Why do you go to college? To get a job I presume. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that since I arrived on campus, the majority of sources have promoted that very message. I’ve lived with a Business School major and College of Engineering major who regularly applaud themselves for, in their words, convincing me to transfer out of LSA. I’ve also read multiple Michigan Daily columns in which English majors have made fun of themselves and their supposed future uselessness. In my time here, I’ve silently upheld my personal belief that there is value in an education not directed toward a specific occupation. But it’s a difficult argument for many to buy into.

This column is not about your major — I support students’ decisions to major in nursing, business, architecture or whatever other occupational fields of study are out there. I’m more concerned about our education system as a whole and have generally felt that something very crucial is missing from our job-centered focus. The evidence for me to make such an argument has finally fallen into my lap.

In a new book called “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses,” New York University sociologist Richard Arum provides concerning data showing that many students are not picking up critical thinking skills in college. Such skills are often championed as the heart of a liberal arts education, but they have apparently been taken for granted across the educational spectrum.

Between 2005 and 2009, Arum tracked more than 2,000 students from 24 different colleges and universities. Using the Collegiate Learning Assessment to evaluate critical thinking skills, he found that 45 percent of students showed no improvement in their first two years of school, and 36 percent showed no improvement over four years. Some of the skills tested by the CLA include a student’s ability to analyze a series of documents with contrasting information and to critique the logic behind a political argument. While Arum didn’t specify which universities were involved in the study, he assures readers that they varied widely in selectivity and even elite universities weren’t exempt from the findings.

There’s a persistent mindset in today’s educational system that hails job preparation at the expense of critical thinking. This study shows that students in traditional liberal arts concentrations improved more in critical thinking than those with a career-specific major. This finding does not change the fact that the problem exists across majors, but does provide evidence that a career-centered focus is a major factor.

Additionally, in the most widespread report on Arum’s book, a student from DePauw University stated that critical thinking was “irrelevant” for a student who didn’t have a good résumé. The statement may be true to a degree, but it doesn’t support the magnitude of Arum’s findings. There are a variety of reasons that, on a macro-level, we need college graduates to think critically.

Many of these reasons relate to politics. The CLA tests the exact skills that I would hope an educated voter has when selecting which political candidates to support. A more critical citizenry would be less susceptible to campaign rhetoric that is purely political or emotional and would demand more substantive promises from elected officials. Additionally, such a base of voters would be more capable of realistically gauging what range of policy options exist on a particular issue. As political scientist Morris Fiorina stated regarding the failed Clinton health care reform bill in 1993, “If citizens want guaranteed health care for all, unrestricted choice of doctors and facilities, and lower premiums than they currently pay, they are unlikely to be happy with any conceivable national health care plan.”

Politics aside, it seems apparent that our future leaders and graduates — be it in their occupations or elsewhere — will have to make big decisions with societal implications, decisions that no subject-specific education will prepare them for. There’s no telling how our economy or social structures will change in our lifetimes. But we are doing ourselves a disservice by focusing on the skills that will help us in the present circumstances without giving due weight to the critical thinking skills that will allow us to adapt later on. Arum’s study sheds light on these issues in an unprecedented way, and his findings shouldn’t be ignored in the upcoming discourse on education.

Jeremy Levy can be reached at jeremlev@umich.edu.

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