I’m gearing myself up for a thorough look at the Spellings Commission report. Assessment is the issue that I really keep rolling around in my head, because I have such a range of different feelings and ideas about it.
One tension I keep trying to work out goes all the way back to some of the earliest discussions I remember following on academic blogs, at Invisible Adjunct’s site and elsewhere. A lot of writers made it clear that their chief disappointment with academia stemmed from a disjuncture between a sort of honest, uncomplicated passion for their subject matter or discipline and the repellantly careerist and over-theorized spirit of most graduate education. This sense of dissatisfaction connected bloggers who eventually quit academia with varying degrees of bitterness and those who successfully became academics. I noticed that this sentiment was especially powerful among those who studied literature. Well-known bloggers like Erin O’Connor, Margaret Soltan, Mark Bauerlein, some of the current writers at the Valve and others wrote along these lines, along with blogs that flourished more briefly, or that only occasionally concerned themselves with academic questions. Discussions at the Invisible Adjunct’s site often revolved around these themes.
It seems to me that some of the shared or common ground of those conversations has fractured somewhat along more openly politicized lines of argument. I’m still broadly sympathetic to this complaint in general and more specifically in the context of cultural and literary study, that historicist cultural criticism sometimes seems to leave little room for other forms of critical practice.
I’m thinking about this in the context of assessment because I’m honestly a bit puzzled at times by the some of the bloggers who have wanted to open up literary study to more appreciative or passionate forms of “traditional” literary criticism, focused more tightly on an older canon of classic texts. What puzzles me is that quite a few of them also express enthusiasm for modes of assessment like standardized testing of college graduates. For example, Margaret Soltan, much as I enjoy almost everything she writes, has argued from time to time that some kind of standardized testing would be the cure for what she sees as serious cultural illiteracy among American college graduates.
She and I disagreed at that point about what the goal of higher education is. I’ve been thinking about it ever since. If what we hope to pursue is serious and passionate reading of classic literary texts, if what we want is the love of literature (or other culture: I think another thing she and I disagree about is the place of popular culture in college curricula), it still seems to me that standardized testing is 100% the wrong way to achieve our goals. What good will it do to certify, via the mechanism of a standardized test, that college graduates all know what the themes of The Tempest are, and who Saul Bellow is? I know, this is an old argument about cultural literacy, but it does seem to be newly relevant if we’re going to take new measures to assess higher education.
I think about this a lot in the context of history as a discipline. There’s a lot of evidence that students come into college despising history. A lot of those same students passed all sorts of tests measuring their historical knowledge. When I meet people outside of academia, say, my neighbors or the parents of my child’s friends, and they find out I’m a historian, they often confess sheepishly that they didn’t like history, or didn’t pay much attention to it. If I inquire whether they did well in history classes, they often did just fine, and passed plenty of tests.
In this 2003 article, Jonathan Rees talks about the usual criticisms of standardized tests in history, and adds some of his own. I agree with a lot of his concerns. More, though, I think about all those people who hated history in high school. I think they hated it because they had to pass tests where they had to know about the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, the Peace of Westphalia, and Hittite uses of iron weaponry, without having even the vaguest sense of why they should care about any of those things save for passing the test.
You can obviously go way overboard on teaching about the why of history (or literature), to the point that you’re educating a bunch of glib bullshitters who don’t know what happened when, or to whom. But standardized tests as a method of assessment seem to me to inevitably drive teaching in the opposite direction, toward students who know something just long enough to pass the test, and forget or dismiss it immediately afterwards, because it is without meaning. If we want our passion for literature or history or other subjects to be part of what we transfer to our students, part of the “learning outcomes” that we want to measure and assess, tests or other highly standardized metrics aren’t going to be the way to go.