This is part of an occasional series on "How To Succeed in College." For previous posts click on the author's name above.
Not long ago and fairly far away one of a leading university’s best students told me that he and his peers got good grades without actually reading the books assigned for the course.
I’ve been around a while, but I retain my ability to be shocked. Meanwhile, his observation was reinforced by the publication of a new book, Academically Adrift: Limiting Learning on College Campuses, by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa (University of Chicago Press), a book that should rock the academic world, but probably won’t. They base their findings on a study of 2,000 students in 24 four-year- colleges across the country and conclude that among the several reasons for American colleges falling behind in world competition is that the students can’t write. Indeed, it is possible to get a degree in business or education, two of the most popular majors, without doing much writing at all.
Writing matters because it is one of the means of measuring so many other things: whether the student can express anything he or she is supposed to have learned, the quality and depth of one’s thinking, the ability to understand and analyze a text or a personal or political situation, the breadth of one’s imagination — all qualities which the liberal arts are supposed to instill and are needed to survive and prosper in a competitive world. To put it nicely, if you don’t write well you are not deemed to be intelligent.
Measuring the writing assignments in two majors at 10 public four-year colleges, out of 40 courses required for a business degree, only 3.5 required 10-19 pages of writing during the whole semester. Among education majors, with 41 courses required, only 5.9 met that quota. At Lamar University a management major takes only two courses that require more than 20 pages, and at Texas A & M, no bilingual education courses require more than 20 pages. In a 14 week semester, that’s only 1.4 pages a week of writing!
The education statistics are particularly disturbing, both because they add to the general impression that education majors get more A's than other students and their courses are a lot easier. Having been evaluated by low standards some will have lower standards when they enter classrooms as teachers. How many papers will they assign? The management professors were possibly taught by professors who lectured out of a big text book and did not assign a lot of writing. They will do the same.
The second most startling, but not surprising, revelation from the study is how little students study. Writing can improve only in a perticular context: an intellectual atmosphere in which the students are reading heavily, spending time in solitude working on their essays, receiving immediate feedback from their teachers, and acting on that feedback to produce good prose.
But the students in the survey reported spending in average 12.15 hours a week studying outside the classroom. As a matter of fact the general rule for study time is that one should study two hours for every hour spend in the classroom. So, one taking five three-credit courses should buckle down in the library 30 hours a week. Yet, one third of the respondents spent fewer than five hours a week with their books.
What has this to do with writing? Everything. In my composition course last year some students could not tell then from than, were from where. Why? Because they had never seen them in print. But, they exclaimed, “My high school teacher said I was a wonderful writer and gave me A's.” That’s part of the problem. The other part is that they had not read the great stylists who use the language beautifully—Thoreau, George Orwell, Joan Didion, Ernest Hemingway, and E. B. White—and incorporated their powers of observation and simplicity of style into their student work.
This presupposes teachers who read a lot, know good writing from bad, are not intimidated out of assigning lots of reading, want to inspire young writers with good examples, and try to write and publish their own work. How can you teach if you don’t try to do it yourself?
Raymond A. Schroth, S.J.