Grasping the Reins of Reality

You -- critical thinking products of American colleges -- can best refute insinuations that higher education is failing to educate students, Bernard Fryshman writes.


August 16, 2006

Look around you. Virtually everyone in the room is engaged in a job different from the one they prepared for in college.

This tells a story of a process that transcends content and curriculum, a process that goes beyond training, to the point where education actually took place. You and your colleagues underwent a transformation in the 1,800 or so hours you spent in the classroom interacting with your peers and with 40 or so faculty members at one level or another. You emerged from college having developed the ability to listen, to assimilate, to learn on your own, to project your own insights, opinions and views.

Some faculty members taught you how to think, how to challenge, to have confidence and to be independent. Most of you acquired the ability to analyze and to synthesize. Many acquired a love of learning for its own sake. You found faculty members with a wide variety of skills and goals; some tried to teach you content, as well as discernment. Others projected a point of view and welcomed a contrary view, if well supported.

In all this time, you also acquired knowledge, most of which is long gone. But you are still a different person from the high school graduate who entered college as a freshman. You learned how to read analytically and critically, you began to appreciate the role of originality and creativity. You know how to formulate and defend a hypothesis. And you learned how to assimilate the ideas of others and to interact, whether to support or to disagree.

There is so much else that you acquired, and when you graduated it was not just because you passed a number of courses. The structure, the faculty, the ever more demanding senior courses, the coherence of your major, and the qualities of mind, marked you as a successful outcome.

You are the reason the colleges are proud of what they do and your accomplishments represent the performance that colleges and universities point to in developing and justifying their reputation. Reputations are not developed in a vacuum. You, your parents, your children, your colleagues and your peers are the living remnants of the college experience. Your success justifies the massive resources poured by private Americans into supporting colleges and universities. And your success validates the vocation that characterizes the role of so many faculty members.

There is something special about American higher education, which continues to produce some of the world's greatest scientists and engineers, thinkers and scholars. There is something unique in the education we offer, which provides a breadth, an intellectual depth to accompany the skills and aptitudes of the specialist. And there are the human successes in sectors whose mission is to produce an involved, thinking citizenry.

Not everyone agrees that American higher education is characterized by success. Numbers are quoted indicating that the quality of graduates is not what it used to be. But they forget that sometimes the numbers go down as the numbers go up. As American higher education welcomes people less prepared, less gifted and often less motivated, as the atmosphere at some colleges becomes less rarified by the proliferation of remedial education, the average accomplishment will go down.

Nonetheless they insist it is time to measure learning outcomes. We are to select slices of the educational experience -- those slices that can be measured -- and somehow draw conclusions about all learning. Unfortunately, that which can be measured usually excludes the most important characteristics of a person's education. Depending on the consequences of these measurements, colleges will teach to the test and so, too, will faculty. Everyone wants to succeed, and if success is going to be defined by those outside academe, it is learning and teaching that will feel the pain first. In the end all of society will suffer.

Tragically, the intellectual immersion, which you yourselves recognized as characteristic of the totality of your undergraduate experience, will be compromised. That will happen precisely at the time when young people from emerging communities arrive at the gates of our colleges and universities, desperately needing this kind of intellectual immersion.

In the end, higher education has responded to the call for broad measures of learning outcomes. Several national organizations have committed to encouraging member institutions to experiment in this direction. But we must remember we are talking about experiments. These efforts must remain pilot projects subject to validation carried out within academe. We must further insist that the use of such measures be based on inherent value, rather than governmental mandate.

Government has heard from all the others; it is time to hear from us. From you.


Bernard Fryshman is executive vice president of the Association of Advanced Rabbinical and Talmudic Schools’ Accreditation Commission.


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