MLA Grades Spellings Commission

Panel faulted for ignoring humanities, urged to shun No Child Left Behind model, and praised for talking about standards.
March 30, 2007

Some academic groups had so little respect for the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education that they were happy to be off of its radar screen. Not so for the tens of thousands of English and language professors who make up the Modern Language Association.

Today the MLA will release its evaluation of the Spellings Commission's evaluation of American higher education.  And by far the biggest criticism the MLA will offer is that the panel appointed by Education Secretary Margaret Spellings ignored the humanities. But one of the most controversial parts of the commission's agenda -- its call for more assessment of what students learn -- is actually endorsed by the MLA, with caveats over how that assessment will be carried out.

The statement adopted by the MLA's Executive Council and being released today by the association follows months of discussion among MLA members. "Some people wanted to reject everything about the report, but many of us who had been doing outcomes assessment for a long time" didn't want to do so, and many professors "think it's healthy to treat this as an opportunity, rather than be defensive," said Gerald Graff, a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago and an MLA vice president who led the discussions and drafting of the statement.

Graff, author of Beyond the Culture Wars and Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind, said that in some ways, he was surprised to find the humanities so ignored. He said he expected to find conservative analysis of the "defense of great books, Allan Bloom style of rhetoric," and found none. "It's sort of refreshing," Graff said, that the humanities weren't bashed, but "disturbing that the humanities were completely shut out" in favor of a vision of higher education that focuses on science, technology and jobs.

The MLA is not the first group to note with concern the Spellings Commission's lack of engagement with the humanities. Phi Beta Kappa, which generally does not take public policy positions, announced in January that it was opposing the Spellings Commission because of its "omission of the role of the liberal arts and sciences in sustaining the excellence of American higher education."  Likewise, a statement from the Association of American Colleges and Universities noted the Spellings Commission's "complete failure even to mention the importance of history, culture, the humanities, the arts...." 

In the case of the MLA, the association both noted the importance of the humanities and also questioned how the United States could achieve the goals of the Spellings Commission if education is defined too narrowly.

"The commission makes virtually no mention of the humanities, despite their established central role in higher education. The humanities are conspicuously missing from the report’s assertion that the United States 'must ensure the capacity of its universities to achieve global leadership in key strategic areas such as science, engineering, medicine, and other knowledge-intensive professions' and from the report’s statement that achieving this global leadership requires 'increased federal investment' in the scientific and technical fields that are 'critical to our nation’s global competitiveness," the MLA statement says.

It adds: "Yet, although the report ignores the humanities, the educational skills it emphasizes are precisely those that the humanities are credited with developing. A persistent theme of the report is the urgent need to produce college graduates who have mastered 'critical thinking, writing, and problem solving skills needed in today’s workplaces,' that is, the very skills the humanities teach.... Indeed, since it is hard to imagine scientists, engineers, and doctors doing their jobs competently without a command of critical-thinking, writing, and problem-solving skills, the humanities are no less crucial than the sciences to 'global leadership in key strategic areas.'

"Other strategic areas surely include government and international diplomacy, where recent history might be different had politicians, journalists, and citizens exercised more of the critical thinking taught in humanities courses. By the Spellings report’s own logic, then, and even by its rather narrowly utilitarian standards, the humanities deserve strong support and 'increased federal investment.' "

On the Spellings Commission's overall critiques of higher education, the MLA agrees with much -- but finds a lack of context. The commission was correct, the MLA report says, to note that too many college graduates lack appropriate skills, that high school and college curricula are poorly aligned in many cases, and that these problems pose particular difficulties for low-income students. But the MLA says that the commission "ignores the strenuous efforts colleges and universities are now making to improve the quality of education and to assess what students are learning."

If the Spellings Commission prompts a testing system like that spawned by the "notoriously flawed No Child Left Behind" law, the association says it will "voice our strongest objections, since the tests that have been instituted in the schools are frequently of questionable intellectual merit and since the report fails to indicate who will devise college-level assessments and tests." Likewise, the MLA criticizes suggestions that cost-cutting is easy to do in higher education without hurting education quality.

But at the same time, the MLA explicitly endorses the idea of more assessment -- provided that "higher education must insist that assessments in its domain continue to be designed and applied with the full participation of local college faculties and administrators." Says the MLA: "It is hard to disagree with the argument that colleges should be held publicly accountable for the quality of education they provide and that careful assessment of what our students learn is a reasonable means of demonstrating such accountability. If these principles are applied in an intelligent fashion and with full cooperation by American colleges and universities, the report of the Spellings commission can usefully spur them in their continuing effort to improve the education they offer."

Graff said that he believed strongly not only in accountability, but in the importance of being able to make comparisons and set standards. The concerns of the MLA and his concerns aren't about accountability, but about the validity of the measures to be used. "It's bunk to evade reasonable evaluation," he said, but it also doesn't make sense to use "anti-intellectual tests."

Charles Miller, the chair of the Spellings Commission, offered via e-mail a mixed reaction to the MLA's reaction to his panel's report. While the MLA statement expressed support for assessment, Miller is skeptical.

"There is a general questioning of who is to do this 'outcomes assessment,' fretting that somehow the faculty won't be included; a claim that these assessments are already under way in the academy, which is an admission that they are needed, yet with an open ended timetable; a direct accusation that the recommendation for accountability is a version of NCLB, along with a gratuitous swipe at it being 'notoriously flawed'; and it finishes with the territorial claim for assessments to have the 'full participation of college faculties and administrators.' Frankly, these kinds of defensive, distracting whines take away from the other high minded remarks of the MLA."

Miller said there wasn't time to wait to consider solutions "when there is a general sense in the public and in the academy that the historical humanities curriculum has been watered down, that grade inflation is a fact of life, that the time on the task of teaching and learning has been seriously reduced, and that objective evidence shows a long term decline in literacy."

On one issue -- the centrality of the humanities -- Miller said that he did not disagree with the MLA, although he didn't see as much significance to the lack of explicit mention of the humanities in the report.

"I don't disagree about the central role of humanities, past present or future," he said. "Perhaps the commission could have emphasized that role specifically. However, in developing its report the commission tended to avoid references to 'segments' or 'specialties' in higher education. No matter how many subtopics we might try to devise and discuss, we would always leave something or somebody out....  We were influenced to focus on the STEM disciplines specifically by an enormous and simultaneous effort on the part of the academic and  business communities, and the press, to create that focus. The MLA response and point of view should provide us a more balanced perspective, with which I agree."


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