given point might be wrong, and to go into reading the work of others, even those one disagrees with, with an eye to understanding why perhaps they might be right.   That’s why the mantra in at least most poli-sci classes here is “disagreement is good.”
    bTW, our program has graduated Republicans now in the state legislature and we have one GOP state Senator regularly teach courses for us.     Most facutlty are (like myself) left of center,  but I think as a small “working class” university we don’t have the kind of academic elite air that prestigious universities or research schools have.  I prefer it this way.

    • LOL…’re such a pathetic liar.

    • Marx…why don’t you just have them read Tolkien, the fantasy is better.

      • Marx was dead wrong in a lot of his theories, but so were most 19th century social scientists.  He does make two important contributions: a) structural thinking (although his is very crude), and b) the joining of politics and economics.   Ironically, Marx’s own “favorite” economist was Adam Smith.   More importantly, people are surprised that Marx’s goal was freedom and liberation, not a bureaucratic nightmarish state.   How his theories helped lead people to a result that was so contrary to his goals is important to understand — utopian theories create a belief that force is a legitimate way to get the results (ends justifies the means) and the result is horrific — Pol Pot, Mao Zedong, etc.   Stalin killed 20 million (more than Hitler killed in the holocaust), Mao’s policies caused famines that killed 30 million, and Pol Pot’s desire for a weird peasant socialist paradise led to genocide.  The way political ideas can be morphed into evil actions is really important for young people to understand.

        • Marx was dead wrong in a lot of his theories, but so were most 19th century social scientists.

          Malthus being prime among them.
          Yet, you insist on dicking around with the same crap in a new wrapper.  Why?

        • I agree that Marx and Engels were actually correct about a few things, but their hubris led them to creating something that would do the opposite of their stated goals.

          As for Rothbard, I think he was a brilliant man who, much like Marx went off into a strange tangent. His basic book, On Economics is a fantastic primer.  Later in life he got into some really strange ideas.

          As for encouraging critical thinking. I would say that one thing which works is to create Delima Projects.  For instance, divide the class up and assign them each a role to play. Some of them run a major corporation, some of them work for government, some or reporters etc.

          Each of them are assigned goals and given knowledge which no one else has. Then you throw in some sort of conflict between all of the groups.  I was only lucky enough to participate in one such group in a grad level business ethics course.  

          It really left a mark on me and the other students. We got to see just which pressures might be effecting various players and why they act the way they do. 

          • Yeah, I think I’m reacting to later Rothbard material.  Thanks for the type about Delima projects, I’ll look into that, it sounds interesting.  Students definitely like those kinds of activities and usually get a lot out of them.

        • Heh – that’s because Stalin, Lenin, Pol Pot, Mao Zedong and the majority of their kind were really ‘communists’ in the same way that I’m Chinese.  In Athens they would have called them “Tyrant’.
          “The way political ideas can be morphed into evil actions is really important for young people to understand.”
          You don’t need to DWELL heavily on Marx to illustrate that point, nor do you need to use MARX at all to make that point.  You can adequately demonstrate evil actions through political systems using simple democracy as an example, or the Imperial Roman ‘Republic’ under any number of emperors.  There’s nothing special about Marx to my mind, other than the undue, virtually superstitious, amount of influence modern educators assign to him, AND of course, the fact that people purportedly devoted to his ideals managed to wipe something like 75 million people from the face of the planet in the previous century.

          • There’s nothing special about Marx to my mind, other than the undue, virtually superstitious, amount of influence modern educators assign to him

            Well, that flows from their slavish love of Collectivist ideas.  They use Marx because Hitler and Mussolini are so outre…  Of course, it could be said that Marx was the father of them all.

          • Marx is important because he tried, following enlightenment values, to come up with an objective theory of reality which he considered scientific and rational.   As a grand theory, it incorporated a lot of elements that were innovative in social science.  Moreover, he did influence politics immensely (which is one reason for political scientists to consider him — especially his overt political piece like the Communist Manifesto), including even the German Social Democratic revisionists, who broke from Marx (and were considered heretics by the orthodox Marxists who treated Marx as if he were infallible).
            But I wouldn’t spend a lot of time having them read his economic works, that’s easier to summarize.   I also think connection of modern ideas to more recent atrocities is easier for students to grasp than if we went back to Rome.   Also, the fact that people devoted to his ideas led to wiping out of 75 million people, that in and of itself has to cause people to wonder what those ideas were, and why people found them so compelling.   Almost as bad was the psychological harm of communism on populations in the East bloc.

