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How the Program Approach Has Failed Big Education

Programmatic reform in education is almost always a dead end.

by
David Solway

Bio

December 24, 2012 - 12:28 am

The list goes on. Classroom events like reading, discussion or viewing films are now referred to as “modes of stimulus…used to elicit outcomes” which are then to be duly assessed — activities which in darkest antiquity were known as studying and writing exams. Such learning, we are reminded, consists in the testable acquisition of abilities, skills, and attitudes — although it should be obvious that attitudes cannot be tested for, only hoped or prayed for. “Tests,” for their part, have undergone a lexical metamorphosis and are presently called “instruments.” I do not know how many of these technocrats really believe the persiflage they so readily and abundantly exchange among themselves and impose upon others. Probably some of them do, but I suspect a good many are engaged in the collusive promulgation of what Clayton Koelb in The Incredulous Reader calls “lethetic fictions,” that is, “a manner of speaking in which neither the speaker nor the listener [writer nor reader] believes what is said…and neither supposes that the untruth spoken is merely a surface behind which some sort of truth is hidden.” Language has indeed fallen sick.

Thus in still another Program Approach manual valiantly attempting to clarify the issue for us, we find that Liberal Arts courses:

Have been designed to complement one another in terms of the content and abilities developed over the four semesters of the Program. The Integrating Course culminates [sic] the student’s exploration of the Liberal Arts content in history, philosophy, religion, mathematics and science, the English course in literature and in critical frameworks for examination of subject matter, and the Humanities course in social and ethical considerations…All demand an advanced understanding of the Western cultural tradition, communication, research, and independent learning developed throughout the varied disciplines and courses in the Program.

Huh?

We are then told that emphasis will be placed “on the process of creation itself, rather than on the quality of the work that is produced.” One may be forgiven for suspecting that the Program virtuosos have retained the services of God Himself as a freelance consultant, except that God was no doubt as preoccupied with quality as with creation. Finally these fortunate young people will be enabled to develop “their capacity for integration, as well as their aptitude for transferring learning and making connections between various types of learning.” The Program mavens should perhaps take a look at the work of developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, who pioneered the notion of décalage — namely, that principles do not always migrate from domain to domain.

Following all this stellar and prodigious learning, students will have to pass three “assessment modules” entailing a research paper for the Integration Seminar, Group Seminar Presentations, and something called an Anonymous Assessment Sheet. What all this really means escapes me almost perfectly, as do the diverse modular elements which frame and compose the student’s competency profile, of which I count twenty-nine separate “components” spread across four columns and arranged on two levels of hierarchical attainment. The covert message which this language conveys, whatever else it might be saying, is the message of moral default and professional delinquency.

In any case, all the rodent busywork associated with the Programs reform, the manic restructuring of educational designs, and the insensate application of an inappropriate terminology must inevitably come to nothing anyway if only because our students enter upon their postsecondary careers with little in the way of scholarly equipment and intellectual substance. The prior deficits from which they suffer will render the entire operation null and void. As an illustration of what I am getting at, consider the following excerpts from a collection of term papers I did my best to grade. Their authors vary in age from seventeen to twenty one.

One of my students is apparently confused about the name and function of a church, which she describes as “a cave-like place with statues.” Another deposes that “the Virgin Mary had alot to do with religion. As well she invented a new Clamato drink.” Going one better, a more reverent essay writer affirms that “God is the major component in the universe” — the Fatherboard, I guess. Another defines a text as “a script of many printed pages and numbers at the top.” Still another is convinced that the seventeenth century poet, Robert Herrick, “seems to have some sort of learning disability” as evidenced by the poet’s inordinate fondness for words like “methinks” and “mine eyes.” A sixth deplores the fact that the Enclosure movement in sixteenth century England “left people to die of starvation by hunger.” In a passage discussing the rabbinical use of parables and stories as teaching devices, another student informs me that “the kabbinical lifestyle flewed from the Hebron kabbis in the whole land.” An eighth thinks that the Dead Sea Scrolls refer to an extinct marine animal, on the order of fossil trilobites, I would presume.

Not to be outdone, one of his classmates claims that a starfish is “a mutant interstellar space craft with fins and stuff.” A tenth laments that we tend “to take Nature for grand tit” — which is probably true enough, everything considered. Arriving at the moment in Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado when the killer reveals the trowel with which he will immure his victim, my student solemnly declares that “Montresor was in construction,” a hypothesis he goes on to support by alluding to the villain’s Italian pedigree and its connection to the cement industry. The author of a term paper on William Butler Yeats mentions in passing the poet’s troubled relations with “the Garlic League”; that this was not a typo for “Gaelic” is clear from the student’s parenthetical bewilderment as to why that particular plant should figure so crucially in Irish politics. From her reading of The Name of the Rose, another student concludes that “laughter was forbidden in 1327.” I have just discovered from a paper dealing in part with Aristotle’s Poetics that “Aristotle was a very well known and faluting philosopher of the fortieth century.”

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