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160 Were Learning to Matter 10 Despite the energy Steve Lehmkuhle and Claudia Neuhauser invested in their alternate organizational structure for the University of Minnesota, Rochester (UMR), their ultimate goal had more to do with learning than with either structure or technology. Their announced purpose was to develop an academic environment in which students learned more because they learned better. Indeed, what is probably the most radical and hence important aspect of the UMR experiment is its embrace of the revolution neuroscientists and others have fomented in their search for a better understanding of how students learn and hence how they might be better served. For the moment, however, it is also a revolution, like the revolution in learning technologies, that is longer on promise than on actual adherents. Let me put that differently: it is a revolution that too few in higher education pay sufficient attention to and hence have little appreciation for in terms of exactly what the neuroscientists, in particular , have achieved. On the Spellings Commission, only Jim Duderstadt seemed fully conversant with what, over the last decade, had been learned about how people learn. And though he brought the subject up often enough, he was never able to spark a sustained conversation that might have led the Commission to explore either alternate teaching methods or alternative curricular structures. There is a larger truth here as well. For as far back as most modern professors can remember, discussions of learning have been the nearly ch010.qxd 6/16/09 9:51 AM Page 160 161 WERE LEARNING TO MATTER exclusive domain of organizations like the American Association for Higher Education (AAHE) and the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), and of think tanks like the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, over which Lee Schulman presided until recently. Outside these rarified atmospheres, talking about learning has largely been dismissed as a misplaced interest in pedagogy. The absence of a sustained conversation within the academy about the quality and nature of learning helps explain why so many outside of higher education have been taken with Derek Bok’s Our Underachieving Colleges. Written four years after Universities in the Marketplace, in this volume Bok wanted to provide a candid assessment of undergraduate education today focusing on what students did and did not learn and why. As in my recounting of Bok’s discussion of commercialization and its consequences in chapter 4, it is important that I let Bok speak for himself. Written in the same measured style of his earlier works on higher education, Our Underachieving Colleges is a volume with a carefully parsed title—underachieving rather than underperforming—that presents an impressive culling of the evidence telling us what today’s undergraduates too often do not learn. The result is a catalog of public as well as educational failures. Many seniors graduate without being able to write well enough to satisfy their employers. Many cannot reason clearly or perform competently in analyzing complex, non-technical problems, even though faculties rank critical thinking as the primary goal of a college education. Few undergraduates receiving a degree are able to speak or read a foreign language. Most have never taken a course in quantitative reasoning or acquired the knowledge needed to be a reasonably informed citizen in a democracy. And those are only some of the problems.1 Given other, more scandalous and best-selling lamentations on the state of undergraduate education in the United States, Bok himself is quick to point out that his critique is different, more restrained, more about good citizenship and what an undergraduate ought to be prepared to do as opposed to be able to recite. He is all but dismissive of Alan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind while outright rejecting Charles Sykes’s Profscam and Dinesh D’Sousa’s Illiberal Education. In Universities in the Marketplace Bok positioned his argument between ch010.qxd 6/16/09 9:51 AM Page 161 the hard left of the anti-commodifiers and, on the right, the efficiency pundits. In Our Underachieving Colleges he positions his argument between the hard right for whom the declining quality of an undergraduate education is evidence of a liberal conspiracy and the jeremiads of lamenters who see in the same declines an absence of will and moral virtue largely without political overtones. In other important ways, as well, Our Underachieving Colleges extends Bok’s critique of commercialism in higher education. Recall in that volume the issue was not...


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