Friday, April 13, 2012

The Quantitative Regime of Higher Education

Like many other institutions of higher learning, my college is currently in the process of revising our liberal arts curriculum: that is, we're changing the courses that we require all of our students to take...regardless of their major. The original impetus for a common curriculum is the belief that a single, unified, culture must underlie national identity. In the West, credential-bearing educational institutions spearhead this homogenization process, which is often referred to as a "Liberal Education." However, higher education today has devolved into a mindless form of behaviorism where all college students are required to take a specified number of credit hours in the Liberal Arts and Sciences, typically: mathematics, sciences (physical and social), history, literature, and philosophy. While I have no problem at all with private colleges and universities requiring students to take certain courses, I do have serious philosophical reservations with the behaviorist structure that now permeates higher education. Hence, in this blog I will explore the assumptions that underlie what I shall call the Quantitative Regime of Higher Education or the QRHE.

The underlying premises of the QRHE are rife with platitudes such as: "All students educated at college X "ought" to KNOW 1,2, and 3; and/or be able to DO a, b, and c. Once the "knows" and "dos" are specified, then further analysis determines HOW MUCH of 1,2, and 3; and/or a,b, and c?  Today, the basic unit of measurement is the credit hour. Individual courses are usually "worth" 3 credit hours, however some are worth 4 credit hours or 1 or 2. Most colleges require students to take between 120 and 128 credit hours in order to graduate and receive their undergraduate diploma. There is also a tradition in higher education that says that a student ought to be able to earn an undergraduate degree in about 4 years. So, if a college requires 128 credit hours, students will have to take 32 credit hours a year, or 16 credit hours per semester. Most colleges prefer students to matriculate on a 4-5 year schedule, and therefore offer discounted tuition rates for full-time students; usually about 12 hours per semester.

Colleges and universities require students to take courses that fulfill clusters of related courses: Major requirements, Minor requirements, and LAS requirements. Typically, the majority the required 120-128 hours is consumed by required courses in the Major and the LAS curriculum requirements. When the sum total of courses required by the major and the LAS requirements is less than 120-128, students can "elect" to take other courses that are not required by either majors or the LAS curriculum.  The more difficult the course the higher the number. Hence PHI 397 is supposed to be more difficult than PHI 100. Thus, most of what counts as a college education is based, not only on what colleges and universities believe their graduates ought to know and/or do, but also how well they know and do those things. Hence, we also have the well-embedded tradition of grading student performance based on that familiar scale of A,B, C, D, and F and resulting the accumulative Grade Point Average or GPA. In other words: education has become a "one size fits all" selection process based on numerically-defined dominance hierarchies.

Education reformers rarely question the QRHE regime and it's numerological underpinnings, even though it bears all of the markings of early 20th century behaviorism and logical positivism. This Skinnerian model of education reduces students, professors, and educational institutions to information processing "machines," or "Black Boxes." In order to secure a diploma from a college or university Student Black Boxes (SBBs) must be able to either know something or do something. Hence, colleges must test SBBs to see if there is a correspondence between intended input (taught) and output (learned). SBB that know and do all of the specified inputs, as evidenced by observation of output (tests) earn higher grades. This whole process, however, is contingent upon tranlating behavior into numbers. Quality points rang from 4 points (A) to 0 points (F).  These numbers are calculated, documented, and eventually bundled into the students' GPA.

The primary instrument of the QRHE regime is the standardized test. Designed by teachers and/or institutions, these instruments manufacture an aura of objectivity by transforming value (good and bad) into a number (1,2,3). The tests consist of numbered questions (1-100), with each question valued proportionally (1 point per question). The standard multiple choice test asks students to answer questions with 4-5 possible answers. The tester then asks the SBBs to choose the correct answer out of a list of 4 or 5 possible answers. The more difficult multiple choice questions list several probable answers. Thus, the skills of standardized test-making and test-taking are deeply embedded in the QRHE regime.  Fairness on standardized tests is reduced to uniformity in the amount of time allotted to take the test. Thus, by allowing equal quantity of time to take the test (1 hour) an illusion of fairness is manufactured. So the primary purpose of multiple choice exams is to transform input into output. Although multiple choice exams are most common in mathematics and science courses, they have also been adapted for use in the humanities, including philosophy. "Which of the following philosophers articulated the Categorical Imperative: a.) Kant, b.) Aristotle, c.) Hume, d.) none of the above." The most efficient way for SBBs to study for a standardized test is to memorize the correct answers. Even when philosophers resist the lure of multiple choice tests and assign essay tests, the keepers of the QRHE still require them to assign grades. At the end of the semester, final grades are quasi-objectively calculated based on the accumulated average of all those tests and a grade for the course is assigned. Consequentially, students with fast-moving neurons and short-term memory recall are routinely placed at the top of social, political, and economic hierarchies, along with students that have spent time, energy, and resources developing standardized test-taking skills.     

Not only are students treated as Black Boxes subject to quantified input/output evaluation, but so are professors, programs, and colleges. Colleges and universities measure the teaching effectiveneess of professors by comparing what professors input into their courses and correlate that input with output in the form of student performance. High quality teaching is correlated with grades that are awarded to students, therefore, teachers have an incentive to award a lot of A's. At the end of the semester, students take another multiple choice exam where they evaluate the quality of their professors. Student evaluations are quantified based on what students observe about the behavior of their professors. Similarly, the quality of programs are evaluated based on whether the program's specified inputs match up with the outputs. Colleges also assess the value of their degrees based on the degree to which students can know or do what's specified in their major programs and LAS requirements. Thus, the "Holy Grail" of QRHE is the abilty able to "demonstrate" that students, programs, and institutions know and/or do what the leaders of the regime wants them to know or do.

Now all of this quantification requires the expenditure of time, effort, and resources. Professors must grade students, students must evaluate professors, Deans must assess programs. The cost of quantification is ultimately passed onto SBBs in the form of higher tuition costs. Unfortunately, in recent years, the cost of a college education has been rising exponentially, largely because of the contagion of quantification serving bureaucracies. That's why students and their parents now take out huge loans to pay their tuition, room, and board. After they graduate they will have to pay back those loans with interest, regardless of their income.

Now what exactly does the QRHE regime contribute to Western culture? Let's start with the woefully naive cultural belief that everything in life that has value, can be represented by numbers such as SAT scores, GPAs, tuition costs etc.? How about the equally perverse idea that the primary purpose of educational institutions is to arrange students, teachers, programs, and educational institutions in graded dominance hierarchies? Who are the primary beneficiaries of all this nonsense? Elite colleges like Harvard and Yale, which enjoy underserved reputations for ACT-based selectivity, high-quality education, at an enormously high cost. Students and parents buy into the QRHE ruse by believing that these selective institutions are "better" than other institutions and therefore are willing to go further into debt in order to secure those over-valued diplomas.

In sum, I would argue that one cannot escape the rather obvious conclusion that the primary function of the QRHE regime is to manufacture and sustain a status quo; that is, cultural dominance by a class of number-worshipping institutions that remain in power by quantifying meaninglessness. My next blog will explore the social and political consequences of identifying leaders based on fast moving neurons, short-term memory recall, and the ability to earn high scores on multiple choice tests.    

No comments: