Nowadays, many liberal arts colleges promote the economic value of a liberal education. They boast that the impressive careers of liberal arts graduates offer an excellent return on students' tuition investment. Thus, while the cost of a quality liberal education may be high, the economic benefits down the line are greater still.
But while the economic success of liberal arts graduates is certainly worth lauding, we may be missing something more fundamental here. When, as a lawyer-turned-professor, I consider my own liberal education, I can see how it did much more than enhance my career prospects. In fundamental ways, it helped me connect my career aspirations to a meaningful, satisfying life. Looking back over 25 years now, I see how at its best my liberal education offered me increased possibilities not only of money, but significantly, of happiness.
An enduring puzzle of our times is why our well-documented rise in incomes has not led to an increase in our subjective well-being. While well educated Americans are clearly getting wealthier, we are not reporting higher levels of happiness.
Economist Robert Frank offers an intriguing explanation to this puzzle, one that bears on how we think about the value of a liberal arts education. The problem, he says, is not what we make, but how we spend it. "[G]ains in happiness that might have been expected to result from growth in absolute income have not materialized because of the ways in which people in affluent societies have generally spent their incomes."
The difficulty, according to Frank, is that we spend our money in conspicuous ways - such as on bigger houses - that are especially subject to the psychological process of adaptation. Under this process, as people generally buy bigger houses, the social norm for house size increases. Adapting to this rising standard, we need to spend more to get a house we can regard as acceptable. But while we come to spend more for our homes, we do not derive greater pleasure from them. Rather, the size of house that is needed to satisfy us has simply increased. If we wish our growing wealth to help make us happier, says Frank, we need to shift our resources to what he calls "inconspicuous goods." These goods aren’t really goods, but are conditions, like avoiding a long commute or leaving a stressful job. And when our wealth helps us do these things, it does make us happier.
The picture is different for long commutes and stressful jobs because such experiences are less subject to the psychological process of adaptation that occurs with the increasing number of larger houses. "As it turns out," writes Frank, "our capacity to adapt varies considerably across domains." While we easily get used to larger homes, we never completely adjust to longer commutes.
Thus, the key to happier lives is spending more of our resources on inconspicuous goods, those marked by our lesser capacity to adapt. Because increased spending on such goods is more likely to foster our subjective well-being, we are here better able to get our money's worth.
Frank's argument is an intriguing one for me, as at midlife I deepen my understanding of the value of my own liberal education. A central benefit of a liberal arts education is an enhanced capacity for critical thinking, the ability to subject to independent scrutiny the received norms of our environment. It is because of this enhanced capacity to scrutinize social convention that liberal education works to liberate individuals, enabling them to choose freely their own views, rather than simply relying on tradition or authority.
Thus in principle, a liberally educated individual should be less subject to the process of adaptation Frank describes. This is because this adaptation process is rooted in the very social norms the liberal arts graduate has developed the capacity to scrutinize critically.
Because a liberally educated person develops a critical distance from the norms of his environment, he has, under Frank's analysis, a greater potential for happiness. In conspicuous purchases such as houses, he is less likely to need to exceed the norm to insure happiness and more likely to avoid unhappiness if below the norm. Less bound to more conspicuous spending, he also has the freedom to devote more of his resources to the inconspicuous goods that offer a greater contribution to his well-being.
I saw this transformation in myself, while undergoing my own liberal education. I had always been a night owl and fell easily into the rhythms of student life as an English major at Wesleyan University. As my college years progressed, I remember distinctly watching less TV. In classrooms and conversations, I was discovering a world more engaging and enduring than the world of conspicuous consumption then displayed on network television. I still kept my late-night hours, but the “Tonight Show” gave way to the stories of Melville and Kafka, two writers more concerned with understanding human psychology and relationships than acquiring material goods. The result was that, during my senior year, I don't recall ever discussing the size of house I hoped to live in. But I remember distinctly a line I repeated often when asked of my ambitions. I'd say: "Give me a library and the woman I love - and I'll be happy."
As a middle-aged, family man, my life is more complex now, but its underlying values abide. I met - and married - the woman I love. She delights and surprises me almost daily. And in my current academic job, I enjoy access to a first-rate library that satisfies even my overly curious mind. To be sure, I've even come to live in a very nice home, one that's far larger than the national norm. But when my friend tells me he could never move back to a smaller house, I immediately sense a difference between us. I've learned that my happiness depends less on where I live and more on what I treasure.
Vocational training, by definition, is designed to enhance our productive capacities. It equips us with skills for occupations ranging from X-ray technician to software engineer. Liberal education contributes to our productive lives as well, as I know firsthand from my own legal career.
But liberal education can do more. Significantly, it affects not only our skills as producers, but also our discernment as consumers. When it works, it changes for the better the satisfactions we seek. Over the course of a lifetime, a discriminating sensibility in this regard can contribute more to our happiness than the raises our jobs provide.
Of course, liberal education performs this broader role only when it confers more than intellectual insights. A liberal education must reinforce such insights in a way that fosters in students a new set of habits and dispositions. Such an education's intellectual virtues must, in short, become moral ones.
I have no doubt that this has always been a difficult task. Indeed, as a professor teaching today, I see it's becoming harder as an already overly commercialized culture becomes even more so. But I know from my current vantage point how a liberal education succeeded with me in ways my earlier self couldn't have foreseen. More importantly, I see in my classes how students surprise themselves daily with the persons they are becoming.
Thus, in promoting the value of a liberal education to the wider public, we should attend to the way it can change the consumers we become. Altering the satisfactions a person seeks changes his life in ways more profound than the paycheck he receives. For the wider public, this is the story of liberal education that has yet to be told. I suspect we can tell it best by telling our own individual stories, how our liberal educations transformed our lives, and how happiness in an unexpected way became possible.
Jeffrey Nesteruk is a professor at Franklin & Marshall College.
Little doubt exists that the nation’s college faculty has become less intellectually diverse over the past generation. According to one recent study, self-described liberals or leftists increased from 39 percent in 1984 to 72 percent now, with even higher percentages among the ranks of humanities and social science professors. Speaking for the educational establishment, Jonathan Knight of the American Association of University Professors doubted "that these liberal views cut very deeply into the education of students."
Knight might have looked at teacher-training programs before issuing his comment. There, the faculty’s ideological imbalance has allowed three factors -- a new accreditation policy, changes in how students are evaluated and curricular orientation around a theme of “social justice” -- to impose a de facto political litmus test on the next cohort of public school teachers.
There would seem little or no reason why academic departments would seek to promote social justice, which is essentially a political goal. Though the concept derives from religious thought, “social justice” in contemporary society is guided primarily by a person’s political beliefs: on abortion, or the Middle East, or affirmative action, partisans on both sides deem their position socially just. Literally and theoretically, though never in practice, education programs could define a number of causes as demonstrating a commitment to social justice -- perhaps championing Israel’s right to self-defense, so as to defend innocent civilians against suicide murderers; or celebrating a Roman Catholic anti-abortion initiative, so as to promote justice by preventing the destruction of innocent life; or opposing affirmative action, so as to achieve a socially just, color-blind, legal code. Yet, as surveys like those criticized by Knight suggest, adherents of such views are scarce in the academy.
Despite this clear threat of politicization, however, dozens of prominent education programs demand that their students promote social justice. For example:
At the State University of New York at Oneonta, prospective teachers must “provide evidence of their understanding of social justice in teaching activities, journals, and portfolios . . . and identify social action as the most advanced level.”
The program at the University of Kansas expects students to be “more global than national and concerned with ideals such as world peace, social justice, respect for diversity and preservation of the environment.”
The University of Vermont’s department envisions creating “a more humane and just society, free from oppression, that fosters respect for ethnic and cultural diversity.”
Marquette’s program “has a commitment to social justice in schools and society,” producing teachers who will use the classroom “to transcend the negative effects of the dominant culture.”
According to the University of Toledo, “Education is our prime vehicle for creating the ‘just’ society,” since “we are preparing citizens to lead productive lives in a democratic society characterized by social justice.”
This rhetoric is admirable. Yet, as the hotly contested campaigns of 2000 and 2004 amply demonstrated, people of good faith disagree on the components of a “just society,” or what constitutes the “negative effects of the dominant culture,” or how best to achieve “world peace . . . and preservation of the environment.”
An intellectually diverse academic culture would ensure that these vague sentiments did not yield one-sided policy prescriptions for students. But the professoriate cannot dismiss its ideological and political imbalance as meaningless while simultaneously implementing initiatives based on a fundamentally partisan agenda.
