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Liberal arts majors gain in critical thinking

The study documenting that 36 percent of college students acquire no significant gains in critical reasoning skills from a four-year college experience has garnered national and local attention ("Key college skills eluding many students," Jan. 18 Eagle). However, it needs to be placed in perspective.

One important finding of the study by Richard Arum, Josipa Roksa and Esther Cho is that students majoring in traditional liberal arts and sciences (LAS) disciplines did show significant gains in critical thinking, reasoning and writing skills, while students majoring in professional or vocational areas gained the least.

To note this is not to malign or denigrate what is being done in the professional and vocational colleges. Their mission is to provide their students with a profession-specific body of knowledge and skill set, something they are doing very well. The development of generalizable critical reasoning, writing and reading skills always has been part of the mission of liberal arts and sciences colleges.

Unfortunately, nationally, non-LAS majors who take LAS courses as part of their degree requirements do not seem to be benefiting to the same extent as their LAS cohorts. There are several factors at work here.

First, the past few decades have witnessed an exponential explosion in technical and specialized knowledge, and there is pressure from accrediting agencies and other external professional organizations for students to have mastered more and more of this as part of their college training. The consequence is that students are taking fewer and fewer traditional liberal arts courses, as they increase the number of professional courses they take.

Second, the vast majority of LAS courses taken by students in the professional schools are freshman- and sophomore-level courses, and one simply cannot expect the development of sophisticated reasoning skills with such minimum, low-level exposure.

The problem is compounded by a third factor. The increase in student demand for professional degrees — combined with policies linking resources to enrollments — has led to a reduction of resources for LAS colleges across the nation. LAS colleges have tried a two-pronged response to the reduction: larger introductory classes and reliance on part-time adjunct faculty members and lecturers. Both have deleterious effects on education, particularly on non-LAS majors.

Add to this a fourth factor. While it is unpopular to say, the fact is that many students elect to take the bulk of their LAS courses at junior colleges because they are both cheaper and easier. But an easy course does not develop those rigorous thinking skills.

Also, a few LAS departments — realizing that dollars follow enrollments and that large numbers of students are seeking easy courses — have lowered standards in an effort to attract students. Such high-growth departments are drawing students away from more rigorous programs.

Unless we are prepared to make professional degrees five- or six-year programs with significant LAS components (or find some other way to infuse professional education with LAS courses), we will need to live with the consequences: a two-track system of higher education in which one track produces broadly educated people with highly developed critical reasoning, research and writing abilities, and the other produces narrowly trained specialists unable to reason critically outside their own disciplines.

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