Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Trust Us, We're Experts

Historiann has a fascinating, and I think largely representative, take on a provocative article in the Washington Post about “fixing” higher education. The original piece outlines eight steps that it argues would make meaningful differences for colleges and universities in the US. Some of them are easy and obvious, like toning down the focus on athletics; others are deeply problematic, like junking merit scholarships. (For my money, there’s something fundamentally wrong when having a good jump shot is a surer ticket to tuition than building a strong record at chemistry or writing.)

The first one is somewhere in between. It’s “measure student learning.” Historiann dismisses this one out of hand, with a quick reference to No Child Left Behind and the following: “Let’s just strangle this one in its crib unless and until we get some evidence that more testing = more education.”

It’s a fascinating response, because it encapsulates so cleanly the unthought impulse that many of us have. Testing equals Republicans equals bullshit; now shut the hell up and write us large checks. Trust us, we’re experts.

It’s written a little more carefully than that, of course, but written specifically to defeat verification. It rejects any sort of “measurement,” but does so by calling for “evidence” that measurement works.

What would that evidence look like? Might it involve, say, measurement? If not, then on what basis could you use a term like “more”? Every meaning of “more” that I can fathom involves some sort of comparative measurement. But to do that, we’d have to agree on a measure. Unless, of course, that was simply a rhetorical flourish, a semi-ironic acknowledgement that such a thing could never be proven because, well, it just couldn’t.

The knee-jerk response to any sort of accountability rests on a tautology. We know better than anyone else because we’re experts; we’re experts because we know better than anyone else. Screw measurement, accountability, or assessment; we already know we’re the best. Just ask us! Now, about that check...

If the folks who care about higher education are even halfway serious about avoiding the traps K-12 is in, the first step is not repeating the same mistakes. “Trust us, we’re experts” simply is not a persuasive argument to the larger public. It may once have been, but it isn’t now, and it hasn’t been for a long time. The difference between Historiann’s perspective and my own is that she seems to assume that failure to defer to rank is the public’s shortcoming; I think it’s basically healthy.

Part of the reason that Academically Adrift has resonated as much as it has, I suspect, is that it argues something that most of us (and most of the taxpaying public) secretly know to be true: many college students skate through without getting appreciably smarter. I consider that a major problem, and one that would require some pretty fundamental structural changes to higher education to address.

Oddly, many of the same people who share Historiann’s dismissal of testing are among the first to decry poor student performance. We expert educators are expert educators, if we don’t mind saying so; therefore, any student failings must...wait for the fault of the students! In fact, they’re getting worse all the time! Now, let’s talk about next year’s tuition increase...

After a few decades of that, the public is getting a bit, well, testy. And well it should.

At base, the popular perception that college is a scam can’t be ameliorated by assertions of expertise, truth, and virtue. If those worked, they would have worked by now. It will be ameliorated, or not, by showing the public some kind of real results. What those results should be is certainly open for debate; as a kid, I remember seeing the space program justified by the development of calculators and digital watches. It might take the form of some sort of exam, or it might take the form of success stories, or it might take the form of new graduates developing wonderful things. Which path to pursue strikes me as a fair and valid discussion. But if we don’t recognize that the basic impulse behind the testiness is essentially valid, we won’t get anywhere. Aristocratic pretensions aren’t gonna cut it; the “appeal to authority” isn’t terribly appealing. We need to show, rather than tell, the public that we’re worth supporting. Which means we need to show ourselves first. Strangling that impulse in the crib is not a serious answer.