Students working less hard. But don’t blame the students… [updated]
I don’t know about you, but I was fascinated to hear this news this morning. American research, said to be reflected here in New Zealand, indicates that university students are working less hard now than they were around half a century ago. Says the Radio NZ report:
Figures indicate that a decline in study hours among university students in the United States has been mirrored in New Zealand.
“Research from the University of California found students in 1961 spent an average 40 hours per week on academic work, including attending lectures.
“By this decade, the average time spent on studying had fallen to 27 hours.
“An education consultant, Dave Guerin, says figures for the same period in New Zealand are similar.”
Says the Chronicle of Higher Ed:
The authors figure that 21st-century students spend an average of 10 hours fewer every week studying than their 1961 counterparts. Over the course of a four-year college career, that would add up to something like 1,500 fewer hours spent hitting the books… From the paper: ‘The large decline in academic time investment is an important pattern its own right, and one that motivates future research into underlying causes.’"
I would have thought the underlying causes were obvious—that if you’re at all surprised to hear any of this that you just haven’t been paying attention.
Over the last half-century or more the emphasis in education has been to de-emphasise the importance of knowledge, of memorisation, of actual learning—of making as few demands on students brains as possible—of filling their heads with as few facts as possible—of demanding less and less of them while grading them higher and higher—so I’m not sure why anybody would be surprised to hear they’ve been spending less time having to fill their heads.
(As just one example of this trend, when a long-established international Montessori teacher-training course was in the process of being accredited by NZQA to be delivered here New Zealand, the gurus of NZQA expressed horror that the course required of students around forty hours per week in class, with at least a dozen more non-contact hours. This despite the course having been successfully delivered worldwide since 1929)
Curricula without content and courses making few demands on their students—that’s been the dominant trend now for years. And curricula without content and courses unencumbered by facts have succeeded in delivering students without real learning—and without any need to spend hours on the laborious task of memorising anything beyond what they need for the next open-book exam.
We’ve all seen them, haven’t we: those empty-headed graduates of today’s universities who seem to know less than they did when they entered; emerging unable to understand, or even to articulate, the leading principles of their chosen discipline—or the leading historical figures who developed that discipline—or the facts on which their discipline is based.
These empty-headed know-nothings all around us are no accident, because in teaching today’s students, today’s teachers have been explicitly devoted to delivering education without any content, and with few real demands on students.
Consider, as just one example of this, the state's new high-school education curriculum, introduced last year in all schools public and private right across the country. It is quite literally the curriculum you have when you don't have a curriculum: it is explicitly a curriculum without content. At the time of its introduction its cheerleaders proudly boasted it “focuses on the process of learning, rather than content"; that “it will teach pupils how to hold a conversation or ask for help rather than remember facts, historic dates or periodic tables." Who needs to learn pesky facts, they crowed, when you can download all the facts you need at the push of a keyboard button. We don’t teach facts anymore, they say, we teach “involvement.”
For example, social science students will be marked for taking action to make their community a better place to live, rather than remembering facts about a society on the other side of the world. Science students might be tested on whether they know how to design an experiment, rather than whether they remember what the result should be. Mary Chamberlain, overseeing the project for the Education Ministry, says that although people are ‘rattled’ by the changes, ‘there's no use (students) being little knowledge banks walking around on legs. We've got computers, we don't need people walking around with them in their heads... People just have to get used to that.’"
People have got used to that. We know that most of today’s students are precisely the opposite of “knowledge banks on legs”—and they are that way because of the failure of alleged educators like Mary Chamberlain—a leading example of the empty-headed educational model she herself upholds.
But Chamberlain and the mis-educators of today are nothing new: this process has been going on for years–-just as this latest news of the results of mis-education would suggest.
Writing in The Free Radical a couple of years ago George Reisman (who would have been in that 1961 cohort himself) summed up the trend:
That, right there, is the problem.
Trends like this do not emerge fully grown. Reisman explains where this nonsense comes from, and what has already been the result. Settle back and read his incisive dissection of modern mis-education. It's good:
It is sometimes observed that most of today’s high school and college graduates have very little education in science and mathematics and thus do not understand and cannot properly appreciate modern technology. There is considerable merit in these observations, but the problem goes much deeper. Namely, from the earliest grades, the prevailing methodology of contemporary education systematically encourages irrational skepticism ...
But today’s mis-educators insist that facts are unnecessary; students need to keep their heads clear in order to be creative. (This is the direct result of the mis-educators and ‘Romantic’ philosophers to whom they subscribe.)
