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Why are we here, and the assessment of higher ed

A new school year begins–why am I here?

I wonder how our freshmen would answer.  To get a job?  To get away from home? Because they couldn’t think of anything else to do?  To not disappoint the people they think think they should be going to college? 

If you don’t have an answer to that question, how can you gauge whether college is worth it? 

I ask about this because President Obama unveiled a new higher education plan, part of which is to create a new measurement for whether colleges are doing well.  I don’t want to pick on the President here….politicians wanting to measure educational output have been proliferating across the political spectrum for a good while–think No Child Left Behind for instance.  The desire to assess is so obvious–how can we pour the billions into education and not know if we are getting anything for the money?  But how can we assess a college without knowing what that college is designed to do?

One of my favorite quotes about the purpose of higher education is from Judith Shapiro, then president of Barnard.  “You want the inside of your head to be an interesting place to spend the rest of your life.”  My time in college certainly pointed me toward my career, which I love.  But my treasure from college is that it has left my head a much more upscale home.  The ideas, the friends, the desire to look, even when I think I’ve already looked.  Behold, each day is new.

I don’t think that’s on the President’s assessment plan.  Nor do I know how it could be, and I spend much of my time studying how to assess that which is hard to assess about human experience.  I’d like to think I’m pretty danged good at it.

Why are we here?  Do we take our cues from that which is measured?  And is that which is measured that which is easiest to measure.  The old drunk looking for keys under a lamppost thing?  (Don’t know it?  Look it up.)

Our minds are busy places, so simple answers are convenient.  I once thought I knew how to write, so I stopped thinking about how to write better.  I put my mind into other things. I could write a good sentence–what more was there? Till I had a wonderful writing teacher who led me to see how much more there was to learn.  Paragraphs.  Pages.  How often do we not know what we don’t know?  Need a more concrete example?  Watch this video and think of the passengers, satisfied, at least for a bit, with the answers, each of which doesn’t make sense if examined closely.

Is “employment” easily assessed, so the way we decide that we know if college is worth it?  (It’s harder to measure than you might think, but it’s a lot easier than measuring the interestingness of my living inside of my head!)

How do we know what we want?  Will a ranking of colleges from the government (or from US News, for that matter!) tell us what we (think we) want, leading college more and more to be seen as job preparation?  I can particularly understand the impulse these days with the cost of higher education.  But what is not measured, what is not asked, when we focus on one metric, or even a set of metrics?

Depression and narcissism have been on the rise in the good old USA in recent decades.  It’s hard to know why, and I tend toward thinking there are many causes.  But I wonder how much we’ve taken our direct experience of the beautiful and turned instead to measures to tell us if it is beautiful.  Measures which miss the essence of that which drew from us our breath once upon a time.  Which see pixels, not pictures.  What’s the point, without beauty, without pictures?

And is the trend toward assessment doing that with higher education, much as it seems to (from what I can tell from many teacher friends) with grade school and high school?

I’m reminded of the beginning of a John Shea prayer/poem: “The sacred pearl on the forehead of the goddess has fallen to mere wealth.”

Why are we here?




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