No God Left Behind -- Why Not?

A federal commission's obsession with accountability measures has William G. Durden thinking about what else might be tested -- or not.

September 21, 2006

The secretary of education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education unequivocally advances the notion that the “business” of colleges and universities -- defined primarily in the final report as “preparation for the work force” -- is best advanced by the disclosure of data allowing institutions to be compared to one another, particularly in measurements of student learning. Standardized testing of all college students would be required to produce those comparative quantitative data. Such universal application of testing is forwarded as the guarantee of accountability for what this American democracy requires most essentially from its higher-education institutions. In other words, what has already been applied with mixed success to pre-collegiate education is now to be applied to higher education. In addition to the No Child Left Behind Act, we are to have what might be called No College Left Behind.

In the nation’s current zeal to account for all transfer of teaching and insight through quantitative, standardized testing, perhaps we should advance quantitative measurement into other areas of human meaning and definition. Why leave work undone?

I suggest, for example, that a federal commission propose an accountability initiative for those of faith (not such a wild notion as an increasing number of politicians are calling the traditional separation of church and state unhealthy for the nation). This effort should be titled No God Left Behind. The federal government would demand that places of worship, in order to be deemed successful, efficient and worthy of federal, state and local tax-support exemption, provide quantitative evidence of the effectiveness of their “teaching.” (Places of worship are not unlike colleges and universities in that they are increasing their fund-raising expectations -- their form of “price” -- because of increasing costs.) The faithful, in turn, would be required to provide quantitative evidence of the concrete influence of their respective God upon behaviors within a few years of exposure -- say four years.

And in keeping with the Commission on the Future of Higher Education’s suggestion that one test would be appropriate for all types of higher-education institutions regardless of mission -- liberal-arts colleges, private research universities, public research universities, community colleges, for-profit-online universities, vocational schools -- a standardized test would be applied to a person of faith, whether Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindi or other “approved” religions. Additionally, a pre-test would be given to the faithful upon initial engagement with their respective God and place of worship, and would be followed by a post-test after four years to assess “value added.”

Of course, I really don’t think No God Left Behind is a good idea. The reasons why also are applicable to No College Left Behind and No Child Left Behind. Most people of faith, I believe, would argue that this quality lies beyond mere human quantitative measurement to validate its worth, that it exists in a variety of forms (only the most radical would argue for the exclusion of faiths that fail a test), and that its effects on human beings may not be immediately evident. None of these assertions, of course, makes faith for believers any less real as a source of improving the quality of human life.

My case for faith continuing to flourish for those who wish it, without proof through standardized testing, shares critical affinities with my argument for higher education not being universally subject to quantitative assessment. There are at least four inter-related issues that confound the Commission’s absolutism towards quantitative measurement to solve the imagined knowledge deficit and lack of contribution to the nation by American higher education.

First, quantitative testing, to be of application, must have as its subject that which can be empirically assessed. Such limitation leaves out critical areas of human knowledge, meaning and definition that are not readily subject to immediate empirical assessment during the course of instruction but are, nevertheless, very real: the development of character thorough trial and error in a residential setting, an appreciation of the arts and aesthetics; a literary and poetic sensibility; a recognition of the responsibilities of citizenship; an appreciation of liberty and freedom; a spirit of business entrepreneurialism; and creativity and inventiveness in the sciences (and I am not talking solely about the short-term acquisition of cultural, historical and political “fact” in these areas).

The commission’s recommendations -- with their focus on workforce preparation -- might well reduce the scope of what is taught and discussed in those institutions to only those areas that can be indisputably measured by a test. An abiding respect for learning, which is not so obviously technical and thus not measurable through standardized assessment, is rooted deeply in the intentions for a distinctively American higher education by our country’s founders. Indeed, Benjamin Rush, a patriot, signer of the Declaration of Independence and founder of several colleges, to include Dickinson, proclaimed this distinctive American relationship among advanced knowledge, abstract concepts and the future well-being of the nation when he said, “Freedom can exist only in a society of knowledge. Without learning, men are incapable of knowing their rights.” The intent of a liberal education is thus defined.

Both propositions are based not on the quantitative assessment of the merely technical, but rather the confidently ambiguous power of existing in a “society of knowledge,” one that would influence learners to a much desired and critically important ideal -- democracy and the diversity of perspective that it secures. There exists in Rush and his co-conspirators, in founding a distinctively American higher education after the end of the revolution, a mature appreciation of the complexity and variety of the instruction necessary to advance a democracy.

Second, and closely related to the perspective of Rush, is that education in America was not intended solely to provide young people for “the work force” through the empirically demonstrated mastery of a limited set of practical skills. Fundamental literacy, numeracy and scientific knowledge were more properly the task of the grammar schools and the academies (high schools). American higher education historically builds on this “technical” accomplishment and engages students in a democratic way of life through both advanced technical and speculative (creative) learning.

Third, students in the United States at all levels of formal education already are the most “tested” by standardized measurement in the world. Yet, we still seem to be in a position of deficit in improving what students actually know and need to know to function productively in society. Do we truly believe that more testing will lead to improved teaching and learning? Are we so convinced that “to test is to learn” despite so much evidence to the contrary?

Fourth, are we oblivious to the fact that, like the flourishing of spirituality only in societies that are generously supportive, the acquisition of knowledge only advances in political entities for which this activity is esteemed and generally valued? A society and government in which only practical, technical knowledge is lauded and that which is more abstract is derided -- such as the long-term, arduous education for the appreciation of democracy, liberty and freedom -- have little chance of moving a people to take the enterprise seriously.

I have no doubt that Secretary Spellings, the Commission members and the chairman, Charles Miller, intend an American higher education that offers the nation and the world graduates who can confront, with knowledge, skill, creativity and an entrepreneurial spirit, the challenges and the opportunities that the world demands. My caution -- and it is a pointed one -- is that in our rush to secure excellence thorough the simplistic and misguided notion of increased quantitative assessment of workforce skills, we will destroy the historic distinctiveness of American higher education.

Derek Bok, in Our Underachieving Colleges, cites numerous commentators over the last few decades alarmed at the perversion of American higher education as it progressively leans to practical and technical knowledge at the expense of more generous, less immediately focused ambitions. For example, Diane Ravitch, an education analyst who has frequently criticized the college establishment, states, “American higher education has remade itself into a vast job-training program in which the liberal arts are no longer central.” And Eric Gould in 2003 observes negatively that, “What we now mean by knowledge is information effective in action, information focused on results. We tend to promote the need for a productive [emphasis added] citizenry rather than a critical, socially responsive, reflective individualism.”

We must never forget that a distinctively American higher education, using a wide variety of internal and external assessments already in place, aims to increase competencies and literacies established prior to college (although far greater public transparency is certainly needed).  This ambition the United States shares with the rest of the world. American education, however, infuses this globally shared agenda with something extra, something that has secured its distinction for centuries -- to extend beyond factual and technical knowledge and to introduce its students to what Derek Bok describes as, “more ethically discerning … more knowledgeable and active in civic affairs”  -- and that cannot be captured through standardized testing at the moment of introduction, for it unfolds over time and with experience.

Lose this ambition and American higher education has lost permanently its distinction as a democratic society of knowledge.


William G. Durden is president of Dickinson College.


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