        • …utopian theories create a belief that force is a legitimate way to get the results (ends justifies the means) and the result is horrific.

          Once again, you toss out an unsupported generalization from left fields.  You anthropomorphize “theories”, blaming them for “creat[ing] a belief”, rather than the actual people who decide to use force.  The “ends justifies the means” is a utilitarian principle, not a universal attribute of “utopian” ideas.
          Individualist theories are far superior to the collectivist theories as far as not being poisoned by utilitarian rationalizations.  Yes, there are libertarians who foolishly make utilitarian arguments, but the non-initiation of force principle, characteristically individualist, proscribes the use of force in an “ends justifies the means” manner.
          Your thinking is very sloppy on these matters.

          • Individuals act based on what things mean to them.   Thus individuals act because of the theories they believe, or the ideas they hold.   If you have a utopian theory, and believe that if only you can get rid of those “morally corrupt” who prevent that theory from being realized, then suddenly it seems rational to simply eliminate those who stand in the way of your perfect society (Pol Pot is the example I’m thinking of there).  It’s not the theories that cause it, but theories lead individuals to have beliefs upon which they act, based on their calculation of whether or not the action is justified.    Also, I think you are focusing purely on physical force.   Structural force (powers and constraints held by people due to their position in society or economic capacity) can be even more effective than crude physical force.

          • If you have a utopian theory, and believe that if only you can get rid of those “morally corrupt” who prevent that theory from being realized...

            Oh, I thought you were talking about all “utopian theories”, not just the murderous ones.  You ought to be more specific.

            Also, I think you are focusing purely on physical force.

            No.  I include threats and fraud.

            Structural force (powers and constraints held by people due to their position in society or economic capacity) can be even more effective than crude physical force.

            Same old socialist sleight of hand.  Being successful at business through honest hard work magically makes you just as bad as the rulers who use the threat of force to get people to comply, because, well, just because.  Class envy at its finest: just because.

    • Well, above all else, Scott, you’re a liar. That’s the sand in your base, and it’s why you pop back up so easily when struck with the truth, with that silly smile on your face.

      You’re “left of center?” You’re “left of center” if the center is marked at the Findland Station.

      • Actually, in the little world Erp occupies he is very likely a “centrist”.
        As your comment suggests, it’s kinda relative…
        His “Che” poster is probably on the BACK of his office door…!!!

    • Liberal arts did not fare better. ‘Traditional’ liberal arts fared better – compared to other liberal arts. In a “test that attempts to measure what liberal arts colleges teach”. As timactual mentioned, the inclusion of math majors may skew the results, we’ll have to wait until the actual data is released before any conclusion can be drawn.

      Either way, Erb prefers to poison the discussion with false assumptions so that thinking skills don’t matter. GIGO. For instance, he told his students it was reasonable to assume that sanctions would convince Saddam to leave Kuwait, despite the fact the evidence that sanctions didn’t ever make him destroy his weapon stockpiles (no word on how much suffering Kuwait would have to go through while waiting for sanctions to work, his humanity only kicks in if it’s Americans involved in the killing). nOn the other hand, it was “folly” and “fantasy” to think that a democracy could exist in Iraq, despite the fact they currently have one.

      • So it isn’t forgotten…the UN was driving head-long toward lifting the sanctions.  Had to keep that honey flowing.
        And the Collective was ALL about lifting the sanctions, too!  Starving kiddies, you know…
        Saddam had won at that point in history.

      • Thinking skills do matter.  But to exercise thinking skills I think you have to get students to show their work through writing, presenting, and demonstrating how they are using those skills.   As to Iraq, they have a nominal democracy, as do many third world states.  It isn’t effective (the Kurds run their own show, Shi’ite areas are often run by local groups and clergy, and the Sunni tribes run theirs), it’s corrupt, it’s highly influenced by Iran, and riddled with internal strife.  This is EXACTLY the kind of democracy I would have predicted would come to Iraq given the culture of the post-Ottoman world and the divisions within that country.   What someone who understands political science would have known in 2003 is that the idea of Iraq paying for their war with oil revenues, easy stability, a stable pro-American democracy emerging, and other dreams from the neo-conservatives, was unrealistic.   This what happened is precisely what people like me were warning about.
        I was heartened when a former student, a Republican, e-mailed me in 2006 and, referring to very open class discussions from a foreign policy class in 2003 (students learn quickly they are not penalized if they disagree with me) said he had to admit I’d been right.

        • Non-sequiturs, meaningless anecdotes, baseless comparisons and meaningless historical asides. Yes, thinking skills do matter. Any young person in one of your classes is at risk of contracting a contagious sophistry that will infect him for a decade, give or take an encounter with reality.

        • Well, that makes one…
          Cherry-picking much?

        • Hoping to head off into Iraq (again) are we?

        • Seems to me a guy with any sense of history would appreciate that all democracies start out pretty “nominal”.
          That would include us, and a lot of your broad observations would apply to about any democracy I can call to mind when in its formative stages.

        • Erb: Of course, you leave out all that you got wrong and you contrast with only the rosiest neocon hopes for Iraq.

          I don’t remember anyone here arguing the neocon case you present. My neocon brief for the Iraq War is pretty well summed up in Joint Resolution and all the polls of Iraqis who consistently said the Iraq War was worth it. Iraq isn’t perfect and it’s still early in the game to sum it up — as you did — as the greatest foreign policy blunder in the US history.

          BTW, you still owe us some crow eating for that other great testament to your critical thinking — your prediction that:

          Actually, I think the Republicans who see the house as likely to go GOP are engaged in wishful thinking. 

          Turn out it was your wishful thinking and your smugness as usual.

          Have some crow, professor.

          • I’ve done that twice already, Huxley, in previous comment sections (or maybe three times), but if you didn’t see it, I’ll do it again.  I was wrong about the political direction of the country earlier this year, you and others were right, you read the political mood of the country much better than me, and your predictions were right.

          • Erb: Frankly I would like to see the links to your “I was wrong” posts. I don’t attend all the posts at QandO and I may have missed whatever you might have said.
            I do notice that you show up for wrist-slapping when you imagine you are right. I’m not impressed by what you say, but thanks in this instance.
            Do you ever suppose that your missteps might go beyond you reading of the “political direction of the country this year” to something more global? In this blog you have gotten quite a lot terribly wrong, even though it is your area of career expertise. (Me, I’m a software engineer.) Yet you are repeatedly present yourself as someone  in the know, even though you are dead wrong again and again.

    • I think weekly writing assignments are better than big midterms

      One of the best under-grad courses I had was Con-Law 498.  In it, we only had two tests – a mid-term and a final.  We knew this going in.  An hour and a half twice a week we had to do the required reading (and supplemental reading was highly recommended).  We sat in a circle and discussed the topics covered in the readings with the prof leading things.   (I’ll note that all twelve of us also sat for the LSATs).
      As you acknowledged Scott, students will take the easiest path available – I dont know how you actually teach, but if you are teaching upper level courses, you  might be teaching down to your students.   I will admit that in the real sciences, daily/weekly testing is invaluable.

      • When I teach honors courses (I’m doing one now “Consumerism, Politics and Values,” I do pretty much what you describe, except they write a few thought papers and do/present research.  Still half the grade is based on participation/discussion, and that’s where the real learning takes place.  The problem is when you have unmotivated students or larger classes.      I also find that even upper level students need work on writing, research and public presentation skills.

        • Still half the grade is based on participation/discussion, and that’s where the real learning takes place.

          Perhaps in you view.  For me, the real learning came because I realized that there were 11 other very intelligent and highly motivated colleagues that I had to be prepared for if I had a chance of competing.  No Scott, the learning did not occur in the discussion/participation period, my learning occurred in preparation for that period.

          The problem is when you have unmotivated students or larger classes.

          Which is why I said way above that perhaps too many folks are attending university these days.  Larger classes are a problem, but only when you get into the upper level.   If the subject does not entice those students in the “survey” level courses – or they refuse to recognize that this is a basic that they have better well learn –  perhaps they should not even be in university.  A responsible university would dis-enroll them.  But far too many schools of higher learning encourage them to continue; keep the income rolling (lefty heads might explode upon learning that their precious institutions have to live within a real world economic system).

