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How the Program Approach Has Failed Big Education

(Editor’s Note: This article is a follow-up to the author’s “Outcomes-Based-Education,” which ran here at PJM on June 16, 2012.)

Reform: A thing that mostly satisfies reformers opposed to reformation.

-- Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary.

It seems that scarcely a semester goes by without the announcement, or is it annunciation, of some new and glorious educational reform which will infallibly redeem a deteriorating academic situation and restore conviction, hope, and effectiveness to those of us who have long ago stopped believing in an educational “system” that must aim up to reach bottom. Somehow we never pause to ask why the new reform is necessary in the first place, considering that the previous reform promised exactly the same putative benefits and results, as did the one before and the one before that. Moreover, each of these doctrinal miracles, each new renovation we are compelled to approve and implement, will be magically brought to pass with even fewer resources than the one that it is meant to supplant. Meanwhile, administrators refurbish their offices with thicker insulation, sallying forth into the real world from time to time to harangue the sullen and the skeptical from the shakiest of pedagogical platforms.

Naturally the “authorities” justify these new reforms and upheavals and the endless and costly paper trails that lead to them by claiming that they are making the educational system more efficient. How? By centralizing control and especially by trimming away “excess” -- like student bursaries and electives, reasonable schedules, maintenance budgets, equipment stores, and library acquisitions, to name just a few -- the very “excess,” I would suggest, without which education cannot survive. What is fat for the bureaucrat and the administrator is bone for the teacher and the student. Our “educational leaders,” as they are euphemistically called, are obviously unfamiliar with John Holt’s warning in his Instead of Education -- a book which has been around for over thirty years -- where he persuasively argues that the result of trying to make education “more effective and efficient will only make it worse, and to help it to do even more harm. It cannot be reformed.”

With the above in mind, it seems to me that we can no longer afford to continue in our usual dilatory and submissive way. It is time we took sides and proclaimed our loyalties in the eternal conflict between the penman and the postman, thought and administration, knowledge and cleverness, that is, between a capacity in the field and a Borsalino predator. In this regard, we should be deeply suspicious of the latest academic hoax or mutation, namely, the so-called Program Approach -- a subset of what is known as Outcomes based pedagogy and a system fueled, let it be said, by copious quantities of theoretical methane. For the educational millennium we have entered is nothing more or less than an allegorical Bartertown whose denizens trade in the illicit goods of defunct or makeshift ideas, false sentiments, myopic judgments, and selective impressions. We are, in fact, embroiled in a situation characterized by the proceedings of the usual suspects or delegations -- a dither of teachers and an irrelevance of administrators -- whose deliberations guarantee nothing but a new curricular apocalypse and the further erosion of educational principles and results. As Victor Davis Hanson laments in an article for PJ Media titled “California: The Road Warrior Is Here,” the students he taught at CSU Fresno “were far better prepared in 1984 than those in 2004 are; the more money, administrators, ‘learning centers,’ and counselors, the worse became the class work.”

The Program Approach operates as a kind of conceptual umbrella. The Program is defined in an introductory document that circulated in my college as “an integrated set of learning activities leading to the achievement of educational objectives based on set standards,” a fustian definition which tells us precisely nothing we did not know prior to its belated formulation. The ministries and departments that are imposing the matching sets of “learning activities” associated with the Program like to think in terms of common “objectives” which students must “target” and which must be “housed in multi-disciplinary courses.” They subsequently proceed to “identify” these objectives as if they were transcendental substances or -- on a homelier level of metaphorical exchange -- bar-coded domestic products arranged on a shelf in some sort of pedagogical supermarket.