Fighting Outcomes

BY AARON BARLOW

Underlying the mania for “assessment” and “accountability” in higher education is an elitist sensibility that, having gone unexamined for too long, has undermined real efforts at providing useful education for everyone, no matter what college or what level. Not only is it creating a two-tiered model of education, but it is changing how most students learn. It is warping how faculty at many institutions are hired, tenured and promoted—and is promoting the shift to a primarily contingent and adjunct faculty at all but the most elite institutions.

It is time we start recognizing that current assessment/accountability methods are seriously flawed as tools for improving higher education and start vigorously resisting this nonsense, pushing back against what is, at its core, a growing system of division and control that does little but assure that those at the top stay there.

In Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, Matthew Crawford (of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia) writes that those “who work in an office often feel that, despite the proliferation of contrived metrics they must meet, their job lacks objective standards… and that as a result there is something arbitrary in the dispensing of credit and blame.” There is a great deal of truth in this, and it is this insecurity, paradoxically, that has been seized upon by the rulers of higher education as the rationale for reworking education, as provided to most students, into training, into preparation for lower-level jobs with no pathway to the top.

That is unfortunate.

There’s a reason why what Crawford describes as “office” jobs have long lacked, as he writes, “objective standards of the sort provided by, for example, a carpenter’s level.” Of course, the word “office,” as Crawford uses it, is itself problematic and dangerous to use without careful definition: in this context, it excludes the clerical workers, the data-entry clerks and the rest of the support staff. Crawford goes on to argue that even managers “inhabit a bewildering psychic landscape, and are made anxious by the vague imperatives they must answer to.” This is the same reason that writers face the blank page or screen with such dread. But it is not a reason that can be answered with quantification—or by shifting quantifiable goals onto that lower-level staff.

Crawford’s office workers, though they may yearn for objective standards, do not need them. They should have reached the point where they are directed from within. That’s hard and painful and makes one prone to error, but it is where real creativity and innovation begin.

If people are never trained to face that blank page—with no template to follow—they are likely to be confined forever in the lower reaches of a society that now defines itself as two, the masses and the meretricious (though they see themselves as a part of a meritocracy) one-percenters. If students spend their entire education trying to reach pre-determined and universal outcomes, they are never going to be more than cogs in the factory of society; never will they become its manipulators.

Like Crawford’s, my own intellectual life is tempered by “the building and fixing” that is “embedded in a community of using.” I started learning to set lead type in a composing stick at age eleven and studied the printing trade until I was seventeen. Later, I worked in garages and, in Peace Corps, prided myself on care and maintenance of the two-stroke motorcycles that we used for getting around. When I started my store and café, I served as my own contractor, laying floors and putting up walls along with everything else I could do that did not require special licensing. Though these experiences certainly inform my current life as a scholar, they are not the same; what I do now cannot be judged by similar metrics.

And should not be.

And that’s the problem. What we are creating now are metrics for exactly those areas where they should be taken away, where judgment and the willingness to experiment—not to mention willingness to make mistakes—are what we should be developing.

Thanks to a Steve Krause post on Facebook, I recently read an article by Brad Stulberg, “Why Do Rich People Love Endurance Sports?” This was not a question I had ever considered. Stulberg’s answer (in part), that “Endurance sports provide a necessary outlet, offering concrete measures of a job well done,” seems a no-brainer. The article, however, led me to Crawford’s book which, of course, references Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, something of a Bible to us in Peace Corps in those halcyon days of motorcycles (no longer are they issued).

Crawford’s topic isn’t assessment, but he and Stulberg certainly make me think about it. It makes me think about, particularly, assessment through quantification (though that is not surprising: the topic of assessment is one of my perennial hobby horses).

It makes me think about the value, if there is any, of reducing judgment to a numerical evaluation of quantifiable outcomes. About the quite normal and useful desire, that both Crawford and Stulberg consider, to compete along quantifiable lines, to win and to better oneself within frameworks established for just that purpose.

The argument that there is a great deal to be gained through projects with quantifiable goals is strong. The satisfaction that endurance athletes find in even small improvement is real and useful, as is the stack of hot-off-the-press chapbooks, the newly smooth roar of a tuned Yamaha DT100, and the shiny floors and walls of a completed renovation.

On the other hand, education for citizens and innovators, though it needs to include this, cannot be encompassed by it—or by metrics of any sort.

Why? Because measurement is necessarily restrictive and the best education needs move beyond restriction, to include things like the creation of measures, not simply their utilization.

When we limit education to the measurable, we establish a divide between those being measured and those who make and use the measurement tools. In our colleges and universities, those involved in assessment are becoming the most powerful administrators (and faculty, for that matter). The elite judges, for that is what they are becoming, are flexing their muscles. Yet they are not bound by measurements of the sort they impose on others.

Education for the elite, be it in top undergraduate programs or in graduate school, is not going to be restricted by the rulings of these judges, for there the students are being “raised” to be judges themselves. There, the rules will be personal, as they have always been, sometimes arbitrary and often wrong, but the emphasis will be on who the judges are—and on their independence. It is through their independence that these judges (the teachers, in such cases) provide role models. They have faith in themselves, not in a set of rules laid out for them, and this is their value.

This, of course, is the old model of the tenured faculty exhibiting the right of academic freedom. It is not the newer model of instructors as replaceable cogs within a framework of reproducibility. It does not work with the factory model of education as a means of providing the skills for entry-level jobs and nothing more. It is the model for education for an engaged citizenry of the sort imagined by John Dewey and not the framing of choices for the masses by the elite, as advocated by Walter Lippmann.

The goal of higher education needs to be one of moving students beyond the training wheels of ‘outcomes.’ Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen until we learn, once more, to trust faculty, to empower faculty, and to make faculty positions secure.

All faculty.

That will not happen while we continue to develop more and more precise means of making their actions uniform and instantly replaceable. This will not happen until we rise up and refuse the dictates of the assessment offices that are moving to rule our institutions.

2 thoughts on “Fighting Outcomes

  1. Terrific commentary, again, Aaron Barlow. One thing I would like to add–what about the (I am sure, many) “replaceable cogs” that consistently get high assessments year after year, and yet they are still just “replaceable cogs” and “anyone could teach your course.” The “elite judges” must just break pencils over that, since their meritocracy is not supported by the assessments. One more piece of evidence to support your argument that HE assessments are “nonsense”…

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