Editor’s Note: The views expressed in this editorial are the author’s own and do not represent his department, Vassar Administration, or faculty.
Vassar is being blackmailed. The story of the blackmail goes back to Margaret Spellings, Secretary of Education under Bush the Younger. Spellings (who has no classroom teaching experience, and no degree that would qualify her to teach at the college level) has three claims to fame. First, Spellings is the only sitting member of a presidential cabinet to be on Celebrity Jeopardy. She came in a distant second to actor Michael McKean (best known as Lenny on the sitcom “Laverne and Shirley.”) Second, she is responsible for the No Child Left Behind Act. Nicknamed “No Child Left Awake,” this initiative forces educators to teach students how to pass standardized tests, rather than helping students to actually learn. Apparently concerned that she had not done enough damage to U.S. education, Spellings also convened a Commission on the Future of Higher Education. One of the recommendations of the Commission was that colleges and universities institute a, “robust culture of accountability,” emphasizing “learning outcomes.”
So what is wrong with that? The basic format for teaching humanities goes back at least as far as the Roman Empire in the West and the contemporaneous Han dynasty in China. Students read challenging works. Students discuss those works. Students write about those works. The instructors lecture, guide discussions and give feedback on the writing. Thomas Aquinas was doing this in 13th-century Europe and Zhu Xi was doing this in 12th-century China. This basic framework has been unchanged for a simple reason: it is the only one that has ever worked. (I use the examples of China and Europe simply because of my own ignorance of other traditions, not to slight them.)
However, the preceding is not good enough for advocates of “learning outcomes” and the related shibboleth “outcomes assessment.” They want outcomes that can be “measured” and “tested.” They are quick to explain that assessment need not be quantitative in the humanities. But we already have a qualitative vision of what outcome we want (that is what the major and general education requirements are about) and we already have qualitative measures for assessing outcomes (these are known by the arcane technical terms “comments on your essay,” “grades” and “letters of recommendation”.) Since we are fortunate to be at a private liberal arts college with a long history of being a leader in higher education, why should we care about what some failed Celebrity Jeopardy contestant said about outcomes assessment? Here is where the blackmail is occurring. Every college and university that hopes to maintain its prestige and be eligible for certain kinds of funding must be “accredited.” Accreditation is done through non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that wield immense amounts of power, despite not being answerable to anyone. The NGO responsible for accrediting our school has been taken over by devout apostles of outcomes assessment, and they insist that we must institute a “culture of assessment”—or else.
Here is my assessment of the outcome (pardon the expression) of this situation: Either our school’s educational practices will be perverted, or we will institute a purely formal version of outcomes assessment, lacking in any actual content. I am hoping for the latter. In a meeting with a representative of our accrediting body, I asked whether the philosophy department could develop a checklist based on our stated goals, and have instructors certify that essays written by senior majors met these goals. (“Good grammar? Check. Independent thought? Check. Take the best that has been thought and said and transmute it into wisdom in the smithy of your soul? Check.”) Incredibly, she said that sounded fine. It is not the worst result if we can find some bureaucratic trick that allows us to continue to teach in what is transparently the best way. (Apparently other schools are also trying the “just write something to get them off our backs” approach. This is an actual outcomes statement at another college that we were given as a paradigm: “The goal of the political science department is to transmit the knowledge of the discipline by providing courses and instruction that are characterized by excellence.”) However, whatever approach we employ, we incur what economists refer to as a significant “opportunity cost.” In their incisive essay, “Is Outcomes Assessment Hurting Higher Education?” James Pontuso and Saranna Thornton note that, “Ongoing assessment diverts teachers from teaching. Instead of preparing their courses, meeting with students, or grading papers—in short, executing their teaching duties—instructors must spend a substantial amount of time worrying about how to assess what they teach.”
I am not suggesting that higher education is perfectly fine just the way it is, either at Vassar or at other institutions. For example, I chaired a committee that recommended that Vassar work for greater clarity and consistency in its quantitative, writing and foreign language requirements. But this will not result in “measurable” or “testable” outcomes. I say all of the preceding as a dedicated teacher. I can show you letters from students telling me that my classes changed their lives, three textbooks that I wrote specifically to meet the needs of my students, mountains of essays with my carefully written comments and sheaves of handouts I painstakingly prepared to address confusions my students had. That is what teaching is about, not about pseudo-rational “outcomes.” As Pontuso and Thornton wrote: “Many people’s lives have been affected by good teachers, but no one’s soul has ever been touched by a committee of test writers.”
—Bryan Van Norden is a professor of philosophy at Vassar College.