Instead of downplaying the issue, education programs have adjusted their evaluation criteria to increase its importance. Traditionally, prospective teachers needed to demonstrate knowledge of their subject field and mastery of essential educational skills. In recent years, however, an amorphous third criterion called “dispositions” has emerged. As one conference devoted to the concept explained, using this standard would produce “teachers who possess knowledge and discernment of what is good or virtuous.” Advocates leave ideologically one-sided education departments to determine “what is good or virtuous” in the world.
In 2002, the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education explicitly linked dispositions theory to ensuring ideological conformity among education students. Rather than asking why teachers’ political beliefs are in any way relevant to their ability to perform well in the classroom, NCATE issued new guidelines requiring education departments that listed social justice as a goal to “include some measure of a candidate’s commitment to social justice” when evaluating the “dispositions” of their students. As neither traditional morality nor social justice commitment in any way guarantee high-quality teachers, this strategy only deflects attention away from the all-important goal of training educators who have command of content and the ability to instruct.
The program at my own institution, Brooklyn College, exemplifies how application of NCATE’s new approach can easily be used to screen out potential public school teachers who hold undesirable political beliefs. Brooklyn’s education faculty, which assumes as fact that “an education centered on social justice prepares the highest quality of future teachers,” recently launched a pilot initiative to assess all education students on whether they are “knowledgeable about, sensitive to and responsive to issues of diversity and social justice as these influence curriculum and pedagogy, school culture, relationships with colleagues and members of the school community, and candidates’ analysis of student work and behavior.”
At the undergraduate level, these high-sounding principles have been translated into practice through a required class called “Language and Literacy Development in Secondary Education.” According to numerous students, the course’s instructor demanded that they recognize “white English” as the “oppressors’ language.” Without explanation, the class spent its session before Election Day screening Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. When several students complained to the professor about the course’s politicized content, they were informed that their previous education had left them “brainwashed” on matters relating to race and social justice.
Troubled by this response, at least five students filed written complaints with the department chair last December. They received no formal reply, but soon discovered that their coming forward had negative consequences. One senior was told to leave Brooklyn and take an equivalent course at a community college. Two other students were accused of violating the college’s “academic integrity” policy and refused permission to bring a witness, a tape recorder, or an attorney to a meeting with the dean of undergraduate studies to discuss the allegation. Despite the unseemly nature of retaliating against student whistleblowers, Brooklyn’s overall manner of assessing commitment to “social justice” conforms to NCATE’s recommendations, previewing what we can expect as other education programs more aggressively scrutinize their students’ “dispositions” on the matter.
Must prospective public school teachers accept a professor’s argument that “white English” is the “oppressors’ language” in order to enter the profession? In our ideologically imbalanced academic climate, the combination of dispositions theory and the new NCATE guidelines risk producing a new generation of educators certified not because they mastered their subject but because they expressed fealty to the professoriate’s conception of “social justice.”
KC Johnson is a professor of history at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.Â
Over the last generation, most colleges and universities have experienced considerable grade inflation. Much lamented by traditionalists and explained away or minimized by more permissive faculty, the phenomenon presents itself both as an increase in students’ grade point averages at graduation as well as an increase in high grades and a decrease in low grades recorded for individual courses. More prevalent in humanities and social science than in science and math courses and in elite private institutions than in public institutions, discussion about grade inflation generates a great deal of heat, if not always as much light.
While the debate on the moral virtues of any particular form of grade distribution fascinates as cultural artifact, the variability of grading standards has a more practical consequence. As grades increasingly reflect an idiosyncratic and locally defined performance levels, their value for outside consumers of university products declines. Who knows what an "A" in American History means? Is the A student one of the top 10 percent in the class or one of the top 50 percent?
Fuzziness in grading reflects a general fuzziness in defining clearly what we teach our students and what we expect of them. When asked to defend our grading practices by external observers -- parents, employers, graduate schools, or professional schools -- our answers tend toward a vague if earnest exposition on the complexity of learning, the motivational differences in evaluation techniques, and the pedagogical value of learning over grading. All of this may well be true in some abstract sense, but our consumers find our explanations unpersuasive and on occasion misleading.