  • “that courses (such as the liberal arts) which require heavy loads of reading and writing also help develop those skills.”

    Just what else can they be doing?

    “one has to be able to analyze a situation, state a conclusion, and explain why it’s superior to other possible interpretations of the evidence.”

    That means your students are screwed.

    “as a small “working class” university we don’t have the kind of academic elite air that prestigious universities or research schools have”

    First of all, most definitions of the word ‘university’ include a graduate school, as opposed to ‘college’ which does not. I guess accuracy is not part of critical thinking in Maine.

  • “Students who majored in the traditional liberal arts — including the social sciences, humanities, natural sciences and mathematics — showed significantly greater gains over time than other students in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills.”

    That’s a pretty broad category. I also notice that engineering is absent. Having taken a number of social science courses at five  different ‘universities’ (to use the Maine definition) including some who have actual graduate schools, I doubt that they contribute much to the gains. The arguments were kind of fun but mainly showed a definite lack of critical thinking and a marked aversion to the wrong (non PC) questions. 

    • The very basis of engineering is “critical thinking”.

    • Note the specific wording – “showed significantly greater gains”.  Without reading the source study, we can’t tell what the starting points were.  It’s entirely possible that the liberal arts students showed greater gains because they were starting at a lower point than the science students.

    • I had wondered about the inclusion of mathematics in the category “liberal arts”.  If there weren’t so few math majors, I’d posit that the math majors’ gains in critical thinking might have made up for the lack of critical thinking skills in the rest of the students they were averaged with.
      You learn pretty dang quick the difference between fact and opinion when you get 1/4 credit for a proof because you made your only minor logical error 1/4 of the way down the page.

    • Note that it’s not just math, also natural sciences…
      Social sciences = psychology, sociology, etc.
      Natural sciences = physics, chemistry, biology, etc.
      As someone who went to a large public university and majored in engineering, I can tell you that the school’s natural science and math majors were *NOWHERE* near the School of Liberal Arts.  In fact, they were part of an entirely different School of Science (I’m hazy on whether math was officially part of that one or fit elsewhere).

      As soon as I read the sentence grouping those into liberal arts, I was suspicious.

      • Ah.  Well if you include all the science majors in addition to math majors, then yeah, I’d guess they’d be numerous enough to bring up the average a bit.  😉

    • Students who majored in the traditional liberal arts — including the social sciences, humanities, natural sciences and mathematics — showed significantly greater gains over time than other students in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills.
      That’s an unfortunate breakdown. It wouldn’t surprise me if the social sciences and humanities came in dead last and were carried by the natureal sciences and math.

  • When did “Critical Thinking” shift away from it’s historical emphasis of “…making critical distinctions while following concrete-> abstract logic”?

  • I believe it can be demonstrated that education has steadily declined in the U.S. since roughly WWII.
    There appears to be a negative correlation between Federal money/control and quality.
    This would, sort of necessarily, ramify across the board.
    I also believe that the Collective likes stupid.
    Insists on it, in fact.

  • “They will surely shape discussions about curriculum and campus life for years to come.”
    Yes, and congratulating themselves on a job well done.

  • SharpshooterThe very basis of engineering is “critical thinking”.

    Yeah, I was thinking along the same lines: how did students in the physical sciences / engineering / mathematics fare?  Pretty well, I’m guessing: the fact that these courses of study involve quite a lot of “only one right answer” rather forces the students to be intellectually rigorous.

    I don’t wish to tar with too broad a brush as I had some excellent liberals arts professors who would rip to shreds an argument that wasn’t well-supported by facts, but, in general, I would say that the “hard” courses are the ones that are most likely to teach critical thinking skills.

    Phil SmithCritical thinking is a challenge to ideology in general, since ideologies are prescriptive rather than descriptive.

    I think that this is an excellent point.  The conventional wisdom when I was in college was that, in many courses, one merely had to figure out what the professor wanted to hear and pitch it back to him to get a good grade.  I’m sure that it hasn’t gotten any better.

    RagspierreI believe it can be demonstrated that education has steadily declined in the U.S. since roughly WWII.  There appears to be a negative correlation between Federal money/control and quality.

