Where is the value?

People don’t appreciate ideas they don’t understand. This is quite natural. On what basis could you value ideas you don’t understand? Part of our job as educators is to cultivate the kinds of understanding that pave the way to valuing things in a new light. Sometimes that job is not as hard as getting the chance to do it.

Our students come to us well aware of the value of a roof over their head, financial stability, reliable transportation and such. A young adult needs a healthy appreciation for the value of the basic necessities of life. But a life driven exclusively by necessity is one that lacks agency. Part of the role of higher education is to cultivate agency. This is built into the very concept of a liberal arts education. A liberal arts education is one aimed at freeing the mind from the necessities of custom, dogma, intellectual manipulation, and other forms of ill-considered opinion.

This kind of liberty can look like a luxury to people who feel trapped by the imperatives of life in a highly competitive materialistic society. That perception is often encouraged by people who relentlessly focus on the ROI of higher education. Specifically, the value higher education as job training. These people will be eager to find shortcuts through general education requirements. College in the high school comes to mind as an easy way to cut the financial overhead of education and get young people “more efficiently” into the workforce.

I’d submit that such efforts demonstrate an implicit lack of regard for young people as people. Further, its disregard young people won’t protest because they are simultaneously denied the opportunity to understand the value of college level inquiry into, say, history or philosophy. (Quick note here, I’m highly skeptical of the ability of any institution of higher learning to ensure that college level inquiry will happen in a high school classroom. In my own discipline, philosophy, I can pretty much rest assured that it won’t).

And thus, we can shortchange young people and they will never be the wiser (quite literally). This might seem quite clever from the perspective of policy makers and administrators who are acting like managers for a private equity firm. But that would presume that the decision makers understand what they are doing in diluting a liberal arts education. And this, ironically, would be uncharitable towards them. What’s more likely is that even as decision makers in higher education act like unscrupulous managers for a private equity firm, its good intentions all the way down. Higher education is expensive after all. We need to look out for the interests of tuition paying parents and taxpayers. And, of course, students just want to get a good paying job.

Value that isn’t understood is value that doesn’t get realized. And, of course, its value that is never missed. So, what’s the problem? Apparently, none. But you know what they say about appearances.

I’m hosting a rebuttal from Michael Reese in below:

My Gen Ed Journey

I find myself leading an effort to reform General Education at BC. How I got here is worth some mention. It is hardly out of a love for General Education assessment. I have long history of sporting a bad attitude when it comes Gen Ed assessment at BC. To the degree that I’ve participated actively it has been out a sense of duty to the college. I wound up serving on FACT (our Faculty Assessment Coordinating Team) when Magie Harada asked me to serve some six or seven years ago. I had just been awarded full professor status, with a nice pay bump. And I was coming off of a stint as chair of the Tenure Review Committee. Maggie caught me at a moment when I felt obliged.

Around that time, we were just implementing our system for assessing campus wide General Education outcomes (all 18 of them) at the direction of accreditation. The data analytic tools were impressive. My task was mainly to help faculty learn how to input student learning data based on the assortment of rubrics we had associated with our Gen Ed outcomes (all 18 of them). I didn’t really understand how all of this was supposed to be useful to us as educators or useful to our students. I tried to figure it out. I can be quite dogged at trying to figure things out. Several years later, at the end of Spring Quarter, 2022, I’d come to the conclusion that we were generating lots of useless data, mainly because we didn’t really understand just what we were trying to measure.

At this point, I was determined to get off FACT and spend the remainder of my career having as little to do as possible with Gen Ed and assessment. That fall, however, we had a new dean, and we were entering the last of a 3-year assessment cycle. Dumping Gen Ed assessment on a new dean and some hapless faculty colleague in the final and crucial year of a project that matters for accreditation seemed a rather nasty gift, and so I decided to stay on FACT for one more year. Carl Freeburg, who had chaired FACT for several years, had just retired. And so, that fall of 2022 FACT was without a leader. And nobody wanted the job. We were working under a couple of accreditation recommendations including one that asked us to use Gen Ed Assessment data to improve our delivery of Gen Ed instruction and inform our academic planning. I was convinced that there was no way this could happen since we faced a serious “junk in” problem with our assessment data. Like so many of my faculty colleagues, I was skeptical and cynical about assessment. And my cynicism was rational. My bad attitude was based on careful study and diagnosis of the assorted ways our program of General Education didn’t work.

It’s one thing to see how Gen Ed Assessment at BC failed. But then what would a functioning Gen Ed program look like? And beyond keeping accreditation happy (which is important if we hope to keep serving our students at all), what would it look like for a program of General Education to serve students? What’s put me in the leadership role for General Education reform at BC, as opposed to comfortably coasting towards retirement, is that I began to see a path to benefiting our students through pursuing new approach to General Education. One where we clearly communicated to our students, their future employers, and the public at large, just what it means to get an education here at BC. One where we got clear amongst ourselves what our General Education outcomes meant and had realistic plans for delivering on the Gen Ed promises we make.

So, I took the job nobody wanted because I thought I saw a path to better serving our students through a redesigned program of General Education. Is there such a path? Was I just delusional when I accepted the role of FACT chair (now Gen Ed reform lead)? These are reasonable questions. Any interested party can judge for themselves if they read the small collection of brief working documents the reform effort has generated over the past year. The dozens of colleagues that have collaborated on this effort have helped to articulate and clear that path. We do have a worthwhile opportunity to better serve our students through Gen Ed reform. And to better define our institutional educational mission and please accreditation along the way.

An opportunity, however, is just that. An opportunity is not yet a reality. And we face assorted obstacles to realizing the promise of this path. As I reach out beyond the circle of collaborators I’ve worked with this past year, the chief obstacle I see on this path is the very bad attitude I sported until little over a year ago. It remains widespread among my faculty colleagues. And understandably, since our best efforts at Gen Ed Assessment over the course of several decades has felt like confusing, pointless, soul killing bureaucratic busywork.

But we are done with that. Gen Ed at BC will no longer just be futilely trying to measure what-have-you or what-not. We are clearing a path to a program of General Education that focuses on what we want our students to learn and figuring out how we can best support their learning. A new program of General Education that serves students well requires a new attitude.