August 2008

A Liberal & General Education
By Lee Trepanier on August 08, 2008

I think that we all agree with Gerson's blog of what constitutes an educated person, although we may differ on some of the specifics:

  1. A persuasive leader (teacher/great mind)
  2. A teachable intellect and character
  3. A recognition that s/he must leave a particular place of being and journey toward a higher place of being (the assent of the soul)

I thought that I would move the conversation along by asking the question: "What would be an ideal general education program, or a liberal education program?"

The traditional classical liberal education included the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music) and the trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric); contemporary liberal education programs usually are divided into the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences (St. John's College and a few others are exceptions in covering the Great Books, but for most universities, this is not a realistic option).

Assuming we had professors who could and would teach competently in their respective fields, e.g., an English faculty teaching grammar and syntax in an a composition course rather than postmodern feminist theory, what courses should be included as part of a general education program? What courses should be excluded? How would such a program be designed?

The General Education Curriculum: The First Course
By Gerson Moreno-Riano on August 11, 2008

In light of Lee's recent post and the number of comments on my previous post, I would like to propose that one of the key courses in any general education curriculum should be one that addresses human nature or what it means to be a human being. Let's call it Philosophical Anthropology 101.

This course should not only cover philosophies of human nature but should present students with a powerful and authoritative vision of humanity that they must consider and evaluate. Consequently, students could be introduced to the anthropological visions of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Boethius, Rousseau, Nietzsche but also be presented with a vision that articulates the best of these philosophers' views while at the same time seriously considering critiques and concerns.

This course is an important "first" course for several reasons:

  1. It answers the all too common call of relevance- students and many faculty often argue that the material must be "relevant" in order to engage students. This course provides a powerful response to this concern since it allows for a number of contemporary issues to be introduced that can engage students in whatever place of life they find themselves.
  2. In order to have a sense of how the disciplines of the classical liberal arts curriculum "fit" or are important for human development, we must first assist students in understanding what it means to be a human being and what is human nature. A course like the one suggested above, may help to do this.

Building upon this first course, other courses in the general education curriculum must be related or integrated with this course and the theory it advances. Discussions about grammar and syntax, for example, must be couched not only in utilitarian concerns of communication but also in metaphysical discussions about being and existence much like Plato undertakes in the Cratylus- a dialogue about the nature of words and their usage. In essence, I am suggesting that each course must have a philosophical dimension, one that considers that nature of the topic at hand but also is related to central questions of anthropology.

The general education curriculum, then, is a philosophical education for all students. It begins in central questions of human nature and then considers various facets of human experience.

Here is my first attempt to move the conversation forward based on Lee's suggestions. I would be very interested in what others think regarding this important question.

Charles Murray Rethinking the BA
By David C. Innes on August 14, 2008

Charles Murray suggests directing most undergraduate study toward certification rather than degrees. Many people, though they have degrees, don't know anything close to what they should know in their field. I think very highly of Charles Murray. He's brilliant and bold.

What the BA offers that certification cannot provide, among other things, is training in writing and speaking. But many colleges have given up on this.

What I like about this proposal is that it would challenge the complacency of the college industry in the same way that school vouchers challenge the complacency of the government school system.