    I suggest that there are greater (though related) causes:

    1.  Liberalism, that dictates that achievement is discouraged / punished as one student doing well means another student did less well, which can be attributed to racism or sexism and at any rate is damaging to self-esteem (which, after all, is what the education system is supposed to enhance / sarc);

    2.  Sheer numbers of students due to the “education fetish” that has increasingly dominated our country.  It’s gotten so that one needs at least an associates degree to wash dishes (mostly because a high school diploma isn’t worth squat; see (1) above).  Large numbers of students require larger faculties, and that means that the quality of the professors must decline; every school can’t have Nobel-winners on the faculty;

    3.  College has become a racket.  Schools compete to get tuition money, and students are more likely to stay in a school that’s “easy” than one that is hard even if they aren’t outright kicked out for poor academic performance.  Professors also compete for tenure, and they are more likely to get it if their class averages are higher rather than lower.

    The pernicious hand of the state (federal and state) can be seen in all these things, of course.  If the government didn’t make it its business to see to it that schools are “fair” or that “no child is left behind”, then we wouldn’t have these problems.

    • doc, I see your post as an elaboration of the effects of the cause I named.
      We know that when you subsidized ANYTHING, you get a surplus.  This applies to people holding a college degree.
      We know that controlling prices nets you perverse responses in the market, like a dive in quality.
      We know that imposing a third-party payer into transactions also results in perverse effects, including rocketing charges, poor service, non-competitive performance, etc.
      Refer back to Obama’s  SOTUS last.  The man said contradictory things in the same paragraph on college education, which is a trait of his speeches.

    • ” every school can’t have Nobel-winners on the faculty”

      Who needs them? Winning a Nobel doesn’t mean they can teach which is supposed to be the function of a school. Judging from my experiences the actual education of students is a low priority in the education establishment. Building an empire (for administrators) and a reputation through publishing papers and research (for professors) is much more important. 

  • There is many a slip ‘twixt the hardwired logical insight  of human beings and the fully formed (or malformed) products of mature reason, but chances are better than not that any time spent at an American university, whatever they are or are not teaching, will produce in four years something that will take an additional twelve years to overcome, at minimum.

    I doubt that there is a school system or university in this country that is not a hundred years behind, and receding further at an accelerating pace, at any capacity to establish conceptual clarity and clear integration of concepts. The universities in particular are deathtraps for all but those who need advanced math and hard sciences, and even there it’s getting risky.

    There are exceptions here and there, but most of it is sorry, sorry stuff.

  • Elementary my dear Watson. If you train young people to think critically, they would soon recognize the insanity of the way our Government is being run (that’s both sides / three branches of said government) and would soon right that wrong. So to keep the taxes and votes coming you need sufficiently docile sheep to run the farm, smart enough to work & pay lots of taxes, but not so smart they figure out a way out of the pen they reside in.

  • You cannot teach “critical thinking” in college. If a person does not already have that training by age 14-17, he cannot learn it. This reminds me of the ethics courses pushed on MBA programs. You cannot teach ethics to someone older than 12. If you don’t have a firm moral and ethical foundation by age 12, if you have to think about what the ethical thing to do is, then you will never act accordingly.

    • There are formal logical principles that can be taught academically that could or should produce a more evenly systematic approach to formal thinking. What you’re saying is that people either learn how to think at a much younger age or they never learn. I agree with that, but I see something more sinister at work in schools and universities.

      To wit, most people learn to think naturally with the basic equipment available to them, and these naturally developed skills work rather well with a series of universal premises that are culturally transmitted by parents and family, but this capacity is systematically undone by modern schooling, such that by the time a student arrives at a university he is ready for a thoroughgoing indoctrination in anti-thought. Reality, reason, and above all traditional values — the soundest array of universal premises — are undermined and essentially discarded in favor of a series of ideological filters that create politically correct attitudes, which are amputated thoughts. The environments at universities are so thick with it that even an honest kid is going to come away fundamentally damaged. And it happens fast. It doesn’t take much more than a semester or two for the bad concepts to sink in. Parents, used to seeing their kids corrupted by their public school experience but often helpless to do anything about it, are often blown away by what they get back from the university, often as early as that first Thanksgiving break, though for some the program takes longer to grab hold.

