Politics & Policy

Prove You’re Not Stupid

Secretary Spellings's dubious reform dooms a voice of reason.

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings will kill off one of the most promising reforms in higher education of the last half century during the coming days. The funeral, I expect, will be sparsely attended; but I’ll be among the mourners.

In 1987 Allan Bloom’s book The Closing of the American Mind aroused national furor by describing — convincingly to millions of readers — what had gone wrong with American colleges and universities. Bloom depicted the university as awash in cultural relativism, emotionally shallow, robustly strong in the natural sciences but intellectually anemic in every other discipline, and careless about the core tradition of the philosophical search for truth.

Other writers caught fire from the sparks of The Closing of the American Mind and for nearly a decade traditionalist-minded academics extended Bloom’s critique. Some also took practical initiatives. The late 1980s saw the birth of the National Association of Scholars. In the 1990s, breakaway groups created scholarly alternatives to the politically correct American Historical Association and the Modern Language Association. And in this ferment, the American Academy of Liberal Education (AALE) was also founded.

AALE was intended as a practical response to a practical problem. The problem was (and is) that colleges and universities cannot operate in the United States without accreditation but accreditation was then entirely in the hands of the bland technocrats that Bloom identified as the hapless enablers of the university’s new elite. Bloom never concerned himself with something as mundane as accreditation, but in practical reality, accreditation counts for a lot. And accreditation itself had succumbed to relativism.

How? The primary rule for all of the major accreditors in the U.S. is that a college or university lives up to its “mission.” If a college’ mission is to prepare students to get into law school, the accreditor will be satisfied to see that pre-law courses and advising lead in this direction; that the library has law books; and that a healthy percentage of graduates do in fact get into law school. If a college’s mission is to prepare students for the ancient and honorable trade of acupuncture, then the curriculum should identify the puncture points and the faculty should know their chi.

We can stand back and look at this system with a certain degree of approbation. Americans want to learn a great variety of things and it is certainly fitting that we have a flexible system for identifying those colleges that come up to snuff in actually performing whatever it is they say they do. Our country’s accreditation system works pretty well in this regard.

It does, however, have a disturbing loophole. Accreditation has no good answer to the Bloomian complaint that no one is minding the real store. College deans, provosts, and presidents have long since shrugged off the responsibility for guaranteeing that the curriculum teaches students the hard skill of discerning the gleam of truth in the forest of falsehood. College faculties find it awkward to pronounce some subjects as more foundational than others, and harder still to reject a subject as too trivial for higher education. Colleges still have a certain rhetorical stake in mentioning Shakespeare or citing Plato, but are loath to make graduation depend on actual knowledge of any particular books.

Higher education earns its claim to being higher and not just “later” by living up to an implicit promise that it will teach students to think with greater clarity and precision, and that it will foster those skills in the pursuit of knowledge that is more encompassing, richer, and better than the knowledge to be had by entering a trade or reading the almanac. This is a way of thinking about higher education that has faded in the American mind. Or, as Bloom would have it, this is what we lost when the American mind closed.

That’s not to say that high-quality liberal education has disappeared in the United States. It still exists, but in many cases the definition of high-quality liberal education has shifted. We now have our commitments to diversity; a lavish emphasis on critical thinking; and sedulous cultivation of leadership. None of these, however, are exactly what they seem. Diversity is an ideology based on group affiliation and theories of social oppression, and not about the diversity of ideas. Critical thinking, in practice, amounts to teaching students to be banal skeptics who know little more than how to feed other people’s thoughts into an all-purpose shredder. And leadership means something like aggressive promotion of already fashionable ideas.

AALE was created not as a battering ram against this complacent edifice of American higher education, but as refuge for the small number of colleges and universities that might voluntarily want something better. AALE was, in short, the accreditor for those institutions that wanted to make a go at upholding the real liberal arts tradition. AALE didn’t find a large number of takers. And AALE turned down some applicants whose ambitions outran their abilities. But AALE was unquestionably the nation’s strongest voice for higher education conceived as higher education. Many colleges and universities that stuck with their old accreditors were influenced by AALE’s standards. In the last fifteen years, hundreds of colleges have adopted new liberal arts “core curricula,” and the idea that college should be no more than the sum of the individual student’s intellectual wanderings has lost much of its cachet.

But Secretary Spellings has decided that AALE is dispensable. The immediate reason is that AALE came up short in a review in December by a special committee appointed by the Secretary, the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI). But that’s the usual Washington smokescreen. What’s really going on is that Secretary Spellings is in the midst of a bold initiative to change the relation between the Department of Education and the nation’s colleges and universities.

I will have more to say about that initiative in another article, but its basic feature is to promote a stringent system of testing across all of American higher education, with the results reported back to Washington. This reform doesn’t have a catchy name yet like “No Child Left Behind,” but its spirit is very similar President Bush’s K-12 program. The logic is something like this: “Colleges are supposed to teach something. O.K., let’s determine what the students have learned and which colleges are doing a good job at the task.” For the moment, let’s call Secretary Spellings’s college initiative PYNS — for Prove You’re Not Stupid.

PYNS may sound like a healthy serving of common sense if you are thinking about colleges that soak up federal student loans and graduate marginally literate lunk-heads; and it may seem good medicine for universities with transvestite studies programs and the like that merely indoctrinate students in some version of victim idolatry. But PYNS comes at a considerable cost of intellectual freedom.

That’s because genuine liberal arts education cannot easily be fit to a regime of incessant outcomes assessment. Some things in education are easily measured; some can be measured only with difficulty; and some really defy reliable measurement. We can determine a student’s proficiency in reading or math; we can estimate a student’s comprehension of Plato or the Federalist Papers. But we face a daunting challenge to measure the depth of a student’s insight into a system of philosophy; the quality of a student’s grasp of Cymbeline or Beethoven’s violin sonata in F; how well a student holds in suspension the contradictions that lie between competing disciplines such as economics and political theory; and how fully a student synthesizes the disparities that lie between great theorists who disagree, or between the same thought expressed in two languages.

Those are only some of the “outcomes” that we might wish for someone who seeks a truly liberal education. They are all, in the best sense, immeasurable — which means, of course, they can all be faked. Lots of things get called “liberal education” that don’t even come close. And that’s why we need the discernment of the people that AALE gathers to review the handful of colleges that still aspire to these heights.

I don’t doubt that Secretary Spellings means well. She wants to curtail the abuses of those colleges and universities that offer degrees without providing a real education. Her reform, however, is likely to do real damage to the hard-won efforts of conservatives and academic traditionalists to sustain liberal education in its true sense. Secretary Spellings should find a way to keep AALE going. As to her general embrace of “outcomes assessment,” I will address that soon in a separate article.


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