But the fact remains: if your head is empty, what do you have to be creative with?
The problem can be seen when we compare today’s high-school curriculum (whose methodology is replicated across the sector) with what good education actually should look like.
Now, properly, education is a process by means of which students internalize knowledge: they mentally absorb it through observation and proof, and repeated application. Memorization, deduction, and problem solving must constantly be involved. The purpose is to develop the student’s mind—to provide him with an instantaneously available storehouse of knowledge and thus an increasingly powerful mental apparatus that he will be able to use and further expand throughout his life. Such education, of course, requires hard work from the student.”
But hard work is now unfashionable. Students have got that message. But hard work is what good educaiton requires.
Seen from a physiological perspective, it may be that what the process of education requires of the student through his exercises is an actual imprinting of his brain. Yet … contemporary education is fundamentally opposed to these essentials of education. It draws a distinction between ‘problem solving,’ which it views as ‘creative’ and claims to favor, and ‘memorization,’ which it appears to regard as an imposition on the students, whose valuable, executive-level time, it claims, can be better spent in ‘problem solving.’ Contemporary education thus proceeds on the assumption that the ability to solve problems is innate, or at least fully developed before the child begins school. It perceives its job as allowing the student to exercise his native problem-solving abilities, while imposing on him as little as possible of the allegedly unnecessary and distracting task of memorization.
“In the elementary grades, this approach is expressed in such attitudes as that it is not really necessary for students to go to the trouble of memorizing the multiplication tables if the availability of pocket calculators can be taken for granted which they know how to use; or go to the trouble of memorizing facts of history and geography, if the ready availability of books and atlases containing the facts can be taken for granted, which facts the students know how to look up when the need arises. In college and graduate courses, this approach is expressed in the phenomenon of the ‘open-book examination,’ in which satisfactory performance is supposedly demonstrated by the ability to use a book as a source of information, proving once again that the student knows how to find the information when he needs it.
“With little exaggeration, the whole of contemporary education can be described as a process of encumbering the student’s mind with as little knowledge as possible. The place for knowledge, it seems to believe, is in external sources—books and libraries—which the student knows how to use when necessary. Its job, its proponents believe, is not to teach the students knowledge but ‘how to acquire knowledge’—not to teach them facts and principles, which it holds quickly become ‘obsolete,’ but to teach them ‘how to learn.’
“Its job, its proponents openly declare, is not to teach geography, history, mathematics, science, or any other subject, including reading and writing, but to teach ‘Johnny’—to teach Johnny how he can allegedly go about learning the facts and principles it declares are not important enough to teach and which it thus gives no incentive to learn and provides the student with no means of learning.
“The results of this type of education are visible in the hordes of students who, despite years of schooling, have learned virtually nothing, and who are least of all capable of thinking critically and solving problems. When such students read a newspaper, for example, they cannot read it in the light of a knowledge of history or economics— they do not know history or economics; history and economics are out there in the history and economics books, which, they were taught, they can ‘look up, if they need to.’
“They cannot even read it in the light of elementary arithmetic, for they have little or no internally automated habits of doing arithmetic. Having little or no knowledge of the elementary facts of history and geography, they have no way even of relating one event to another in terms of time and place. Such students, and, of course, the adults such students become, are chronically in the position in which to be able to use the knowledge they need to use, they would first have to go out and acquire it. Not only would they have to look up relevant facts, which they already should know, and now may have no way even of knowing they need to know, but they would first have to read and understand books dealing with abstract principles, and to understand those books, they would first have to read other such books, and so on. In short, they would first have to acquire the education they already should have had.”
And that’s the major problem of the education students are receiving today. To know what we’re talking about, we need to have integrated our knowledge. But to integrate our knowledge, the content of knowledge needs to be in our heads, not just out there in cyberspace.
And to put it there requires hours of study, and many, many hours of reading and thinking—reading and thinking that just isn’t being done now.
Properly, by the time a student has completed a college education, his brain should hold the essential content of well over a hundred major books on mathematics, science, history, literature, and philosophy, and do so in a form that is well organized and integrated, so that he can apply this internalized body of knowledge to his perception of everything in the world around him. He should be in a position to enlarge his knowledge of any subject and to express his thoughts on any subject clearly and logically, both verbally and in writing. Yet, as the result of the miseducation provided today, it is now much more often the case that college graduates fulfill the Romantic ideal of being ‘simple, uneducated men.’
