Content Control -- This Time From Friends

College leaders opposed federal efforts to dictate student learning measures. They should do the same, Bernard Fryshman writes, to efforts by some higher education groups to specify content.


March 6, 2008

I’m glad I missed the era that demanded Latin and sometimes Greek of those who sought a proper education. I did have to take music, one of whose requirements was the ability to identify the sounds of different musical instruments.

I flailed about helplessly in what sounded like a cacophony of sounds and I remember with particular pain my struggle to single out the Contrabassoon. My teacher brooked no excuses and warned that those who failed to acquire taste and culture inevitably ended up in the cesspools of iniquity. He was evidently right: I learned to identify the sound and I did not descend to the aforementioned cesspools, although I have sometimes wondered what they're like.

My efforts weren't in vain. I learned important lessons about perseverance and emerged from this high school class with an enhanced sense of confidence.

I now know that these qualities could have been honed in a much friendlier but equally demanding way. The same is true with all the many traits we identify with a postsecondary education. Critical thinking, discernment, appreciation of culture … all are characteristics that can be acquired in a variety of ways.

More precisely, there are no orthodoxies in higher education. The qualities of mind that the 1828 Yale Report describes as the “habits of thinking,” which “are to be formed by long continued and close application,” can emerge using content very different from what we consider to be the norm.

When Richard Brodhead (now the president of Duke University) was dean of Yale College in 2004, he put it this way in a commencement address: “By a conservative estimate, the things members of the class of 2004 collectively learned in Yale courses that you have already forgotten is probably equal to the sum of human knowledge gained since the early Renaissance.” He added: “Such inevitable forgetting is not a scandal in education, because the original act of learning taught something more deeply valuable and left a deeper trace: trained deep habits of mind that survived the specific content that was originally attached to them and can then be put to a different use”.

Actually, even content that is retained is increasingly irrelevant in a world where nothing sits still, least of all knowledge. This does not negate the effectiveness of the liberal arts; to the contrary, the liberal arts have proven their worth in creating the transformation of self which is for many, the ultimate goal of higher education. But the liberal arts are not necessarily alone.

Every school has a faculty that follows and fulfills a tradition of centuries of successful teaching and scholarship; this faculty should have the final say in determining the content of the school's offerings. Consistent, of course, with the requirements of each discipline and the standards of quality of the accreditor.

This should leave us with a sense of humility. We may know what we want to do in our own school, but we certainly cannot tell others what to do in theirs. Even if we agree we must provide the same kind of intensity, rigor, and intellectual demand, we cannot require the same educational experiences and the same content.

It's all the more surprising, then, that the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AACU) and the Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) should seek to specify content in their recently released “New Leadership for Student Learning and Accountability."

The actual words, on first glance, seem innocuous. While recognizing that educational goals vary, AACU and CHEA decided that these goals should include “the study of science, social science, the humanities, and the arts."

The flaws appear at once. Selecting the above content areas means ignoring mathematics, behavioral science, computer and information literacy, world religions, the environment, medicine and law, each of which could play a major role in enriching graduates’ lives.

The selection of content also ignores the fact that a package of 120 credits, which must also include the courses needed for the major, provides for a largely superficial understanding in each specified area of general education.

Has anyone looked at the courses that pass for an exposure to science in a general education sense? One prestigious publisher described a text for non-science majors as offering “an alternative route to science literacy for those with an interest in photography art and music." The table of contents is imaginative and well structured. But is the outcome “science literacy"? Seriously now! It is, for most, a dead end. Are we perhaps better off preparing students to aspire to read, to explore, to gather for the rest of their lives? I don't know, and suggest that AACU and CHEA may not know either.

It would seem that the education community should reject this attempt at specifying content with the same respectful vigor as was the case in rejecting the Department of Education's attempt to specify measures of learning outcomes. Content control is unwise, no matter who is proposing it.

In the same sense, we must learn to ignore content mandates by handwringers. There are many good reasons to study foreign languages, but globalism isn't one of them. Unless we are prepared to require college graduates to master six or seven tongues, including two dialects of Chinese.

Nor should global competition serve as an engine of content change. The world is competitive, because American business leaders shipped abroad the technology and industries that our graduates created. There is something very special and unique about American higher education and even after a decade of other countries’ producing more scientists and engineers then we, it is they who copy our ideas and discoveries, not the other way around.

Finally, we should stop reading our own press releases. A recent report breathlessly warned that people who lack a basic understanding of science cannot function in modern society. I am happy to relate that people without any idea of science live happy, fulfilling and satisfied lives. Impressive and numerous are the fortunes made by people who never learned to appreciate Maxwell’s Equations or the Krebs Cycle.

We must recognize and celebrate the immense diversity that defines American higher education. Our colleges are part of a fermenting vat of ideas, and the content, strategy, outcomes, and resource wars that take place in any Faculty Senate would do the Middle East proud. But the key here is that the probing and experimentation, the trial, monitoring and error all take place within the walls of independent institutions.

We have the best system of higher education and a smoothly functioning system of accreditation capable of keeping it that way. Our graduates -- our products -- prove this unequivocally. And until someone proposes a change that is established through scientific standards as safe and effective, we must stand fast in the face of efforts to dictate change, particularly insofar as content is involved.


Bernard Fryshman is an accreditor and a professor of physics.


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