They turn, then, to various forms of standardized testing. When the grades of an undergraduate have an unpredictable relevance to a standard measure performance, and when high quality institutions that should set the performance standard routinely give large proportions of their students “A” grades, others must look elsewhere for some reliable reference. A 3.95 GPA should reflect the same level of preparation for students from different institutions.
Because they do not, we turn to the GMAT, LSAT, GRE, or MCAT, to take four famous examples. These tests normalize the results from the standards-free zone of American higher education. The students who aspire to law or medical school all have good grades, especially in history or organic chemistry. In some cases, a student’s college grades may prove little more than his or her ability to fulfill requirements and mean considerably less than the results of a standardized test that attempts to identify precisely what the student knows that is relevant to the next level of academic activity.
Although many of us worry that these tests may be biased against various subpopulations, emphasize the wrong kind of knowledge, and encourage students to waste time and money on test prep courses, they have one virtue our grading system does not provide: The tests offer a standardized measure of a specific and clearly defined subset of knowledge deemed useful by those who require them for admission to graduate or professional study.
Measuring State Investment
If the confusion over the value of grades and test scores were not enough, we discover that at least for public institutions, our state accountability systems focus heavily on an attempt to determine whether student performance reflects a reasonable value for taxpayer investment in colleges and universities. This accountability process engages a wide range of measures -- time to degree, graduation rate, student satisfaction, employment, graduate and professional admission, and other indicators of undergraduate performance -- but even with the serious defects in most of these systems, they respond to the same problems as do standardized tests.
Our friends and supporters have little confidence in the self-generated mechanisms we use to specify the achievement of our students. If the legislature believed that students graduating with a 3.0 GPA were all good performers measured against a rigorous national standard applied to reasonably comparable curricula, they would not worry much about accountability. They would just observe whether our students learned enough to earn a nationally normed 3.0 GPA.
Of course, we have no such mechanism to validate the performance of our students. We do not know whether our graduates leave better or worse prepared than the students from other institutions. We too, in recognition of the abdication of our own academic authority as undergraduate institutions, rely on the GRE, MCAT, LSAT, and GMAT to tell us whether the students who apply (including our own graduates) can meet the challenges of advanced study at our own universities.
Partly this follows from another peculiarity of the competitive nature of the American higher education industry. Those institutions we deem most selective enroll students with high SATs on average (recognizing that a high school record is valuable only when validated in some fashion by a standardized test). Moreover, because selective institutions admit smart students who have the ability to perform well, and because these institutions have gone to such trouble to recruit them, elite colleges often feel compelled to fulfill the prophecy of the students’ potential by ensuring that most graduate with GPA’s in the A range. After all, they may say, average does not apply to our students because they are all, by definition, above average.
When reliable standards of performance weaken in any significant and highly competitive industry, consumers seek alternative external means of validating the quality of the services provided. The reluctance of colleges and universities, especially the best among us, to define what they expect from their students in any rigorous and comparable way, brings accreditation agencies, athletic organizations, standardized test providers, and state accountability commissions into the conversation, measuring the value of the institution’s results against various nationally consistent expectations of performance.
We academics dislike these intrusions into our academic space because they coerce us to teach to the tests or the accountability systems, but the real enemy is our own unwillingness to adopt rigorous national standards of our own.
How often have we heard, “People with talent and ideas are America’s greatest resource”? And yet, while colleges and universities have as their primary goal the delivery of top quality academic programs, few take full advantage of the talents that are available to help meet this goal from the retired professionals in their communities.
In most university and college communities there is a growing pool of talented retired or transitioning individuals who would like nothing more than to make a difference by using their knowledge and experience to improve their communities and institutions while continuing the process of their own personal development.
Added to this resource is the emerging wave of boomers who will be not retiring in the traditional way. They will be reinventing themselves as they enter new careers and develop new active roles of service. These will be professionals from a wide variety of fields (education, health, government, the arts, business and nonprofit executives, scientists, engineers, and retired military etc.) who have the energy, interest and ability to continue as active contributing members of society for a longer period of time than any preceding generation. With each year thousands of highly trained individuals are added to this growing but under-utilized pool of talent.
Unfortunately, few colleges and universities have made any formal attempt to develop a successful working relationship between the institution and this exciting and capable source of talent. Relationships have been more a matter of chance than conscious planning.
