In Part I, I considered the reasons why competency-based education is incompatible with liberal learning. Now I want to discuss why it hinders students after graduation, and deprives the world of extraordinary individuals.
Liberal arts colleges have always tried to encourage students to develop not only the intellectual virtues, but also the practical, ethical, and—yes, it is still true to say it—moral virtues that support effective, cooperative, and productive action in the world. The key to this is that students be actively integrated into a community of learning.
Now learning can be separated from community, of course. For some centuries, individuals have been able to learn on their own from books, in the privacy of their own homes. During the twentieth century, vinyl records, radio, television, and audiotape became electronic substitutes for books, expanding the options for those who wanted to learn by themselves. And finally the advent of the internet made solo learning possible for anyone with a connection, just about anywhere, anytime.
To the extent that competency-based learning envisions separate individuals gaining knowledge on their own and being tested to demonstrate that knowledge, it deemphasizes or eliminates communal activity. I suppose it is possible to imagine a college that is not a community at all, but only a place—maybe even only a “virtual place” online, where tests are administered and degrees issued on the basis of tests passed. But such a place would be a “college” in name only.
College is not college without community. The very word means community. The togetherness is what helps students to learn about how to interact effectively, honorably, and humanely with their fellows. For in reading and studying together objects worthy of understanding, imitation, and love for a sustained period of time, students learn how to collaborate in one of life’s highest activities—learning; and this can be transferred to almost all other social activities.
While some schools try to reflect the outside world in their internal life, liberal arts colleges try to do something else. They try to hold up an ideal of community. By committing their communities of learning to respect for the individual, to thoughtful and humane dealings with others both in and out of class, and to rational behavior insofar as it is humanly possible, liberal arts colleges try to provide an ideal of human relations for students to take into the world with them when they leave.
Much ridicule has been heaped on ideals in the past century or so. And it is certainly true that the world outside the academy will not live up to this ideal. But that is no argument against it. By keeping it in mind, by returning to it in memory, perhaps those who inherit it will someday, when they have advanced in the world’s esteem, move society in the direction of the ideal.
What is more, however, the ideal provides a pattern for the individual to follow in life, even if no one else recognizes it. Plato says as much at the end of Book 9 of the Republic, where, after spending hours building an ideal city in speech, Glaucon objects that a person who lives with the harmonious patterns of that city in mind will hardly be inclined to take part in politics. Socrates disagrees.
“Yes, by the dog,” said I, “in his own city he certainly will, yet perhaps not in the city of his birth, except in some providential conjecture.” “I understand,” he said; “you mean in the city whose establishment we have described, the city whose home is in the ideal; for I think that it can be found nowhere on earth.” “Well,” said I, “perhaps there is a pattern of it laid up in heaven for him who wishes to contemplate it and so beholding to constitute himself its citizen. But it makes no difference whether it exists now or ever will come into being. The politics of this city only will be his and of none other.” “That seems probable,” he said. (592a-b. Translation by Paul Shorey.)
Competency-based learning that downplays or eliminates residential study makes it all but impossible for students to build up such an ideal. The more higher education moves in that direction, the sorrier the world will be for it.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.