For Most People, College Is a Waste of Time

The Wall Street Journal August 13, 2008; Page A17
Imagine that America had no system of post-secondary education, and you were a member of a task force assigned to create one from scratch. One of your colleagues submits this proposal:
First, we will set up a single goal to represent educational success, which will take four years to achieve no matter what is being taught. We will attach an economic reward to it that seldom has anything to do with what has been learned. We will urge large numbers of people who do not possess adequate ability to try to achieve the goal, wait until they have spent a lot of time and money, and then deny it to them. We will stigmatize everyone who doesn't meet the goal. We will call the goal a "BA."
You would conclude that your colleague was cruel, not to say insane. But that's the system we have in place.
Finding a better way should be easy. The BA acquired its current inflated status by accident. Advanced skills for people with brains really did get more valuable over the course of the 20th century, but the acquisition of those skills got conflated with the existing system of colleges, which had evolved the BA for completely different purposes.
Outside a handful of majors -- engineering and some of the sciences -- a bachelor's degree tells an employer nothing except that the applicant has a certain amount of intellectual ability and perseverance. Even a degree in a vocational major like business administration can mean anything from a solid base of knowledge to four years of barely remembered gut courses.
The solution is not better degrees, but no degrees. Young people entering the job market should have a known, trusted measure of their qualifications they can carry into job interviews. That measure should express what they know, not where they learned it or how long it took them. They need a certification, not a degree.
The model is the CPA exam that qualifies certified public accountants. The same test is used nationwide. It is thorough -- four sections, timed, totaling 14 hours. A passing score indicates authentic competence (the pass rate is below 50%). Actual scores are reported in addition to pass/fail, so that employers can assess where the applicant falls in the distribution of accounting competence. You may have learned accounting at an anonymous online university, but your CPA score gives you a way to show employers you're a stronger applicant than someone from an Ivy League school.
The merits of a CPA-like certification exam apply to any college major for which the BA is now used as a job qualification. To name just some of them: criminal justice, social work, public administration and the many separate majors under the headings of business, computer science and education. Such majors accounted for almost two-thirds of the bachelor's degrees conferred in 2005. For that matter, certification tests can be used for purely academic disciplines. Why not present graduate schools with certifications in microbiology or economics -- and who cares if the applicants passed the exam after studying in the local public library?
Certification tests need not undermine the incentives to get a traditional liberal-arts education. If professional and graduate schools want students who have acquired one, all they need do is require certification scores in the appropriate disciplines. Students facing such requirements are likely to get a much better liberal education than even our most elite schools require now.
Certification tests will not get rid of the problems associated with differences in intellectual ability: People with high intellectual ability will still have an edge. Graduates of prestigious colleges will still, on average, have higher certification scores than people who have taken online courses -- just because prestigious colleges attract intellectually talented applicants.
But that's irrelevant to the larger issue. Under a certification system, four years is not required, residence is not required, expensive tuitions are not required, and a degree is not required. Equal educational opportunity means, among other things, creating a society in which it's what you know that makes the difference. Substituting certifications for degrees would be a big step in that direction.
The incentives are right. Certification tests would provide all employers with valuable, trustworthy information about job applicants. They would benefit young people who cannot or do not want to attend a traditional four-year college. They would be welcomed by the growing post-secondary online educational industry, which cannot offer the halo effect of a BA from a traditional college, but can realistically promise their students good training for a certification test -- as good as they are likely to get at a traditional college, for a lot less money and in a lot less time.
Certification tests would disadvantage just one set of people: Students who have gotten into well-known traditional schools, but who are coasting through their years in college and would score poorly on a certification test. Disadvantaging them is an outcome devoutly to be wished.
No technical barriers stand in the way of evolving toward a system where certification tests would replace the BA. Hundreds of certification tests already exist, for everything from building code inspectors to advanced medical specialties. The problem is a shortage of tests that are nationally accepted, like the CPA exam.
But when so many of the players would benefit, a market opportunity exists. If a high-profile testing company such as the Educational Testing Service were to reach a strategic decision to create definitive certification tests, it could coordinate with major employers, professional groups and nontraditional universities to make its tests the gold standard. A handful of key decisions could produce a tipping effect. Imagine if Microsoft announced it would henceforth require scores on a certain battery of certification tests from all of its programming applicants. Scores on that battery would acquire instant credibility for programming job applicants throughout the industry.
An educational world based on certification tests would be a better place in many ways, but the overarching benefit is that the line between college and noncollege competencies would be blurred. Hardly any jobs would still have the BA as a requirement for a shot at being hired. Opportunities would be wider and fairer, and the stigma of not having a BA would diminish.
Most important in an increasingly class-riven America: The demonstration of competency in business administration or European history would, appropriately, take on similarities to the demonstration of competency in cooking or welding. Our obsession with the BA has created a two-tiered entry to adulthood, anointing some for admission to the club and labeling the rest as second-best.
Here's the reality: Everyone in every occupation starts as an apprentice. Those who are good enough become journeymen. The best become master craftsmen. This is as true of business executives and history professors as of chefs and welders. Getting rid of the BA and replacing it with evidence of competence -- treating post-secondary education as apprenticeships for everyone -- is one way to help us to recognize that common bond.
Mr. Murray is the W.H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. This essay is adapted from his forthcoming book, "Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America's Schools Back to Reality" (Crown Forum).
Accountability & Assessment
By Lee Trepanier on August 19, 2008

Murray’s article, along with the discussion about it, raises the question about accountability and assessment in higher education. I believe that these two issues will be the most prominent ones in public policy debates about higher education. Although the two issues are inextricably connected – and often confused with each other – they are distinct from each other and worth discussing.

Accountability is whether the institution is performing what it promises. For public institutions, the actors who determine an institution’s accountability includes tax-payers, the legislature, the board of control, and various administrators starting from the president downwards as well as alumni and other sources for enriching the school’s endowment. For private institutions, it is the same players except for the tax-payers and legislature. Although there are various aspects of the debates on accountability, with respect to faculty, the accountability debate really boils down to post-tenure review and, to a lesser extent, academic freedom. The public perception is that tenured faculty are accountable to no one (which actually is often true in practice) which is perplexing to people, especially when almost every profession has some mechanism of accountability in place, e.g., annual performance reviews, greater percentage obtained in a partnership. Why should people in education, especially higher education, be shielded from the forces of the marketplace?

Assessment is the method to measure accountability. The K-12, and to a certain extent, the college entrance system relies upon standardized tests to assess whether students are learning the material. Last year Margaret Spelling tried to impose a similar standardized test on higher education, but she was defeated by the entrenched interests of colleges, universities, faculty unions, etc. The debate itself was pretty farcical, but assessment is an important issue to examine, since it goes to the core of teaching: is the student truly learning?

With regards to assessment, I would like to raise two questions for discussion (along with the one raised-above about accountability):

  1. Can learning be assessed in the first place, especially in those disciplines of the liberal arts?
  2. If learning can be assessed, how should it be done? Should standardized tests have a primary or secondary role in the assessment?

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