This is a continuation of the “conversation” I had with faculty, students, and administration at Assumption College. I’m not describing what’s going on at any particular college — certainly not my Berry College — but some general trends that have come to my attention. Wherever I go, faculty devoted to teaching philosophy, theology, literature, and political philosophy pretty much affirm that the below is on the money:
1. The competencies adopted by various schools are increasingly alike. That’s not surprising, on one level, because “content” is a source of diversity and “method” is a source of unity. And that unity is bolstered, of course, by the claim that all competencies must be measured or validated by the universal language of mathematics. That’s hard, for example, for the conscientious professor of philosophy, who might be about following Socrates’ art “turning around” described in the Republic. The process by which a particular person might be liberated from the shadowy illusions of the “cave” or dogmatic conventions to live in the light of the truth is necessarily slow and is a combination of content and method (and a lot more!) specific to the longings and abilities of that person. Here’s a competency or “learning objective” I might propose: Students will be turned at least 12 degrees in the direction of the light that is the unadorned truth about nature and who each of us is. And I would of course attach a rubric.
2. Competencies are chosen allegedly because they are precise and measurable. And I’m not against them when that’s actually true, as long as we don’t confuse them with what most of higher education is. So basic competencies might be expository writing and a basic facility in using and understanding the use of statistics. But so many competencies are both vague and redundant. Take “critical thinking,” for example. If it’s not critical in some sense, it is not thinking. The competency should be thinking, which is a lot harder to do than many experts think. People who deploy unironically (especially in higher education) phrases like “disruptive innovation” are not only not displaying the competency of thinking themselves; they’re impeding your mastery of it.
3. Up the scale of vagueness we find “intercultural knowledge” and “civic and global engagement.” Now if “intercultural knowledge” is actually content-based knowledge about more than one culture, with a comparative dimension, I assume it’s too content-driven to actually be a competency. If it’s a method, then its measurement would seemingly be attitudinal in the sense of a student’s not being excessively attached to any particular culture. And “engagement” would seem to involve activity more than knowing, and it’s hard to know why some set quantity of activity could be a goal of higher education. In any case, as we see in the case of Socrates, “engagement” is a “learning experience” only if preceded by a considerable amount of primarily bookish learning. In Socrates’ case, it requires knowledge of your ignorance, which most people do not know enough to have. It is typically not displayed by “social-justice warriors” getting credit for civic engagement. It is telling, of course, that virtually nobody is giving credit for being a tea-party activist. I have nothing against learning through service or the pursuit of justice in political life, but I think they should be voluntary or not for credit.
4. It’s telling, of course, how similar the descriptions of the vague competencies are across our colleges and universities. Our various administrator-driven organizations, such as the American Association of Colleges and Universities (the website of which is shoulder-deep in jargon), helpfully make model language available, which is routinely plagiarized or sampled by colleges in search of acceptable competencies. Various foundations — such as Lumina (which is very insistent about reconstructing all of American higher education in terms of competencies) — also provide language that allegedly generates measurable outcomes and is guaranteed to be acceptable to accreditors. It’s really quite stunning how much “the tail is wagging the dog” as colleges reform their curricula these days, with being acceptable for accreditation assumptions trumping real discussions on what young men and women who claim to have a higher education actually need to know and do.
5. The imposition of increasingly detailed and otherwise intrusive competency-based uniformity is an administrative project enforced by the accrediting associations (backed up by foundations and government bureaucrats). Accrediting associations reflect the class consciousness of administrators as such. That class consciousness is increasingly defined against the faculty or the fecklessness of faculty governance and as the real intellectual labor of the institution. We notice, of course, the burgeoning bloat of the number of administrators on campus, as the number of instructors (relative to enrollment) declines gently, the number of temporary and adjunct faculty soars, and the number of credit hours generated by tenured and tenure-track faculty falls steadily and rather rapidly.
6. The administration-hyped specter of losing accreditation feeds the urgent imperative to reform to comply with the accreditors’ demands. There’s little effort to defend the demands as reasonable, much less the way we would ordinarily go or the only way to go. Faculty are told you gotta do what you gotta do. The key to being accredited is creating the right (measurable competency-based) kind of culture of assessment. Everyone knows, of course, that colleges could be good and even great without having said culture, just as everyone knows that a college can be little better than nothing and be about assessing every nook and cranny. To require a competency-driven culture of assessment in order to be certified as fit for government money, beginning with subsidized student loans, is objectively tyrannical. I’ve already explain why administrators put up with that.
7. The administrative goal is to standardize higher education. Considerable success has already been achieved. Benjamin Ginsberg, noticing that most colleges have emptied out their historic missions and replaced them with remarkably similar consultant-generated clichés, has recommended that, as a powerful cost-saving device, institutions band together and create a centralized massive open online administration (MOOA) that generates standardized strategic services for a huge number of institutions. It goes without saying that he’s (sort of) joking. That would be huge branding error. Institutions prudently tout their distinctiveness in reforms that mirror what their “peers and aspirants” are doing.
8. Something likes a MOOA exists rather covertly, and it meets at the various conferences of administrators. That, of course, is an exaggeration, but the “teachable moment” generated by an exaggeration comes by the fact that it highlights in neon letters a truth that might otherwise be missed in a more measured analysis. If your college president or provost has promise as a genuinely free-thinking countercultural leader, make sure you deprogram him or her when he or she gets back from such conferences. Even better, encourage your administrators not to go.
9. Standardization seems to mean scripting courses according to expert-developed best practices. That’s why faculty, each year, are compelled (allegedly to satisfy accreditors) to have longer and more minutely defined syllabi. A recent breakthrough is that faculty are required to figure out how much time students should spend on each particular task required of them. That way “external constituencies” can see that you’re requiring neither too much nor too little. This might really be possible when it comes to solving some problems in statistics or preparing a PowerPoint presentation. But what about, say, reading Plato’s Apology? A student could read it in a couple of hours. But to really understand much of it requires weeks or months or years. Should we tell students that if they take more than the time allotted they’re overdoing it? Or should we say, more reasonably, that what we have here is a precious opportunity for lifelong learning? A whole course on one short Platonic dialogue should be an indispensably civilizing experience for everyone who claims to have received a higher education.