Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Does College Make You Smarter?

Professor C. Kent McGuire, the former dean of the Temple University College of Education, is the president of the Southern Education Foundation. He recently wrote a piece in the New York Times that caught my eye. Actually what caught my eye was the more sensationalist heading that I borrowed above. I believe Professor McGuire used a much more accurate title: “A Different Type of Student”, but I, like the NY Times, wanted to catch your eye.

“We should be careful about reaching definitive conclusions on the quality of undergraduate education from a study that uses a single outcome measure, the Collegiate Learning Assessment. Our diverse higher education marketplace claims to produce a wide range of outcomes which in fairness, require multiple forms of assessment. That said, “Academically Adrift” is in fact, a story about the slow pace of curricular change, a story about the status of teaching in higher education and ultimately a story about today’s college student and there is a lot to this story.

College curriculums need to adapt to today’s students, who have competing responsibilities and receive information in many ways.”

This quote just about sums up his article in which he recognizes that the millennial student is very different to the student of even two decades ago. He goes on to explain:

A bigger challenge is the nature of teaching in the academy. Today’s student lives in a world of hyper-connectivity and information exchange. They receive their information in five-minute episodes and it comes in many modalities — sound, text, video. The typical college classroom is a stand and deliver environment that does not foster engagement, interaction or exchange. We might wish today’s student could tolerate this dated approach to instruction. But even if they could, the lives many lead do not conform to our conception of the traditional student. Setting aside the most selective schools and colleges, many fewer students are full-time. Many more are financially independent, work while attending school and have competing responsibilities at home. This is just to suggest that we are working increasingly with students who face competing demands for their time and attention.”

I understand the professor’s point. I work with students at the San Francisco Hillel Jewish Student Center. We have spent the past few years seeking creative ways to engage students and have done this successfully with rising numbers of Jewish students and their friends attending events. However, we have clearly fed off of their “five-minute sound bite” expectation. Today we are seeking ways in which to add “depth” to the “breadth.”

The question is, can we teach higher learning in such a form? And should, in fact,  academic institutions adapt to the students or the other way around? Love to hear your view.


Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com



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2 thoughts on “Does College Make You Smarter?

  1. As the world’s most experienced student (ugh) I can tell you there are real and maybe unexpected differenced between undergrad and graduate college education in America. Most undergraduate degrees are very broad surveys, in fact, most schools have some sort of “breadth” requirements – so that a math major might learn something about history and how to write an essay, for example. In graduate school, there is phenomenal pressure to narrow down to something ridiculously small, like the relationship between two specific neurons involved in a particular reflex action in the California Sea Slug. If you think I’m joking, that’s exactly what I studied for three years.

    To me it seems there is little in between. Many authors in my current field, let’s call it international sustainable development, call for a broader graduate education – one that includes ecology, planning, economics, policy, governance, agriculture, natural resources, and maybe even business.

    But a person with a broad education will find it incredibly difficult to get a job. Our entire academic-professional culture needs to change in order to bring about greater function toward desirable ends, rather than placing new graduates on the same old hamster wheel – the only hamster wheel in town.

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