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Life is an Essay Test 

Human learning cannot be boiled down to multiple-choice

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Once again, this time in his State of the Union speech, President Obama addressed the importance of education, and, once again, he began and ended with science-math, science-math, science-math. Nary a word about history, nor literature, nor philosophy, nor the social sciences, nor the fine arts.

He also took couple of swings at the rising cost of college education. He promised to get tough. Yes, indeed, he said that he plans to see to it that our universities operate more efficiently or else some of that federal grant money might just dry up.

And, yes, we again heard all the usual stuff about public school accountability. By golly, we need to see those test scores go up. Well I respectfully dissent on all counts.

1. By not addressing the need for anything but math and science education, he does the idea of learning and citizenship a terrible disservice.

2. Accountability? Standardized tests recall the body count in Vietnam. Embroiled in an impossible war, a war without battle lines, the military determined to measure progress through quantification, which led to the ridiculous body count. The more dead Vietcong we could count, the more progress. We all know how wrong that turned out to be.

3. As for Advanced Placement courses, the favorite of every middle- and upper-middle-class parent? I’d abolish the entire program.

4. Rising education costs? Here I’m kind of stumped. I can only say that the continued rise in costs isn’t due to faculty salaries, except for maybe salaries in business schools, where faculties average almost twice what the liberal arts and social science faculty are making.

5. Curriculum reform? I’ve taken the lead in one such effort (at Eastern Washington University) with disastrous results, which qualifies me only to comment on what doesn’t seem to work. I did learn the hard way that reforming core curriculums is a sticky wicket.

Let me elaborate on my first three criticisms listed above. When Obama trumpets learning numbers and science as the sole evidence of accomplishment, he isn’t necessarily improving education. Wouldn’t it be a good idea for students to not only to understand how to, say, quantify body counts during the Vietnam War, but also to understand why the body count was such a bad idea in the first place? To answer a question like that, you must study history, political science and literature. You have to learn how to think.

Standardized testing simply has the effect of forcing the teacher to teach to a test. Nothing can be more deadening. Instead, public schools should be encouraged to offer more honors courses. While AP deadens the teaching experience (again, the test), honors courses do just the opposite. They allow a teacher to be creative. If you want better teaching, make it possible for teachers play to their strengths.

About that AP college credit: First, were Obama to work the liberal arts into his list of educational concerns, he might come to appreciate that there is absolutely no way — zero possibility — that a high school graduate who has earned a score of five on his Government AP test would pass any freshman-level college government course. The same goes for all the liberal arts. If our bright high school senior really is fluent in French, well, pick a level and take an examination offered by the college’s French department. Same with math. Passing will translate into college credit, but the credit will be granted by the college, not by some testing company.

In the end, the fundamental question is what, exactly, do we mean by “higher education.” Is it just job training, or is it about something greater — learning for learning’s sake? Is it about citizenship? The life of the mind? Ways of thinking? Ways of seeing? Appreciation of beauty? All of the above? These are the questions that should inform debates over core curriculum reforms but seldom do. These questions draw me back to a familiar criticism of what universities have become:

“Captains of erudition,” the business-minded predators who corrupted the scholarly mission of a real university by packing education into salable units, weighing scholarship in bulk and market-value, promoting the growth of a corps of bureaucratic functionaries, treating faculty as hired hands, firing controversial teachers, raiding other institutions, measuring a university by the size of its bank statement, and selling higher learning to the public by paying obeisance to the rule that the customer always knows best.

Is this what higher education is all about? Salable units? Preparing bureaucratic functionaries, whether in the public or the private sector? Paying obeisance to the rule that the customer always knows best? Before we hone in on rising costs, perhaps we ought to return to the why of the matter — one of those tough questions a tiny bubble on a form test cannot answer adequately.

Oh yes, about the criticism I quoted: Thorstein Veblen wrote it back in 1918. It still applies today. 

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