Such a process of miseducation is so far advanced that few now really see it--particularly not those already mis-educated; or those like Ms Chamberlain who’ve been doing the mis-educating. It’s only when concrete research like that published today highlights some part of the problem that some awareness of there being a problem is in evidence. In all other respects, parents and students alike are simply blind to what's happening right underneath their noses.
No wonder the prevailing worldview today is one of irrational skepticism (for evidence of that look at any blog comments thread, and the membership of the Green party).
Contemporary education is responsible for the growing prevalence of irrational skepticism. The students subjected to it do not acquire actual knowledge. They have no firm foundation in a base of memorized facts and they have not acquired any solid knowledge of principles because their education has avoided as far as possible the painstaking processes of logical proof and repeated application of principles, which latter constitutes a vital and totally legitimate form of memorization. Such students go through school ‘by the seat of their pants.’ They are forever ‘winging it.’ And that is how they go through life as adults.
“It is impossible for them to have genuine understanding of anything that is beyond the realm of their daily experience, and even of that, only on a superficial level. To such people, almost everything must appear as an arbitrary assertion, taken on faith. For their education has made them unfit to understand how things are actually known. Their failure to memorize such things as the multiplication tables in their childhood, makes it impossible for them to understand whatever directly depends on such knowledge, which, in turn, makes it impossible for them to acquire the further knowledge that depends on that knowledge, and soon. With each passing year of their education, they fall further behind.
“Ironically, their failure to memorize what it is appropriate to memorize ends up putting them in a position in which to pass examinations, they have no other means than out-of-context memorization—that is, memorization lacking any foundation in logical connection and proof. Because they have never memorized fundamental facts, and thus have no basis for developing genuine understanding of all that depends on those facts, they are placed in the position in which to pass examinations they must attempt to memorize out-of-context conclusions.
“It is because of this that a growing proportion of what they learn as the years pass has the status in their minds of arbitrary assertions. They are chronically in the mental state of having no good reason for most or almost all of what they believe. Thus, in their context of actual ignorance masked by pretended knowledge, they are prime targets for irrational skepticism. To them, in their mental state, doubt of everything can only seem perfectly natural. Such students, such adults, are easy targets for a doctrine such as ‘environmentalism.’
“They are totally unprepared intellectually to resist any irrational trend and more than willing to leap on the bandwagon of one that caters to their uncertainties and fears. Environmentalism does this by blaming the stresses of their life on the existence of an industrial society and holding out the prospect of an intellectually undemanding and thus seemingly stress-free pastoral existence, one which is allegedly ‘in harmony with nature.’ The destructive work of contemporary education carried on against the development of students’ conceptual abilities from the earliest grades on is compounded, as their education advances to the higher grades, by the teaching of a whole collection of irrationalist doctrines that constitute the philosophical substance of contemporary liberal arts education... These doctrines constitute a systematic attack on reason and its role in human life...
… and the result has been the befouling of both human life and human thought.
[The] methodology of contemporary education [has] totally fouled the ‘intellectual mainstream.’ The kind of education I have described—if it can still be called education, consisting as it does of an unremitting assault on the rational faculty and every rational value—is responsible for the hordes of graduates turned out over the last decades who have had no conception of the meaning and value of [for example] the Constitution and history of the United States, of the meaning and value of Western civilization itself, or indeed of the meaning and value of membership in the human race.
“It has been responsible for the decline in the quality of government…, as, unavoidably, many such mis-educated graduates have found their way into the halls of Congress and the state legislatures, and into major offices in all the other branches of government, and, of course, into all the various branches of the news media and publishing... Thus, in what may prove to be the greatest tragedy in all of human existence, we see at the end of more than two centuries of man’s most dazzling success, the proliferation of heirs who as adults possess less than the mentalities of children. We see a culture of reason and science being transformed before our eyes into one which more and more resembles a culture of primitive men.
Students working fewer hours to achieve their degrees are a symptom, not a cause. But since those students are our heirs, the lack of content in their brains caused by their lack of study—caused itself by the fundamental tenets of the mis-educators—will undoubtedly continue to be the cause of increasingly irrational skepticism, and and increasing decline in our civilisation.
Which is why it’s with education that our battle for civilisation really starts.
UPDATE: Education consultant Dave Guerin, who was quoted in Radio NZ’s report, offers the basis on his blog for saying NZ’s figures are similar: Are Students Lazier or More Productive?
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