Does leisure outstrip learning at Dartmouth?

Joe Asch reports that Mike Mastanduno, Dartmouth’s dean of the faculty, made this comment at a recent faculty meeting:

More than I’d like to, I hear this: “It’s really hard to teach on Thursday morning because of what the students do on Wednesday night.” I hear that from faculty. What I never hear, and what I’d love to start hearing from students is, “It’s really hard to do what we want to do on Wednesday night because of what’s expected of us on Thursday morning.”

Mastanduno’s remark is the most insightful utterance I’ve heard from a Dartmouth administrator in decades. And given Dartmouth’s rampant grade inflation, it’s clear that the faculty’s low expectations aren’t confined to Thursday morning.

According to Joe:

One of the College’s little secrets is how infrequently many people complete the assigned reading for class. In recent years I’ve been in many classrooms where, during the first weeks of the term, the professor asks questions about the reading, and then gives up on the effort when nobody answers, or only the same couple of students do.

According to my daughter, a 2010 grad, another little secret is the significant number of students who don’t attend class regularly. At final exam time, she would often be jarred by the large number of students who, it turned out, had taken the class.

The phenomenon isn’t confined to Dartmouth, of course. Many of my daughter’s friends at other elite colleges observed it. But, again according to her friends, there were some colleges where students attended class conscientiously. They tended to be schools where grade inflation was not rampant.

The link between grade inflation and lack of effort (be it the effort of reading, studying, or merely showing up for class) is supported by more than intuition and anecdote. Dan Rockmore, a professor of Mathematics and Computer Science at Dartmouth has written:

[O]ne study shows that studying time has declined from an average of 24 hours/week to 14 hours/week since 1961. Over that same time, average grades have risen steadily.

Fourteen hours a week? Pathetic.

Rockmore suggests that the ability to achieve high grades with less effort, and the resulting increase in student leisure time, may be contributing to the current crisis of alcoholism on college campuses. This seems plausible.

But the real scandal lies in the reduced level of effort to learn, not in its effects on campus life.

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