“In 1975, Derek Bok, president of Harvard, asked Dean K. Whitla, director of the Office of Students, to verify the widespread belief that undergraduates were leaving Harvard-Radcliffe as writers no better than when they entered. Whitla ran a meticulous study of first-year and fourth-year students at five institutions and concluded that the ability of Harvard-Radcliffe students ‘to present an organized, logical, forceful argument increased dramatically over the college years’ (35). Whitla’s unexpected finding was followed by what I will call the Bok maneuver. Forced to report to Harvard’s Board of Overseers the unpopular news that their undergraduates really were developing their writing skills, President Bok said the gains were not ‘substantial’ enough, and that ‘many students showed no improvement’ (13–14). Bok’s maneuver has remained common in attacks on US education. The USS Academia is off course, the argument goes, and any evidence to the contrary is belittled, or just jettisoned.
The authors of Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses
execute the Bok maneuver skillfully, with an additional twist. The evidence they
dismiss they gathered themselves. They compared the performance of 2,322
students at twenty-four institutions during the first and fourth semesters on
one Collegiate Learning Assessment task. Surprisingly, their group as a whole
recorded statistically significant gain. More surprisingly, every one of their
twenty-seven subgroups recorded gain. Faced with this undeniable improvement,
the authors resort to the Bok maneuver and conclude that the gain
was ‘modest’ and ‘limited,’ that learning in college is ‘adrift.'” — Richard Haswell, review of Academically Adrift, February 2012 issue of College Composition and Communication (63:3).