Why Conservatives Should be Leery of Government-Mandated Assessment in Higher Education

Joseph M. Knippenberg

February 1, 2007

Ever since the Spellings Commission issued its report on “The Future of Higher Education” last fall, we’ve heard a lot of talk—reminiscent of “No Child Left Behind”—of accountability measures in higher education. Some of it at least seems reasonable: given the amount of money we pour into higher education, and given the way in which our national economic well-being depends upon maintaining a high quality and sophisticated workforce, shouldn’t we know whether our colleges and universities are doing their part in preparing today’s students for tomorrow’s jobs? Just as we are holding public elementary and secondary schools accountable for their performance in educating our children, shouldn’t we also hold higher education accountable for its performance?

But, like a lot of intuitively attractive ideas, this one may have unintended consequences that ought to give conservatives especially cause for pause.

In the first place, assessing outcomes requires finding some “outputs” to measure. What are they going to be? Three candidates—all flawed—come immediately to mind.

First, there are workplace-related outcomes, such as employer satisfaction and job placement. These send the unfortunate message that, in effect, all higher education is vocational training of one sort or another. What’s worse, this is a message that the marketplace is primed to receive. Students and their parents already come to us asking about job and professional school placement, which bespeaks a mindset that regards education as a “mere” means to an end, a hurdle or obstacle to be surmounted on the way to something else. This is an attitude ultimately inimical to genuine education. Requirements are to be “gotten out of the way,” and are often resented if they’re not directly related to the chosen career. Students face and often give in to the temptation to work to rule, doing the least that’s necessary to satisfy course requirements that are perceived as mere stepping-stones. Education as the cultivation of the capacity critically to appreciate a cultural heritage—surely a conservative goal—gives way to the merely practical or vocational, to the cultivation of an attitude that instrumentalizes everything.

Second, there are higher-order skills, like “critical thinking” and “communication,” which are the abstract “college-level” equivalents to the old stand-bys of reading, writing, and arithmetic. I’m willing to concede for the sake of argument that these are real skills and that they’re somehow measurable, but tests or other assessment tools built around them have two features that conservatives ought to regard as problematical. First, they’re just one step removed from the instrumentalization I mentioned above. People in higher education who talk about these things usually sell them—and they’re usually bought—in terms of generic skills deployable on the generic job. They’re said to be superior to specific vocational skills to the degree that they’re transferable from one setting to another, important, it’s often argued, for the multiple careers our students are likely to have. Second, to the extent that these skills are indeed generic, they can be developed using almost any content. Students can cultivate their critical faculties by reading comic books—excuse me, graphic novels—just as well as they can be reading Plato, Shakespeare, or The Federalist Papers. Or so the argument goes. In other words, if, once again, education for conservatives is supposed to be about cultivating a critical appreciation of our heritage, this sort of testing does nothing to accomplish this end. It’s ultimately as much a surrender to the vulgarizing force of the marketplace as is using explicitly workplace-related outcomes.

Third, it’s possible to test for the acquisition of a substantive body of knowledge, which might seem to correct for the abuses inherent in the first two approaches. This seems to be the intent behind the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s effort to assess civic literacy on a number of college campuses. Conservatives might be tempted to applaud anything that encourages or even compels professors to teach “just the facts” about American history and government, as well as the principles underlying a free market. But I’m hesitant. It’s one thing for a private organization to do so as a way of beginning—and only beginning, since there’s so much that can’t actually be measured by any sort of test—to inform parents and students about what is or isn’t happening on college campuses, but altogether another for the government to enforce some sort of homogenizing assessment and testing regime. Conservatives might approve of a test designed and administered by a Republican Department of Education. Would they be as happy with a test designed and administered by its Democratic successor? Would they be happy with the assessment-driven homogenization of higher education led by a Clinton or Obama or Edwards appointee? As I recall, the effort during the first (and, one hopes, only) Clinton Administration to develop national standards for elementary and secondary education was characterized, above all, by multiculturalism and political correctness at the expense of the traditional topics in Western (or even World) civilization and American history.

Even if the assessment process escapes direct political control and remains in the hands of “the professionals,” conservatives should be leery. The higher education establishment, after all, isn’t exactly a hotbed of respect for tradition. Substantive standards could well end up being used as weapons against dissenting—that is, non-liberal—professors. Not to put too fine a point on it, conservative professors and others who care about the traditional role of higher education (not all of whom are politically conservative) are the likeliest losers in any such process.

In the end, conservatives ought above all to be friends and partisans of intellectual diversity in higher education—both within and among institutions. This means that there will be plenty of things professors and students say and do that will seem to them outrageous. But that’s the price to be paid for preserving the independence of colleges like Hillsdale, Grove City, St. John’s and Thomas Aquinas and programs like Princeton’s Madison Center and Ashland’s own Ashbrook Center.

This isn’t to say that there shouldn’t be some role for assessment, but it ought to be highly localized and driven by the interests and needs of the particular institutions, who will surely want to provide parents, students, and donors the kind of information they need to make informed choices about where to go and to give. Of course, this probably means that in a lot of cases what some of us regard as vulgar considerations will prevail. But we’ll still have the opportunity to make our case for what we think is highest and best in the life of the mind and in the heritage of our civilization.

Joseph M. Knippenberg is an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. He is Professor of Politics and Associate Provost for Student Achievement at Oglethorpe University.