EducationLetters

Against the Education Uncertainty Principle

Higher education in the U.S is in crisis. No doubt about it. But I worry that we are in real danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

The crisis has many dimensions, not the least of which is economic: ever increasing tuition, diminishing job prospects, exploding student debt. Calls for accountability are understandable. Moves for measures of well specified educational outcomes seem to make sense. But, I fear, proposed solutions threaten to make matters worse.

I worry about magical solutions: MOOCs, substituting television for face to face inquiry, even though using the web to strengthen educational practices makes sense to me. Because real interaction, with careful participation of students and faculty is a goal in this regard, I don’t see how online education is less expensive. I know that proper online teaching involves intense, time consuming, labor, with extended written exchange between students and faculty.

I am also concerned about attempts to precisely measure educational outcomes, seeking to clearly specify course and program goals. This hits close to home. At the New School, at a recent faculty meeting, a presentation on our “Shared Capacity Initiative” project stimulated a brief but intense controversy. What are the common capacities we wish to assure all students, aspiring musicians, artists and social scientists, liberal arts majors in the humanities and fashion design students? I thought to myself the three “r’s”—readin, ‘ritin and ‘rithmetic. Beyond my private joke: many, including me, worry that attempts to establish measures of learning outcomes leads to a kind of deadly educational uncertainty principle, as with much educational testing. The move to measure educational outcomes may change and kill the education that is the object of measurement.

My approach has been to engage in a private resistance. When told that in my undergraduate course I was required to clearly specify my educational objectives to the students in the syllabus I included the following:

The objective of this class follows the insights of Michael Oakeshott, the great (conservative) philosopher, as he illuminated the problem of education and the liberal arts. He observed that ‘Education in its most general significance may be recognized as a specific transaction which may go on between generations of human beings in which newcomers to the scene are initiated into the world they are to inhabit.’ He went on to explain that a liberal education involves ‘the invitation to disentangle oneself for a time, from the urgencies of the here and now and to listen to the conversation in which human beings forever seek to understand themselves.’ Our object in this seminar, thus, is to listen to the conversation as it has been developing around the ideas of Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic [Democracy in America] as we try to understand the social condition and the problem of democracy in America, then and now.

I happily complied with the requirement, but resisted what I take to be its narrow intent. I suspect at the New School and American universities more generally, now is the time to move from private jokes and mocking compliance about problematic rules, to serious public discussion about the purposes of higher education beyond vocational training.

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Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

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