Susan D. Blum, a professor of anthropology at Notre Dame, has written a fascinating and stark study of higher education.
The short answer for why so many young people dislike college is that it’s too much like school and not enough like learning.
The artifice of school has displaced our natural love of collaborative learning and shared exploration, she contends. School is more like an assembly line or an obstacle course than a sandbox or canvas.
At the same time, most professors love school not because of any intellectual superiority, but because they have succeeded at school despite the way in which it circumscribes learning and sucks the joy out of it. Putting them in charge makes a bad system worse.
In one of the most penetrating sections of book, Blum lays out a schematic of higher education’s component parts — including how students are admitted, how courses are designed, and how grades are assigned. Taken by themselves many aspects of higher ed seem curious or even irrational, but Blum’s point is to illustrate how interconnected everything is. That makes even small changes unlikely, and it makes radical departures from the norm nearly impossible. Moreover, the greatest obstacle to fixing school, we could add, might come from students, who have been so corrupted by the system that they resist any deviation from standard procedures, even ones that are exciting or beneficial.
Blum offers little in the way of prescriptions, she admits, but does list a number of small interventions that can make school a little more prone to learning, including team- and project-based assignments, gamification, and real audiences for writing (through blogs, etc). Having students exposed to material before class (“flipping”) allows class time to be devoted to higher-level skills and more active learning. Instructors can also use contract grading and portfolios to minimize the fetish for grades over feedback.
Students are also more likely to learn when the subject matter speaks to them. Simply put, “the more learning in school resembles the successful learning that is so abundant outside school, the greater the chance that some learning will take place.”
Some might question Blum’s method, which is a bit narrow. She’s well steeped in the research and writing on higher education, but her data is mostly limited to students at Notre Dame. On the other hand, if her findings are accurate there — that is, at an institution where the percentage of successful students is relatively high — it’s probably even truer elsewhere.
The book seems a little disjointed and meandering and maybe more like a journal than a book at times. But what it lacks in structure it makes up for in accessibility and engagement. Any full-time teacher will immediately understand where Blum is coming from and be able to follow her journey from a eager but frustrated teacher to one that understands her students well enough to meet them where they are.