Most of these focus on the use of retired faculty living in the area or local professionals to serve as part-time faculty to meet a very specific and unmet instructional need. For many retired individuals, this form of relationship is inappropriate, of little interest, or impractical since they may be available for periods of time that do not mesh with the academic calendar. The question then becomes how to best take advantage of more diverse individuals to improve the quality of our institution?
There are a wide range of possible options for involving transitioning or full-time retired persons in the day to day operation of every institution. The alternatives have the potential not only of being extremely beneficial to a college or university and to the community, but at the same time can significantly improve the personal well-being of those who are offering their services. The institution, the community, and the volunteer can all gain from this relationship.
Using the Talent
In addition to teaching a course for credit, other services that these individuals can provide are:
Professional Expertise: Building on their backgrounds, they can serve as guest lecturers, members of panels or as special advisers to students working on team projects In addition, they can be tutors for students who enter courses with special needs or mentors to those students who would like assistance as they address advanced topics in greater depth. The challenge here for faculty is finding the right person or persons with the right set of competencies who will be able to mesh into the instructional sequence that is planned.
Life Experiences: One area of possible service that is often overlooked is the ability for these individuals to bring to the classroom a perspective that may have little or nothing to do with their professional fields of expertise. For example, in every community there are individuals who have lived through the depression of the early 1930’s, served in the military in WWII or the wars that followed, individuals who have lived through the Holocaust or other major genocides, people who have had to face religious or racial intolerance, were active in the Civil Rights Movement, have lived through the challenges of moving to the United States from another country, or have spent parts of their careers working overseas. In each instance, their participation can add a unique dimension to any class studying these periods or subjects. Bringing experts in music, art, or theater into a discussion of a particular period of time or social movement or inviting natives of other countries to discuss the culture and attitudes of different societies can add a texture to a discussion that is otherwise impossible. The key, once again, is the creative use of these various talents within the context of courses and programs.
In nontraditional settings: As more institutions view the out-of-classroom environment as a vital element of the academic and learning experience, these individuals can be used as guest resident counselors, club advisers, program consultants, discussion leaders, etc. Not only can they add a vital element of reality that is so often missing in such activities but, in many cases, they may be available to students at times and in places when most faculty are not.
Adding another dimension: There is one additional use of these citizens that, while rarely taken advantage of, can be of significant benefit to the entire institution. Recent research on how people think has shown that as people mature they become what has been called “transformative” or “critical” thinkers, willing and able to question assumptions, beliefs and traditions. With their extensive backgrounds, these individuals have the potential of adding a unique element to a classroom and the campus. These mature and experienced people can help both students and institutional leaders make plans for the future and address new and often unique challenges.
There are a number of existing programs that can provide details on various approaches. As institutions and communities are different, so are the options. Every program reflects the unique culture of the sponsoring institution; they are not cut from any cookie cutter.
The Elderhostel Institute Network is a central office providing information and resources for Institutes for Learning in Retirement (ILR) in the United States, Canada and Bermuda. Elderhostel and Olli programs (the Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes) provide a core of talented retired individuals. In many other countries these programs are known as Universities of the Third Age (U3A). See this Web site for a complete listing:
In the U.S. there are four interesting programs that reflect this diversity:
The Plato Society, at the University of California at Los Angeles, is a good example of an active program in a complex multipurpose university, with excellent outreach in the community.
The North Carolina Center for Creative Retirement is part of an extensive research program in adult learning issues. The outreach and variety of programs it offers has become a major force in drawing early retirees to this region of the country.
The Academy of Senior Professionals at Eckerd College is one of the earliest and most comprehensive programs in the U.S. In a single day, members are advising students, participating in formal on-campus class activities, or attending peer led sessions for members on drama, studio arts computer technology, science and society, the classics, magic, music, current events, and offering a public forum on “The Politics of Identity in a Global Context." Members with scientific backgrounds have, at the request of government officials, conducted a major study of water resources in the region while others played a key role in designing a leadership training program for implementing change for school districts that was funded by a major community foundation in the area. In the course of a year, 28 forums and lecture series in archeology and musicology were given by members for the general public. Members served on many nonprofit boards and government agencies and played an active role in Elderhostel programs offered at the institution. An annual publication includes creative research and writings by members. Working with Eckerd College, the academy also serves as the sponsor and source of coaches for the college’s student award winning participation in the annual national Ethics Bowl. Members have been requested to serve in about 100 class rooms as either “faculty colleagues” or “resource” persons. In addition, one member, a retired diplomat, funded an endowed scholarship in International Affairs and the members contributed about $750,000 to renovate the building in which they meet, which was once the college president’s home.
