Freshmen and seniors at about 200 colleges across the U.S. take a little-known test every year to measure how much better they get at learning to think. The results are discouraging.
At more than half of schools, at least a third of seniors were unable to make a cohesive argument, assess the quality of evidence in a document or interpret data in a table, The Wall Street Journal found after reviewing the latest results from dozens of public colleges and universities that gave the exam between 2013 and 2016. …At some of the most prestigious flagship universities, test results indicate the average graduate shows little or no improvement in critical thinking over four years. . . .
Some academic experts, education researchers and employers say the Journal’s findings are a sign of the failure of America’s higher-education system to arm graduates with analytical reasoning and problem-solving skills needed to thrive in a fast-changing, increasingly global job market. In addition, rising tuition, student debt and loan defaults are putting colleges and universities under pressure to prove their value.
What’s the other side saying, that the results are cooked? That critical thinking is over-rated or a sexist, racist, xenophobic construct? How can any objective individual who has followed the news, listened to activists babble incoherently on campuses like Dartmouth, Yale, Columbia, University of Missouri and hundreds of others, been aware of higher ed apocalypse stories like this one , or notice that the overwhelming majority of college students enthusiastically supported the fact-, math-, economics-, foreign policy-, history-and Constitution- challenged candidacy of Bernie Sanders be surprised at these findings? They aren’t even new.
The scam that is U.S. higher education poisons the American dream in too many ways to count. 50% of employers say that college graduates they hire aren’t ready for the workplace because of inadequate critical-reasoning skills. Yet virtually every institution cites this as the prime benefit of paying it a king’s ransom for four years, with brochure proclamations like…
“The university seeks to foster in all its students lifelong habits of careful observation, critical thinking, creativity, moral reflection and articulate expression.”
“… University fosters intellectual inquiry and critical thinking, preparing graduates who will serve as effective, ethical leaders and engaged citizens.”
“The college provides students with the knowledge, critical-thinking skills and creative experience they need to navigate in a complex global environment.”
“At most schools in this country, students basically spend four years in college, and they don’t necessarily become better thinkers and problem solvers,” said Josipa Roksa, a University of Virginia sociology professor who co-wrote a book in 2011 about the CLA+ test, that littel-known test the Wall street Journal referred to. . “Employers are going to hire the best they can get, and if we don’t have that, then what is at stake in the long run is our ability to compete.”
Even the arguments used to defend college lack evidence of critical thinking. Today’s New York Times special Higher Ed section highlights this quote:
“The reality is that someone who has a college degree compared to someone who doesn’t makes a million dollars more in their lifetime.”
This tells us that universities are relying on the lack of critical thinking skills of their graduates to sneak deceitful statements like this into the public’s conventional wisdom. It tells us, or should, that newspaper editors are either short of critical thinking skills themselves, or that the news media is intentionally bolstering its ideological allies in higher education at the expense of public knowledge.:
1. All that statement shows is that there is a vicious bias making a college degree a work and income credential without a diploma necessarily meaning what it claims to mean. It is a circular argument: college is good because employers require a degree as a credential because they assume it means what colleges say it means, and colleges say it means that so it will be a required credential.
2. The relevant studies show that the average college grad will make a million more dollars over the course of his or her lifetime than the average non-college grad. This is because the pool of non-college grads, as a group, are poorer, less well-educated thorough high school, are more likely not have stayed in school at all, and are less talented, intelligent, healthy, and attractive than the pool of college grads. That is not what the Times statement says, however.
3. There is no evidence that the same intelligent, talented, motivated and able individual who graduates from college will make a million more dollars over his or her lifetime than that individual would have in the alternate universe where he or she did not go to college.
4. The college-going twin will have massive debt to deal with, however.
Widespread belief in the deceptive New York Times statement, moreover, is one reason why colleges get away with charging such obscene tuition to do…what, exactly? Yes, college is a convenient stalling method to allow immature teens to be supervised while their brains grow and they make their dumbest mistakes in life competencies in a relatively safe cocoon. Yes, the opportunity to develop interests and talents—journalism, drama, athletics, political activism, writing, public speaking, management, leadership—in the organizations fostered and funded by universities is valuable. Every other reason college is supposed to be essential, however, rests on the presumption that it teaches young adults to think, and prepares them to be productive citizens, workers and professionals because they can think clearly, rationally, creatively and without the habitual influence of emotion, rationalizations, logical fallacies and bias.
The evidence—not just one study— suggests that college does not do that, and hasn’t for some time. If this is a fact, and objective consideration strongly points to that conclusion, then a crucial section of the foundation of our society has become unstable, threatening the rest. The ethical (competent, responsible) response to this very serious, indeed dangerous problem is to accept that it is a problem, and to accept the daunting challenge of re-thinking our criteria for identifying qualified employees, re-evaluating the credentialing of colleges, placing professors, courses and degrees under some kind of fair but rigorous scrutiny, and having the courage to consider whether what once was a functional and trustworthy model is no longer able to deliver to American society what it needs.
For decades, the response of policy makers and social engineers has been denial…perhaps because their own critical thinking skills are flawed.
Critical thinking is essential to ethical analysis too.