Education, Formation, and Assessment

(Note: this post began as a reply to Bryan’ McGraw’s post from July 23, but it got long enough to suggest posting it separately–though not because I disagree with McGraw’s argument.)

David Brooks’ recent column on William Deresiewicz reaches conclusions similar to McGraw’s, though Brooks is somewhat less critical of Deresiewicz. Rather than framing what is missing from higher education explicitly in terms of “human flourishing” as McGraw does, Brooks describes the problem in closely related terms:

But people in authority no longer feel compelled to define how they think moral, emotional and spiritual growth happens, beyond a few pablum words that no one could disagree with and a few vague references to community service. The reason they don’t is simple. They don’t think it’s their place, or, as Pinker put it, they don’t think they know.

In contrast, those in parental authority still (usually) claim some “place” in more substantive accounts of formation-for-flourishing. Michael J. Lewis’ piece in First Things today suggests that to exercise this authority effectively, parents may need to take a significant step back. Lewis uses Deresiewicz as a launching-point for questions tied up with childhood formation–how non-constrictive parenting habits and especially independent play are essential to shaping imaginative, responsible, and mature people. He argues that unsupervised play allows children to learn from the consequences of the choices they make “when no one is looking.” He continues:

They do this in the process of deciding what to play, establishing the rules, choosing sides, and resolving the inevitable dispute. In short, by acting as miniature citizens with autonomy rather than as passive subjects to be directed.

While the “unsupervised” aspect of this could easily be overstated (formation requires outside influences, after all), the exercise of minimally-structured agency seems a crucial part of maturation.

I can’t help but wonder whether both faces of the problem–a rigidly cognitive (and thus anemic) conception of education on the one hand, and risk-adverse and unimaginative students on the other–will only be compounded by educational trends that are increasingly oriented towards assessable outcomes. In other words, might the pressures from accreditation agencies (and increasingly from government sources) have stifling consequences on education-for-flourishing in a manner analogous to the effects of helicopter parents on their children’s maturation?

Cognition–especially its simpler forms–is easier to quantify than are the many facets of a robust account of human flourishing. Moreover, imaginative and risk-taking academic work may not seem like a good bet to students or their teachers in a context that rewards narrowly-defined assessable successes. Like a parent watching from the kitchen window, the presence of the rubric may loom increasingly over the academic endeavor, constricting the goods it orients itself to pursue.

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