Episode CCXLV of The American Political Melodrama: David Brooks on The Crisis in The Academy

David Brooks begins his latest essay of April 19,2012 Testing The Teachers by sounding a pathetically melodramatic note, that deserves full quotation, awash in purple as it is:

There’s an atmosphere of grand fragility hanging over America’s colleges. The grandeur comes from the surging application rates, the international renown, the fancy new dining and athletic facilities. The fragility comes from the fact that colleges are charging more money, but it’s not clear how much actual benefit they are providing.”

This opening paragraph would seem to compel a reader to think that American colleges are in a state of crisis by reason of the facts, as argued by Mr. Brooks, that they are not educating students. The next paragraphs provides confirmation of the his argument, sans the melodrama, but seemingly the ‘facts’.


Colleges are supposed to produce learning. But, in their landmark study, “Academically Adrift,” Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa found that, on average, students experienced a pathetic seven percentile point gain in skills during their first two years in college and a marginal gain in the two years after that. The exact numbers are disputed, but the study suggests that nearly half the students showed no significant gain in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills during their first two years in college.”


Here from the Chronicle of Higher Education is an essay by Kevin Corey titled Academically Adrift : The News Gets Worse and Worse to shed some light on the contested territory of their test instrument and sample population, etc.

In part, it says that the public harbored a latent distrust of higher education that was activated by empirical evidence that supported their suspicions. After all, a lot of people have been to college and have experienced the academic indifference and lack of rigor that Arum and Roksa documented firsthand.

It also shows what happens when there’s a mismatch between the importance and complexity of a question and the amount of research designed to answer it. In many ways, the most shocking thing about Academically Adrift was not what it revealed about what college students learn. It was that nobody had ever attempted to measure learning in that way before.

As responsible scholars, the authors were careful to interpret their findings in ways that emphasized the limitations of their instruments and sample population. But they couldn’t control what happened after their research entered the zeitgeist. And the lack of other credible studies providing alternate perspectives on college learning meant that, in the national higher-education conversation, Academically Adrift became the only game in town.”

The Conservative attack on the Academy has been consistent since such polemics as The Closing of The American Mind and Tenured Radicals, the suspicion raised by that and other forms of attack on higher education are manifested in Mr. Brooks’ polemic. In his ranting he imitates the voice of the parent who demands to know why his child hasn’t performed, as expected, given his generosity of money. Mr. Brooks carefully exploits that not so latent suspicion of academic malfeasance, disguised as a concern for the faltering of an essential institution. For confirmation of the conservative war on higher education see Christopher Newfield’s Unmaking The Public University: The Forty Year Assault on the Middle Class. Here is another telling paragraph from the Kevin Corey essay:

Last month the authors released new results that should only add to our national worries about higher education. While press coverage of Academically Adrift focused mostly on learning among typical students, the data actually show two distinct populations of undergraduates. Some students, disproportionately from privileged backgrounds, matriculate well prepared for college. They are given challenging work to do and respond by learning a substantial amount in four years.”

Please read Mr. Corey’s complete essay as a necessary corrective to Mr. Brooks’ carefully massaged propaganda. Mr. Corey simply argues that Academically Adrift is the unsteady starting point in what should be the beginning of a process of an honest, forthright self-evaluation, that is the duty of republican actors in pursuit of a necessary public virtue, the shaping via education of the next generation. Also see this Wikipedia entry on the Spellings Commission report for another more nuanced perspective, although it is dated. I’ve chosen to respond to portions of Mr. Brooks’ essay that concern Academically Adrift and the Spellings Commission Report, because information on both are readily available for anyone who has an internet connection and even a modicum of intellectual curiosity and an active dissatisfaction with Mr. Brooks’ carefully garnished conservative opinionating. But also because these are the two pillars of his argument, and the rest mere confirmation of the notion of crisis, that he so cheerfully exploits in his essay.

Political Observer



About stephenkmacksd

Rootless cosmopolitan,down at heels intellectual;would be writer. 'Polemic is a discourse of conflict, whose effect depends on a delicate balance between the requirements of truth and the enticements of anger, the duty to argue and the zest to inflame. Its rhetoric allows, even enforces, a certain figurative licence. Like epitaphs in Johnson’s adage, it is not under oath.' https://www.lrb.co.uk/v15/n20/perry-anderson/diary
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