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Assessment, Freedom and a Life Worth Living

Christopher Nelson, President of St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, delivered a critique of higher education assessment.  

“Assessment in higher education tries to answer two distinct but related questions.  First, on a national level, we ask, ‘What metrics can be used to rank or evaluate colleges and universities, relative to one another?’  And then, within each college and university, we ask, ‘How can classes and programs be evaluated to determine whether projected outcomes are attained?’  These two questions are colliding forcefully, today.  Much of the pressure to generate new assessment models within an institution—let’s call that ‘internal assessment’—comes from the demand for assessment at the national—let’s call that ‘external assessment’—to prove that the products and services rendered by colleges and universities justify the cost.  It took me a lot to be able to say those words: ‘products and services.’”

Nelson challenged the use of the language of the marketplace to describe higher education, “it is a fundamental mistake to believe that the prevailing economic metaphor applies to higher education. Learning has far too little in common with commodities and services for the economic metaphor to be of any use in trying to understand education. The current mania for trying to guarantee a ‘return on investment’ in higher education—as if the image of “investment” is at all appropriate for an educational experience that should be, if well-chosen and responsibly followed, literally priceless—points to a profound misunderstanding. Education is not primarily about making a living; it is primarily about making a life worth living.”

“Having a job and supporting oneself and one’s family may be a necessary, but it is hardly a sufficient, condition for a good life, a life worth living, a life that has as its aim the happiness of the individual who more often than not wants to be useful to the world in a truly meaningful way.”

“The essence of a life worth living is freedom, which depends on cultivated habits of thinking for oneself about life’s challenges and making responsible choices based on one’s own thinking. Allowing young people the opportunity to grow into these cultivated habits, to increase their personal freedom, is the true aim of higher education. Indeed, freedom is the natural result of all learning whatsoever. Every new fact learned, every new insight gained, every new connection made, whether it be about the relation between Being and Becoming or about the electrical and mechanical paths to make your car’s windshield wipers work, is another facet of life mastered, another degree of freedom attained.”

Nelson addressed his audience, “You no doubt have understood the context of my remarks.  I’m president of a liberal arts college that’s trying to do something fundamentally different from schools that may be trying to teach competencies or push people through certification processes.”

Nelson went on to detail the tenets of his critique of higher education assessment, “I want make four basic points about contemporary assessment practices in higher education.  First, how the economic metaphor that is dominant in the culture at large damages the internal assessment of higher education through the influence of this external assessment.  Second, that the economic metaphor is fundamentally incompatible with the essential nature of higher education.  Third, that current assessment values underestimate the responsibility of the student in learning and promote unhelpful bureaucracy.  And, Fourth, I’ll discuss what I think assessment should be doing to promote helpful and meaningful evaluations of higher education.”

The excerpt above represents fewer than seven minutes of President Nelson’s speech.  To hear out more about “Assessment, Freedom and a Life Worth Living,” you can view the entirety of the speech.