      Robert Conquest coined a term that described what happened under Communism that I think works for this: Mindslaughter.

      • 100%
        One professor told me that there was no “faith-based” system that approached undergrad college courses.  That is true, even for the hard sciences.  I mean, you COULD prove a lot of what you are being taught, but who DOES?
        I had an organic chem professor who had the integrity to tell us the models he was teaching were known to be flawed, but they were the best he could offer us.

    • I’m not so sure.  While I think that people’s habits of thought are pretty well developed by the teen years, a good education (whether in the classroom or the more unforgiving environment of a tough job) can teach logical thinking skills well into life.  Consider how many spoiled, empty-headed teens go on to become good, rational decision-makers in the military, for example.

      We’ve done so much to make our lives risk- (and even offense-) free that people don’t HAVE to have good critical thinking skills.  “Yeah, I got a ARM on a house that costs more than I’ll make in the next twenty years because I thought the realtor was nice.  So?  It’s not like anything bad can happen, is it?”

      • “We’ve done so much to make our lives risk- (and even offense-) free that people don’t HAVE to have good critical thinking skills. ”
        Thank you, that was my thinking as well.  Positive reinforcement for critical thought isn’t forthcoming , and negative reinforcement still occurs, it just doesn’t happen to them frequently enough in a time slice that allows them to draw a correlation between “failure to think” and “effect of failure to think”.

  • Yeah, I’d second that, too.  I see…WAY too often…people who never really get CAUSE >>>> EFFECT relationships.
    This is often, IMNHO, the result of being “protected” by various actors that MAY be well-intended, but frequently are wrecking great harm in the lives of people.  We learn a lot of lessons the hard way in life…some of the most critical, I think…when we are exposed to CONSEQUENCE.
    Another factor is the amount of pure, unadulterated BS that has gained such coinage in our society…LIES that the Collective very carefully creates and propagates.  These are often accepted as fundamental premises, upon which all conclusions will be based in important part (i.e., self-interest is “greed”).

    • “Another factor is the amount of pure, unadulterated BS that has gained such coinage in our society…LIES that the Collective very carefully creates and propagates.”
      Saw an example of that last night – new TV show…something about a woman who’s a mediator – one of the (several) story lines was of a guy who’d been in a car wreck(with a hooker driving, which to me didn’t change the crime….).  They are run off the road because the driver (does it matter which?) reacts to a couple of kids pulled up next to them, one of whom waves a gun at them.  Driver swerves, looses control, hits off ramp barrier.   Kids are arrested because someone else saw the accident and got the plate.
      Okay.  Storyline goes that the passenger, kid waving the gun, is a baddy, BUT!!!! ladies and gentlemen, the kid DRIVING, his cousin,  is essentially a ‘good kid’, and he has a scholarship to YALE!  And he has no record, and etc etc etc.   So, we’re supposed to suddenly feel sympathy for him, and let him off the hook.   My first thought was – okay, so he’s a good kid….why is he driving next to these people long enough to let his partner in the passenger seat wave a gun at them? ( the scene shows them next to the car in an extended, racing type pass – that is, passenger parallel to driver window for longer than normal if they were really just ‘passing’ them).
      So, to me, the kid driving has exercised a choice to pace the car that the passenger threatened with his pistol.  I say he’s as responsible for the wreck as his passenger at that point.   I didn’t watch (couldn’t bear to) the show to the end, but I bet the ‘good kid’ got off, because, after all, he had a scholarship to Yale….

