Declining Academic Standards Redux–The Padded Mental Funnel

by Thomas L Snyder

My son James is a widely published commentator / reviewer in international and security affairs, law and politics. When I ask him why he doesn’t go for a PhD, he answers that he simply is not interested in focusing on a narrow aspect of some area of study when he can now think broadly across disciplines. I think that PhD work would force him into a sort of mental funnel which he finds abhorrent.

Yet this mental funneling is a trend that is gaining momentum in today’s academy, not just at the PhD level, but in undergraduate programs. Former Congresswoman Heather Wilson, in a January Washington Post Op Ed piece, remarked on what she sees as “an undergraduate specialization that would have been unthinkably narrow just a generation ago.” The result, she says, is that “high-achieving students seem less able to grapple with issues that require them to think across disciplines or reflect on difficult questions about what matters and why.” Ms Wilson, an Air Force Academy graduate and Rhodes Scholar, believes “[t]his narrowing has resulted in a curiously unprepared and superficial pre-professionalism” that she attributes to parental pressure for colleges to prepare students solely for the post-college job search.

This month, an NPR piece entitled “A Lack of Rigor Leaves Students ‘Adrift’ in College” featured the just-published book “Academic Drift:  Limited Learning on College Campuses” by academics Richard Arum and Josipa Roska. The authors report on their longitudinal study of critical thinking and writing skills of 2300 undergraduate students in 24 universities over four years. They found that the majority of students advanced little or none in these skills. Moreover, the students on average studied 50% fewer hours than did undergraduates several decades ago. Yet their grades were pretty good. The authors attribute this,  at least in part, to the system of class evaluations where undemanding and entertaining instructors garner higher ratings than their academically more demanding colleagues. The incentive for professors is to go easy. The mental funnels, it seems, have become padded so minds (and egos?) don’t get bruised.

How does all this fit in to the environment our Society seeks to create? Our Society, like the Society for the History of Medicine, the Society for Military History and others, is a “hybrid” society that welcome scholars inhabiting different and often quite disparate disciplines. Their scholarly work requires them to think, and, we hope, to collaborate across disciplines–in our case those of the practice of the medical arts, the history of medicine, military history and possibly others, like the history of architecture, or sociological history.

Yet some hybrids see a continual, subtle pressure to “professionalize”, i.e., to become ever more the realm solely of PhD historians. This, I believe, is a bad idea and a trend we should rigorously resist. As I see it, hybrid scholarly societies like our own should be bulwarks against the funneling of historical thought. In medical history, the practitioners can teach the academics and vice versa. The scholarly product of this ongoing collaboration will be richer, more supple, more nuanced. Let us have no mental funnels, padded or otherwise!

©2011 by Thomas L Snyder

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