Civic Ventures provides a portal through which active seniors can make a difference in society. While not necessarily related to a college or university, many of the Civic Ventures approaches can easily be applied to other programs.
The first challenge that institutions face is establishing a process to locate the individuals with the needed talents and willingness to participate; educate faculty and administrators about the potential use of this group; and make the match between needs and opportunities.
Most significantly, this relationship between the college or university and the community cannot be left to chance. It needs to be planned, communicated and perceived as an integral element in the mission of the institution. Fortunately, the costs involved are modest and the benefits will far outweigh the time, energy and the dollars required. Some key suggestions:
The initial first step is establishing an office to facilitate the program. While, in time, it has the potential of bringing financial resources to the institution, the program should be located in the office of academic affairs and not under development. Avoid any hint of second class academic status in the initial design. It is vital that priorities be placed in three distinct areas: 1) the immediate and long term needs of the institution; 2) the intellectual needs of the volunteers; and 3) the future needs of the community.
Provide some appropriate title (Fellows) with academic privileges such as access to library, research facilities and parking. While most volunteers would not expect to be paid for their services, some formal program of recognition and appreciation should be established.
Draw up an initial list of potential recruits from distinguished prospective professionals in fields that are related to your institution’s curriculum, strengths and needs and to other fields that are of importance to the well-being of the community. It is important that this group be as diversified as possible and not dominated by any one profession or group.
Get faculty, administrative and community involvement from the beginning. Establish a high quality advisory board with representatives from all three categories.
Provide adequate space for meetings and for growth. The space can serve multiple purposes, but transitioning professionals require a “place” as a surrogate office where they can work, meet and network with colleagues, etc. Since parking will be essential, a location near but not necessarily on-campus is most important.
Provide funding and staff for the initial year or two. If the group is successfully meeting the needs of its members it will become self-sufficient in a relatively short period of time.
Create some simple, but formal, organizational structure through Bylaws that will give the group an identity, and related through the office of Academic Affairs. Normally the group itself will be involved in this process during the first year of organization.
This program, if developed with care, has the potential of generating far more benefits to the institution, the individual volunteers and to the community than is immediately apparent. For example, in addition to their instructionally related functions, such a group might serve as:
Ambassadors of the school in the community (volunteers are more credible than paid employees).
A core think-tank, with sub-groups, on a wide variety of issues, and commissioned by community groups for special studies and tasks.
A source of potential research colleagues and collaborators for faculty.
The resource bank for speakers, consultants, etc.
The energy source and place from which professionals develop their own talents, form new professional relationships and spin off new enterprises.
A special “advisory” group for senior institutional officers and sounding board for testing new ideas, evaluation and planning.
A talent bank from which the community can draw pro bono professional services to benefit the non profit infrastructure and municipal government.
A Final Word of Caution
Working with talented and dedicated people is always challenging and rewarding for everyone involved. Therefore it is crucial in programs of this type that both the faculty members and resource persons keep their focus on the objectives of improving the quality of the academic experience for students, the wellbeing of the community and health of the institution. If this primary goal is not clearly articulated from the beginning, some some faculty and administrators may perceive this relationship as an attempt by experienced “outsiders” to take over the classroom or program. The potential for significant impact and a delightful personal experience for faculty, students, administrators and the resource persons is there. They key is to keep focusing on the mission of working together toward a common goal.
Robert M. Diamond and Merle F. Allshouse
Merle F. Allshouse was director of the Academy of Senior Professionals at Eckerd College from 1994-2002. He has been president of Bloomfield College, vice president of the University of Colorado Foundation, and a professor of philosophy and religion and associate academic dean at Dickinson College. He is a Fellow of the Florida Studies Program at the University of South Florida. Robert M. Diamond is president of the National Academy for Academic Leadership and professor emeritus at Syracuse University. His publications include Designing and Assessing Courses and Curricula. He has held joint administrative and faculty positions at Syracuse University, SUNY Fredonia, the University of Miami and San Jose State University.
Without intending it, I offended my friends by speaking a foreign language.
