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    A blog by John Warner, author of The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.

I Am a Blender: Hear Me Chop!
May 27, 2014 - 9:12pm

I despair.

As reported by Michael D. Shear at the New York Times, Obama administration deputy undersecretary for education Jamienne Studley told a group of college presidents that when it comes to evaluating colleges, “It’s like rating a blender.”

I despair because apparently Jamienne Studley is an important person in directing federal higher education policy. She is also the former president of Skidmore College. One has to imagine that she knows better, that she is aware of the complexities of education, of the difficulty of assessing these things and yet here she is declaring that colleges as blenders is, “Not so hard to get your mind around.”

I’ve been trying and failing to get my mind around it since I first read Rich’s report.

Aaron Barlow at Academe Blog offers a short and sweet destruction of this nonsense.

Barlow pointing out the obvious shortcomings of this analogy makes me feel a little better, but I despair because Jamienne Studley’s remarks are a stark reminder about how off track we’ve gotten, that the battle is already lost.

If we are even engaging in the “Is a college education like a blender?” debate, we are so obviously on the wrong track that I have no reasonable suggestion to bring us back to some measure of reality.

We seem to have fallen in love with data, believing that it has the potential to unlock secrets to just about anything. Nate Silver thinks he can hack journalism. Quantitative Self advocates believe they can live happily ever after if they can identify the sweet spot of sleep, amino acid intake, and meditation.

Advocates of the Obama administration’s college rating system think they can tell us which schools are doing best by their students.

But the thing is, we don’t live our lives as data. We are not inputs and outputs.

Our lives are narrative. Education is not a product but a process, a series of experiences that shape who we are, and to reduce this to ratings in the same way we might a household kitchen item is idiotic.

Jamienne Studley’s remark should disqualify her from the conversation. She is, despite her impressive credentials, not a serious person when it comes to thinking about higher education policy.

During the semester, I am too busy in the trenches, trying to engage my students in this work that I believe matters. There is no time to worry when there’s so much work to do.

But as summer affords me the luxury of time, I dwell, and lately, I despair.

If we are going to rate colleges, we should be heading towards the metrics used in the recent Gallup survey of life after college.

This survey seeks to measure engagement and well-being, the lives people lead after college. If we are going to trust in data, why do we not trust this survey that makes it clear that the experiences of college, such as faculty mentoring, or internships, or extracurriculars are what lead to success and happiness?

But no, we’re a blender. Chop, puree, coarse mix.

The headline on the Times article says that colleges are “rattled” by this initiative, which I suppose is true. It’s the sort of thing where you can’t believe that someone is foolish enough to try it when the negative consequences are so foreseeable.

I can’t even muster the will to argue against it. President Obama’s determination to do something “bold” seems to be fixed in place.

At a Department of Education blog post Jamienne Studley claims to be seeking guidance from “thousands of wise voices.” I hope the administration is listening to educators. 

I have my doubts, though.

I pray I’m wrong.

--

Twitter often causes despair, but occasionally, also provides enlightenment, so I persist.

 

 

 

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