Ten Academic Paradoxes

The course is organized around ten paradoxes associated with the role of undergraduate student in a liberal arts university. 
Briefly summarized they are:
 

1.

Irrelevance. The word ‘academic’ in common parlance often translates to ‘irrelevant’ and the typical liberal arts curriculum is carefully crafted to avoid the appearance and perhaps the reality of vocationalism. Actually, not a lot is known about how a liberal arts education actually prepares a young man or woman for a life and a career.

2.
Critical Thinking. In defense of a liberal arts education, many educators vehemently insist that what it does best is prepare students with skills at ‘critical thinking.’ However, it is not clear that can identify or measure this skill, let alone demonstrate how any particular coursework might nurture it.

3.
Compartmentalization. Universities are organized around departments and disciplines that have become highly specialized and compartmentalized. There is surprisingly little opportunity or encouragement for students to integrate knowledge across these artificial structural barriers.

4.
Historical Prism. Students study how the historical contexts and limited knowledge of our predecessors channeled both their achievements and failures but have paradoxically limited opportunity to explore how these constraints work in the modern world.

5.
Globalization. Most universities celebrate the importance of preparing their students for the dynamics of globalization and most fail to offer much more than a few rudimentary courses, some language instruction and a junior year abroad.

6.
Grading. A reasonably high GPA is universally viewed to be a prerequisite to further training and career success, but there is little evidence that higher grades are even weakly related to increased knowledge or skills.

7.
Educational Treadmill. Many students attend college because it is expected of them. Few give it much thought, consider what they want from four-year experience or consider alternatives.

8.
Deferral Strategy. Many students imagine that as the professionals they will soon become, they will work in large, complex institutions and will achieve success, exert leadership and perhaps reform these institutions. For now they are passive students on the treadmill, trying to get good grades and get ahead. Paradoxically, they are in a large, complex institution that might benefit from their more active engagement.

9.
Life Plan. Many students have difficulty picking a concentration because they have only the vaguest ideas of what career they might pursue. Most are too busy taking courses and fulfilling requirements to give it much attention.

10.
Selectivity. Undergraduates from universities like this one quite often turn out to be leaders in their ultimately chosen fields. The paradox is that the primary reason is not related to what they learned as undergraduates but instead derives from the fact that universities are very good at selecting bright and able young applicants who would have succeeded no matter where or even whether they went to college.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


(c) W. Russelll Neuman
Email)
rneuman@umich.edu
Phone) 734-615-8320