The Ratings Problem

John Dewey starts off Experience and Education (1938) with this:

MANKIND likes to think in terms of extreme opposites. It is given to formulating its beliefs in terms of Either-Or, between which it recognizes no intermediate possibilities. When forced to recognize that the extremes cannot be acted upon, it is still inclined to hold that they are all right in theory but that when it comes to practical matters circumstances compel us to compromise. Educational philosophy is no exception. The history of educational theory is marked by opposition between the idea that education is development from within and that it is formation from without; that it is based upon natural endowments and that education is a process of overcoming natural inclination and substituting in its place habits acquired under external pressure.

Certainly, we are now living in a time of extreme opposites–people love to point out just how reductive our society is, simplifying complex situations into good-guys and bad-guys. Perhaps that’s the way people have always been. It is certainly that way, now.

Once, however, we seemed to be able to compromise when the necessity arose. Today, in education, as in politics, that possibility seems to have disappeared. The New York Times can’t even publish a story on opposition to Common Core State Standards without ending it with an anecdote “showing” that it is all nonsense (the opposition, no matter which side of the political spectrum it comes from). A teacher is quoted as saying:

the politics surrounding education policy could “make you take your eye off the ball,” but, she added, gesturing around the classroom, “what’s important is who is in here with me.”

The implication is that the opposition is nothing more than a distraction. What’s appalling is the story’s attempt to make it as though CCSS is all about the students–something it most certainly is not. It’s about manufacturing an image, at least, of consensus, of a sane, national center on issues of education. It relegates all questioning to the fringes.

When A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform appeared in 1983, it looked like a consensus of some sort was beginning to form out of the oppositions: American schools needed fixing. That became the basis for a “reform” movement that continues to have bipartisan support (and that has unquestioning support, as we see in the Times, in the mainstream media), one that No Child Left Behind was expected to cap and that Race to the Top was meant to further. Its assumption of American school failure is so ingrained that David Brooks can ask, snidely and rhetorically, ” If you wanted to find a model for your national schools, would you go to South Korea or America?”

Personally, I would go to the United States… but I would also question the need for “national schools” (one of the “reform” propositions that has grown into a “truth” over the past 30 years). Richard Vedder, writing on the new debate over rating colleges, says, “I fear a one-size-fits-all set of bureaucratic criteria established by the federal government will weaken the greatest strength of American higher education: its diversity.” I agree; the “reformers” don’t. That’s why they fall in line so easily with Common Core State Standards.

What Dewey is writing about in Experience and Education, however, isn’t the fact of opposition but the reason for it, a reason that, in the decades since, has been steamrollered flat by the imperatives of the “reform” movement. Dewey saw educational philosophy as having two extremes; he saw one ground seeing education as the lighting of a fire, as the old saw has it, the other seeing it as the filling of a pail. Education needs those two extremes; it needs the tension of real opposition. Unfortunately, it seems, today, that we have doused that fire by emptying the pail on it, leaving us with nothing.

When we turn to evaluating our colleges on uniform ratings, we are denying the possibility of compromise, for the fire cannot be measured or so easily contained. So it must be put out and a consensus maintained–if ratings are to work. Beyond that, but we are assuming, when we establish ratings, that all of the buckets are the same, that none takes more to fill, that none leaks. We are denying that each person’s education is unique and that it comes from within. We are making it something that can be manufactured.

Dewey would be appalled.



One thought on “The Ratings Problem

  1. The emphasis on “fair and balanced coverage” leads to absurd media discussions of many issues.

    As you state, what is ostensibly “fair and balanced” is not necessarily at all accurate when the aim is simply to provide token representations on each side, regardless of whether each side actually has the same degree of support or the same degree of credibility. And when the aim is implicitly to undercut one side or the other on an issue, then the logical fallacy becomes pernicious, rather than being simply shallow.

    On his new HBO show, John Oliver highlighted the absurdity of this superficially “fair and balanced” approach in showing physically that the “debate” over climate change is really no debate at all:

    And, of course, it’s not a coincidence that “fair and balanced” is the motto of FOX News, where truth is defined by how well it serves ideological assumptions: that is, if an assertion does not substantiate or conform to Far Right ideology, it must be inherently false.

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