Perhaps Academic Standards Have Fallen Since 1941-42?

Alan Jacobs posted this copy of W. H. Auden’s undergraduate lit survey at 95 Theses. at the University of Michigan from the academic year 1941–42. Was it extraordinary then? It would certainly be considered so now and perhaps even grounds for censure by one’s department chairman or even the accreditors.

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  1. Weren’t the folks who had these workloads as undergraduates, the ones who went on to be the professors and deans who lightened the workloads and thinned out the reading lists later? While I’m not blaming them completely, I do wonder why they would be willing, or feel the need, to weaken the requirements.

    • There’s truth in that. Standards have been slipping for a long time. It goes back to the 19th century revolt against classical education. It’s also true that when the Boomers began to come to power in academia, the subjective began to triumph decidedly. Education became not “what did you learn?” but “how rich was your experience?” The leaven of democratization/egalitarianism has also worked its way through the system.

  2. What influence did Dewey and the pragmatics for growing the work force play into “making a degree more attainable?”

  3. It should be said that there *is* a case for making lists like that shorter, and for pedagogical reasons. If a student, in the Fall of 1941, took Auden’s course, and also took, say, 4 other courses that same semester, and those other courses had reading lists just as long as Auden’s, just how much reading do you really think might actually get done?

    If a student had *less* reading to do, he might have time to actually reflect on what is read and learn more about the subject. The end result of a semester’s work should be the ability to answer the question, “How well does the student understand the subject matter,” not “How much work did we make him do?” Quality over quantity…

    • That raises the question I had in my mind on seeing this, which was how many other courses these students were expected to take at the same time.

  4. So I probably spent too much time on this… but since I am in seminary right now, I am highly subjectively interested in the question of what the appropriate workload for a course is. So here we go…

    1. I checked out the titles listed on Amazon to get an idea of their length, then scaled the resulting total to 80% to account for introductions, indices, etc. It looks like this course would have required about 6000 pages of reading.

    2. I read some digitized college manuals from 1941-1942 to get an idea of what a reasonable assumption for the length of the semester and the credit load would be. It seems that semesters were about 16 weeks in length (my seminary classes only go for twelve weeks- I have to say, this makes me feel a little cheated!). 12 credits seems standard for a full-time student.

    3. So if Auden’s 2 credit class is representative, there were about 3000 pages of reading per credit, which works out to 36,000 pages of reading for the semester, or 2,250 pages per week.

    4. Let’s assume that a student devotes 50 hours per week to his education. 12 of those hours are taken up by going to class. That leaves 38 hours to accomplish the reading, which would require him to read 59 pages per hour to meet the course requirements. Note: this would leave no time for any other activities, like writing papers!

    5. On a good day, I can read at a rate of about 50 pages per hour. Any more than that and I am merely skimming. So for me personally, the demands of this course are unrealistic. I would have to resign myself to skimming all the reading, or choose part of the assigned reading to read carefully. Since this is a literature class we are talking about, the latter is probably the better option.

    Final note: I suspect most of Auden’s students did not complete all the reading. Maybe some of them realized how to cheat: get the reading list and work on it over the summer. That is how I deal with seminary. Anyway, I’m not sure if I would say that academic standards have fallen since the 1940s: perhaps they are just more realistic.

    • Hi Jamie,

      They have certainly fallen since the 40s. They’ve fallen in my lifetime, since the 60s. The accreditors have forced schools to reduce reading by as much as 10% in one case that I know. I’ve had to scale back my reading assignments and slow the pace of lectures in recent years to accommodate students, so I know it’s happening.

      Nevertheless, Auden was a famous visiting prof and probably got away with murder assigning a year’s worth of reading for one course. Still, I spent 5 hours a day on one Greek course (Homer) as an undergrad. The prof didn’t care about my workload.

      Could an undergrad prof today assign 50% of this in a course without a summons to the dean’s office? Did Auden assume that students had already read some of these titles in high school?

    • Thank you, Dr. Clark, for reminding us of the importance of high standards in academics.

      I do think that this comment is likely key: “Did Auden assume that students had already read some of these titles in high school?”

      I attended what today would be considered a classical-model magnet school within the public school system. (Not defending public schools here, I wasn’t an evangelical at the time.) About a third of the titles on that list **WERE** part of my high school curriculum — Dante’s Inferno though not the full Divine Comedy, both Sophocles and Aeschylus, all of the listed works by Shakespeare, Goethe’s Faust, Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, and Melville’s Moby Dick — and since this class by Auden was taught to juniors, seniors and graduate students, lots of the rest of the works would have been read in college by that time if the college student was studying literature.

      I strongly suspect that the idea of a common core of knowledge that all students should have in order to be prepared to succeed in college once allowed professors to teach at a higher level than they can today.

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