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Measurable Outcomes vs. Higher Education?

So I’ve been getting a lot of articles and essays and rants emailed to me on higher education.  Based on my previous posts, the impression seems to be that I’m some kind of educational rebel, railing against all the mainstream trends and the administrators and their experts who are pushing them.

Well, that’s not quite true.  I don’t disagree with everything new—like teaching through bloging.  And rebelling against a lot of the reigning nonsense is more trouble than it’s worth.  I only get really ticked off when this stuff gets in the way of my doing my very modest job:  teaching my classes the way I think best.

Case in point so far: outcomes-based education.  We’re told by administrators, accrediting agencies, experts, and such that education should lead to measurable outcomes.  A class should have a couple of pretty precise learning outcomes, and I should figure out some easy, quantitative way of proving that the result of the class was the students learning such and such skill or competency.

We’re told that the outcomes aren’t meant to cover everything to be learned in the class.  You just need to have something to prove the student picked up a couple of competencies or skills along the way.  The whole outcome-competency thing usually seems like a sideshow that’s only a bit of a time-suck for the faculty who can’t get themselves in the mood to be professionally driven by measurable outcomes.

Every professor I’ve talked to who teaches political philosophy at a wide variety of colleges and universities grouses about the outcomes/competencies thing.  They don’t think it has much to do with their real work, which they usually take very seriously. Still, they're not losing much sleep over outcomes and competencies.

There are faculty who really are all about the outcomes.  God bless them.  Or God help them.  They’re doing their jobs as they think best.  And I will defend their freedom to do so—within reason—as long as they don’t bother me—or don’t bother me much.

I imagine that outcomes can be easy or even exhaustive when teaching introductory statistics or introductory accounting.  And measurement could easily be by some objective test.

But, as I’ve said before, things aren't so easy when it comes to, say, a class that’s about reading Plato’s Republic.  No undergrad masters all or even most of that great book, and what is learnedas they say, the value added—varies quite remarkably from student to student.  Socrates himself says that the outcome of participating in the very long discussion presented in that book can’t be determined in advance.

That’s why Plato wrote the dialogue in such a careful way to teaching different lessons to different readerspeople, as the Greeks said, with widely varying natures.  The dialogue form is supposed to deal with an often-mentioned educational issue these days:  Different teaching styles appeal to people with different learning styles.

Some expert or self-help guru might say that the take-away ought to be that you finally know what justice is.  After all, you read a whole lot about it.  But the book doesn’t really say for sure what justice is—and more questions are left open than closed.  The Republic might seem useless in our results-oriented world. 

Peter Thiel might even say it’s a nothing but a cost-suck and a time-suck for future entrepreneurs to pay big bucks to take a course that’s nothing but reading a very old book in a time when all you really need to know in terms of information, culture, and stuff can be Googled.  But even Thiel doesn’t really think or act that way in his own case:  What he learned about the Republic from that great teacher Leo Strauss has shaped some key parts of his thinking and transformational work.

Reading tough books carefully—attending to textual details, considering the diverse ways of life of and predicaments faced by the characters, following arguments, writing accurately and thoughtfully about their contents, applying what what you've learned to your own way of life and personal predicaments—is usually justified these days by the outcomes of critical thinking and analytic reasoning.  I, for one, am impressed by how murky these phrases turn out to be, and how questionable—to say the least—are the standardized devices that have been invented to measure them.

But, as I’ve been told, such phrases are what make the liberal arts marketable to the many external constituencies that otherwise would have no idea what to make of them.  They are, people are told, competencies that are valuable in many of the more intellectual or high-powered areas of work these days.  I’m sure that measuring such outcomes is reassuring to parents and donors who would otherwise wonder even harder about whether college is worth the ridiculously big bucks it costs these days.  For some of the most noble administrators, outcomes/competencies talk is a way of selling and so saving what can be saved of the great tradition of liberal education these days.

Students do, in fact, pick up said competencies, and that’s one reason why Berry College graduates do so well in the parts of law school that require writing essays in response to complicated legal questions.  Unfortunately, law school, like everything else, is more and more about the mindless necessity of multiple choice, and the evidence I have is that our students aren’t sufficiently prepared on that front.  I don’t view it as my job to do anything about that.  I’ve taught thirty-some years without composing a single multiple-choice question or giving a single multiple-choice test.

Most of all, I can’t help but be troubled by the fact that those outcomes—those competencies—aren’t really the point of reading The Republic, The Bible, Shakespeare, The Prince, Pascal, Faulkner, Ray Bradbury, or Marilynne Robinson.  In each case, as Socrates says, the point is the turning around of the soul (not, for the Greek philosophers, a religious idea) by figuring out who you are and what you’re supposed to do (beyond being productive—which admittedly you should be and Socrates wasn’t).

If the measurable competencies and outcomes were the only or the main point of the class, they might be achieved some other way more quickly and cheaply.  That’s why, I think, outcomes-based education undermines old-fashioned or soul-improving liberal education.

Here’s a fine—if more than a bit extreme—article by David Solway on the tyrannical tendency of the outcomes-based educational movement.  For me, education for outcomes has seemed mainly annoying because no claim has been made that they represent all or most of what high education aims to do.

But, according to Solway, that’s because I haven’t read the radical documents written by the most fervent of “Outcomes proponents.”  He quotes Dianne Bateman:  “The basic assumption underlying this approach is that educational improvement depends upon a shift in focus from inputs to outcomes. Once desirable student outcomes are identified, all educational practices are keyed to these outcomes, and educators are held accountable for achieving them. . . . The entire curriculum is redesigned into coherent, thematic programs, courses and units that support the outcomes.”

So some Outcomes proponents want the entire curriculum—all educational practices— redesigned to aim at nothing more or less than achieving measurable outcomes.  That is scary stuff.  I for one am not sure how prevalent Bateman’s view is.  Let’s conclude that it’s scary enough that it’s worth taking Soloway seriously in the next post.

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