The Commission on Higher Education continues to work its way through a set of problems in American universities today, but a few issues and answers are coming into focus. One is accountability, or rather the weakness of existing accountability systems for measuring the most important thing about a college education: what and how much students learn. A memo from the chairman of the Commission, Charles Miller, states, “There is gathering momentum for measuring through testing what students learn or what skills they acquire in college beyond a traditional certificate or degree.” Although the proposals for testing focus too much on mental habits and not enough on knowledge (“critical thinking, analytic reasoning, problem solving, and written communication” over knowledge of history, politics, art, civics, etc.), the prospect of a general assessment of soon-to-be-graduates might shine a harsh, if partial light on the quality of instruction taking place.
The worth of the Commission’s work may be measured by the anxiety it is causing among campus administrators. They insist that their accountability mechanisms are strong. A letter from Roger Bowen, General Secretary of the AAUP, says, “Faculty members are accountable for their work in many ways–much more so than most professionals in private industry.” Peer review and student evaluations, he goes on to say, submit faculty work to “their toughest critics.” That may be true in the hard sciences, but in the humanities, not at all. Peer review only works if the field has a sufficient amount of agreement about methodological rules and disagreement about content. In the humanities, we have the opposite. People question method, truth, objectivity, and other epistemological grounds, and yet they conform wholeheartedly on substantive issues.
Fortunately, the Commission doesn’t seem to be buying the protestations, and the wisest academic leaders realize the momentum is against them.