Idiot, n. A member of a large and powerful tribe whose influence in human affairs has always been dominant and controlling. The Idiot’s activity is not confined to any special field of thought or action, but ‘pervades and regulates the whole.’ He has the last word in everything; his decision is unappealable. He sets the fashion of opinion and taste, dictates the limitation of speech and circumscribes conduct with a deadline. –Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary
According to Richard Perez-Pena in the New York Times (All the PC News That We Can Print), colleges and universities are on the verge of having to fess up in public about whether they teach anything or not. Ever since John Dewey’s “Teacher’s College” at Columbia got control of the vocabulary, idiots (see Ambrose Bierce’s definition, above) have set educational policy on an increasing number of levels, primarily through government mandates. One mechanism of idiot control has been standardized “testing,” apparently now oozing its way into the ratings of institutions of higher learning.
It’s one thing, according to Perez-Pena (Trying to Find a Measure for How Well Colleges Do, 4/7/12), to trumpet one’s entrance requirements, but quite another to measure how much students learn once they get in. Apparently the testing idiots are quite concerned about things such as “problem solving,” “critical thinking,” “value-added” from student “baselines,” and “interaction” with professors. My own experience with organizations of accreditation indicates that this general movement is gaining traction, and that it won’t be long before even the most independent of colleges and universities will be forced to institute some sort of “measurable” proof that they have made a difference in the intellectual “development” of their students.
What are they after? If a student at any decent school takes several chemistry courses, he will know more chemistry than when he started. The same is true of any real discipline. How could one take five Latin courses and not know more Latin than before the five courses? It is only when we consider what “value added” or “critical thinking” might mean that the idiot agenda starts to become clear.
The thinking in the Educational Establishment is overwhelmingly progressive, just as it is political culture. The idea behind democracy is equality, and it has become a matter of faith that democracy depends on education, which translates into equal education, which in turn requires centralized standards. The only way to impose centralized standards is through politics. Thus we have politically sponsored, powerful teachers unions, great educational bureaucracies at the state and national levels, incredibly expensive school systems, K-forever, all staffed by idiots who never tire of saying that the only thing they need to make the whole thing work is more money. Yours, of course, and mine. The problem is, it doesn’t work, and cannot work, because it is based on a false understanding of human nature and an entirely wrongheaded conception of how people learn. The notion that you can measure educational “outcomes” on an equality scale is nothing less than insane, which is what Bierce thinks idiots are.
This does not pertain to all learning, of course. In the servile arts there are rigid standards, which, if not adhered to, result in disaster. I have had the privilege of teaching young men to kick footballs for much of my adult life. In many ways it is like carpentry, or engineering. There are certain things one must learn to do well, or punts will not go down the field, or placekicks will not go through the uprights. One does not get an “attaboy” for missing slightly. Houses and bridges fall apart if not built according to strict standards.
But for some reason progressives have convinced many of us that it doesn’t matter whether you read Dante or Toni Morrison; it doesn’t matter if you study the Congress of Vienna or 19th century dress styles; it doesn’t matter if you know the multiplication tables or not. Nothing is fixed–there is only “value-added” or “critical thinking.” And given this state of mind, the only possible way of measuring liberal learning is by progressive political standards, which are destructive of all sound learning.
Reasonable progressives at accrediting agencies often say that they really don’t want to impose politically correct outcomes on private colleges and universities, they just want to make sure each school takes seriously its evaluation of its own mission. Up to now, it hasn’t been too bad, but the movement chronicled by Mr. Perez-Pena goes much farther. We have learned over the years that when governments get their noses under school tents the body of massive regulation moves in right behind. With so much of education already controlled by unions, departments of “Education,” and government agencies, and with little prospect of removing any part of the education monster, things do not look good. President Reagan, for all his rhetorical conservatism, allowed the monster to grow under Bill Bennett until it got as fat as he is, and Republicans are now as committed as Democrats to central control of education.
Mandating standardized testing is exactly the wrong way to go, but it probably will be upon us very soon.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.