Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Measure of a College Education

U.S. News & World Report addressed the question of the quality of college education in their latest issue ("The Measure of Learning," March 12, 2007). Evidently the feds are finally starting to scrutinize higher education with the same intensity they have been putting on public primary education for the last ten years, and (surprise, surprise) they find U.S. colleges to be performing poorly. The feds want an objective standard to measure whether the colleges are really educating people, and of course the colleges are aghast to think of somone trying to apply a universal standard to the college experience.

I've written before about how little our education system does to prepare people with essential real-world skills. But I thought some more about how I would gauge whether a college was doing its job, and I came up with a simple, albeit subjective test:

A college graduate should be able to carry on an intelligent conversation.

Every aspect of a good college education is engaged in spoken discourse:
  • The person must be generally well-informed and well-read to be able to hold up their end of a conversation on any given subject. That means that they read newspapers, magazines, and other periodicals with critical understanding. It means they have read enough philosophy and literature and history to be able to draw connections between current issues and broader principles.
  • The person has to be able to listen, learn, and critically assess information, all at the same time. A good discussion requires you to hear the other person's point, pick out the substantive points, and spot weaknesses in reasoning or information.
  • The person must be able to communicate effectively. They have to assess their audience, compose their thoughts, pick their points, and package it with a certain degree of artistic sense.
  • The person ideally has a sense for the people they are talking to, as well as the content of their discussion. They should be asking themselves, "Why does he care about this? What's his angle? What's really going on here? Does he really believe that, or is he trying to impress that girl?" That requires some practical psychology, sociology, and politics.
  • The person needs to be able to ask good questions. You don't even necessarily need to have lots of specific knowledge to have a conversation, as long you can ask good questions. Most forms of human endeavor -- science and business, especially -- rely more on asking the good questions than having the good answers.
  • They have to be the kind of people who enjoy having intelligent conversations . . . perhaps the best measure of all as to whether they have really become a cultured person.

The colleges can rest easy -- no one is likely to come up with a good standardized test to measure an intelligent conversation. But those of us who care most about the quality of college education -- the employers, and the parents -- will probably be able to make a good assessment of how the schools are doing. There, at least, the feds and I can agree: they aren't doing very well.



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