  • Huxley,  I posted this here:
    “My specialization is International Relations and European politics.   When it comes to American politics, I claim no expertise, though I have a colleague who I often pepper with questions about Maine and US politics.     I have always tried to focus on the issues and treat people here (and elsewhere) with respect.  If I haven’t done that, I apologize.   I don’t mean this as an insult, but I honestly think it’s the fact that I don’t get bothered by the insults and I’m pretty effective at arguing a different perspective than yours is what annoys many of you.  I also think you’d prefer your opponents to be angry, lashing out insults, and not trying to find some common ground.
    I do agree I should have come back and congratulated you.   I have been working on a big project (reflected in some recent blog postings of my own) that is going to take awhile — I also taught an overload last semester.   I purposefully limited any political blogging to avoid time drain.  I stuck to my own blog and a few others, avoiding ALL intensely partisan blogs.  I would check in time to time to see your take on an issue, but wanted to avoid doing what I’m doing now and spending time responding.  I figured you’d appreciate it.   But yes, it should have occurred to me to come back after the election, I apologize, and commend you for accurately and with foresight understanding the political environment much better than I did.    You can think I’m a dishonest wimp if you want, but I wasn’t thinking about Q&O much at the time.”
    And this was part of a comment here:
    “OK, if I’m going to post anything else here, first things first: I was wrong in thinking the GOP would not win so many seats, something I promised I’d say.  I’ll go further and say I think it was good they won the House.”
    I thought there might be one more, but I didn’t find it.   I really have no problem admitting when I’m wrong, it would be the height of insecurity if someone couldn’t do that.

  • This whole discussion has been very much worth reading, but I would really like to see the survey broken down by individual colleges or areas of study, since I’m pretty sure that colleges of engineering would would show drastically different numbers than the colleges of English Lit. or education.
    All of the non hard science areas don’t require that theories or ideas actually work in the real world.  This is why Scott Erb’s contention that students doing lots of writing helps with their critical thinking skills.  Earth to Erb: Paul Krugman has been writing for a long time and even has a Nobel prize.  Krugman’s writings on economics is proven to be so much garbage.   As long as Krugman is in a job that insulates him from the consequences, he can go on writing the things he writes, and lefties who like him can go on imagining that he’s brilliant.
    This also explains why you can have two different psychiatrists in a court of law contradicting each other, and all the jury has to go on is their gut instinct as to who to believe.  But when it comes to physical evidence, most of the time it needs very little interpretation.
    When you start with faulty premises, all of your conclusions are madness.
    I helped an ex-wife get her master’s degree in education.  She was flummoxed to the point of tears at the start of the course.  I simply read her text books, explained the basics of what the authors’ theories were, helped her write her papers as amalgamations of those theories re-worded to suit her professors.  The books were lengthy droning passages about rubrics and “best-practices” and other nonsensical crap about education theory that she couldn’t make sense of, and didn’t see any application in her 5th grade classroom.  But all I had to do was regurgitate the crap from her textbooks for several pages and she got an A.  Oh, and a $28,000 per year raise.
    Absolutely nothing else changed in her classroom.
    While I’m not sure on the exact timing, it seems that prior to the 1950s there were debate competitions even in the high schools.  Now they don’t even exist in colleges.  No one is being challenged or learning to challenge other ideas with logic and reason.  Liberal arts colleges have simply become an echo chamber for leftist ideas.
    I took a speech class and chose the topic of gun control and when I delivered my speech, it was as if I could see some heads coming very close to exploding.  All of the invective directed at me was based on emotion and no one wanted to discuss the statistics or basic human behavior, or criminal behavior.

    • I came into possesion of a textbook  used in education classes. I even managed to read part of it. It justified every accusation of anti-western, ultra left-wing bias ever made. Not much use in learning how to teach, but it sure was useful to advance the radical agenda.

      I must put in a good word for the study of Eng. Lit. in regards to teaching critical thinking. I doubt that you could take a course requiring more reading than a ‘Great Books’class. A real budget buster, even with paperbacks. Most of the courses I have seen, after the obligatory Composition and intro. classes, were all about analyzing and reasoning. I have taken a number of ‘Blue Book’ essay tests and they all  required  more critical thinking than a whole semester of social science courses.  

    • Writing skills are important for job preparation; in learning critical thinking, they are useful as a way to give feedback and show where improvements can be made.   As a former high school debater, I agree that it is a very useful (and fun) exercise.  I believe college debate still exists, but last I heard, it had been taken over by ‘spread debating’ – very fast talk trying to overwhelm the other side with evidence (but not persuasive logic).  I hope that trend faded.
      Yet debates and intense discussions still exist in college courses, and textbooks are becoming passe.   I don’t think a masters in education — a professional degree — really compares.  I have no reason to doubt she had that experience, I’d prefer classroom teachers have more content and less about rubrics and methods.
      Math and science students often find themselves needing to develop critical thinking skills when they first take social science courses.   They are used to there being a clear and discernible right and wrong answer, and tend to think in those terms.    Critical thinking entails dealing with a situation of uncertainty.  Depending on your assumptions and methods very different answers emerge, and none of them can be proven “right.”   The task then is to determine which is the most persuasive (most likely right, or at least closer to the truth) and why.   From there, one has to figure out what other evidence or information could be sought that could help expand the analysis.   But a lot of people have real trouble with uncertainty.  They want a clear right answer, objective and something they can grab on to and know is right.   Learning to deal with that is key for solid critical thinking skills.

      • Math and science students often find themselves needing to develop critical thinking skills when they first take social science courses.

        If they’re like I was, they are not at all bothered by ambiguity or contention, but are amused at the non-technical students’ limited ability to approach problems.  I’m still not fooled into believing that social “sciences” are all about a rational, skeptical way to seek answers—for some fields, it’s about deciding on the conclusion, then structuring the analysis to get that answer, tossing in scientific jargon to try to snow the reader.  I was spared the necessity to take any Poli “Sci” classes, though I’ve seen endless examples of sloppy, muddled thinking from so-called experts (even those a few notches above your pay grade).  It could be anecdotal, but I found a link several years ago to a doctoral thesis.  The person linking to it simply suggested that one pick a random page and start reading.  It was truly pathetic to realize that this person was walking around with the title of doctor.
        Psychology was probably the best class I took.  It was tough because of the amount of material (plus the high female to male ratio of the class made it difficult to pay attention the whole hour).  And, while there were examples of topics in which researchers went far astray from science (e.g., Freud), one could find plenty of topics in which data and analysis were very rigid (so long as you didn’t draw overly broad conclusions from the results).
        Anthropology was my favorite, though much of it involved trying to guess what had happened.  I loved the subject matter so much so that the Professor tried to talk me into changing majors.
        My differential equations classroom was used by a business mathematics course before us.  We had great fun thumbing through their textbook when someone left one behind.  Instead of using straightforward concepts like first derivative of a curve, the textbook used some silly explanation to avoid scaring the mathphobes who switched to business degrees because they couldn’t handle calculus.
        While there were a few communist sympathizers on the faculty, the only professor I had who was a CP member was a defector from Yugoslavia, who taught discreet computational structures.  There wasn’t much room in the curriculum there to inject political bias.
        But the notion that the math and science geeks have trouble in the social “sciences” because of unresolved questions and intractable problems?  That’s silly.  Look up the concept of NP-complete.  Basically, we can do your work but you can’t do ours.

        • Eliot, you’re absolutely right that the biggest danger in social science is the tendency to search for results to fit ones’ bias.   That’s because of the problems of complexity and perspective.   The problem of perspective is that we are all biased, and we all interpret reality through our biases — that’s why equally intelligent and honest people can have very different political perspectives, they interpret the evidence to fit their pre-existing beliefs.  Social science should be about overcoming those biases, but the problem of complexity — that we have a multi-causal world with often no capacity to run controlled experiments — works against that.  People can choose which variables to focus upon, and how to interpret them.   In politics, most people simply take the path of least resistance — choose to focus on the variables that best fit their beliefs, and interpret them through their pre-existing belief system.   That reduces cognitive dissonance and allows one to believe they understand the world.    Too many social scientists fall into that trap.  That’s why the core of any social  science must be critical thinking, starting first and foremost with honest and REAL critical thought about ones’ own beliefs.  When one starts with the idea they already have it right (worse, when they see this as a moral stance), then they are almost certain to fall into the trap of motivated bias to reduce cognitive dissonance.   And yes, that happens a lot in the academic world.   I’ve also talked about that in relation to intellectuals and ideology.

          • That’s flabby blabber, Scott: Flabber.

            The world is not one big cannibal pot of perspectives and biases. There are ground values and explicitly sound methods and fixed truths. People like you deny them, ignore them, play peekaboo with them, and continuously violate them. For instance, you are seemingly unaware that virtually all of your arguments are riddled with informal fallacies, top to bottom, which are in their essence misdirection. Therein, somewhere, the source of your endless repetitive loops, the narcissistic goofy face that your “training” takes you back to over and over again. It’s what the staff parodist here parodies.