When I left a research center for the humanities and started work in a philanthropic foundation over five years ago, I wanted to know if a foundation could make a difference to the extent and depth of student learning in the liberal arts. To answer that question, I had to learn as much as I could about how students learn and how we know about their learning. Before long, I was studying reports such as the one produced by the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ Liberal Education and America’s Promise initiative (LEAP) that argued that liberal education ought to be understood not as exposing students to certain fields of knowledge, but as helping them to develop long-lasting cognitive and personal capacities. When I started using that phrase, I was on a slippery slope.
The next thing I knew, I was asking whether colleges and universities were translating that understanding of liberal education into clear learning outcomes. The phrase did not come tripping off the tongue, but the question was such an important one that I went right ahead and asked whether their practices were truly and effectively aligned with these outcomes. Were scaffoldings in place to help students move from one cognitive level to a higher one?
Despite its efforts to strengthen teaching, almost no one at the humanities center had spoken this lingo -- or asked such questions. When I started to do so, I found myself making the strange hiss sounds of “assessment,” a sound so savagely obnoxious that my friends began to hint that I was opening the gates to the barbarians.
I tried to conciliate them by substituting the term “evidence” for “assessment,” but they were too smart for that. And when I found I needed to investigate the various instruments that had been developed to help measure student learning, it was clear to many friends that I had gone over to the dark side. Terms such as NSSE, CLA, HERI, and CIRP were shibboleths that marked me as one of them.
It did no good to explain these were just convenient acronyms for titles in plain English. The titles themselves gave the show away: the National Survey of Student Engagement, for example, was clearly code for an alien view of education. The surveys were quantitative, a classicist friend noted with horror, warning me that “You can’t measure the human soul with numbers.”
Even worse, when I learned that the NSSE surveys had produced an empirical base for identifying a few high-impact practices, ones that demonstrably improved student engagement, learning, retention and graduation rates, the terms were so off-putting that in some quarters the ideas behind it could, as they say, gain no traction.
One friend -- who has somehow remained so despite my wayward behavior -- told me I needed to find some way to “translate” phrases such as high-impact practices into language more acceptable in the more ethereal reaches of the academy.
But I had done enough translating in my days as a classicist; now I was more interested in changing practice, and that, I realized, meant changing discourse. My theoretically minded friends had taught me one thing, after all. Discourse shapes practice.
Or, freely translated, “You have to talk the talk before you can walk the walk."
So I went on to other ophidian sounds, asking how higher education could successfully make systemic and systematic changes. Teagle Foundation grants for this purpose were going well, but the sibilants still sounded pernicious in many ears. Nor did it help to “translate” systematic into the phrase continuous quality improvement. That had few sibilants, but an unmistakable whiff about it of a Toyota factory or some other banausic enterprise.
The new mode of speech had a disconcerting inflection as well as an annoying vocabulary. For example, the stress in the “teaching and learning” moved disconcertingly from the first syllable of the dactyl, “teach’ing and … ” to the penult in the spondee, “learn’ing.” That reflects the emphasis in the new discourse on student learning. It expects students to take responsibility for their education rather than leaving the burden on “great teachers” and “good pedagogy.” Goodbye, Mr Chips. Hello daily development of cumulative cognitive and personal capacities.
Although it continues to give offense, the new discourse has in the last year or two passed a tipping point. It has now become the dominant mode of arguing, thinking and doing something about higher education.
There are two reasons, I believe, for this. First the accrediting organizations now insist on clear learning goals and rigorous assessment of progress toward them. And they are “drilling down” to the department and even course level to see what is being achieved.
More important, however, is a second reason: Faculty members who approach teaching in this way report that it is energizing, empowering, refreshing. It’s a welcome change from endless debates about the literary canon, or the curriculum. They say the terminology is no more opaque than the vocabulary of the economists, or the language we philologists use in establishing the stemmatics of ancient texts, or the useful technical terminologies developed in reader-response theory, deconstruction, and subaltern studies.
Every craft has its discourse, and every discourse shapes practice. It’s the results that count. It’s worth learning some new vocabulary when new friends whose speech I have come to understand are saying that they like having students who are more intensely engaged in learning, and taking greater responsibility for their education. They even talk about greater “satisfaction.”
How’s that for a change in discourse?
Robert Connor is president of the Teagle Foundation.