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Outcomes-Based Education

Given its lack of purchase on the real world in which an educated mind labors to come into existence, one might be excused for inferring that the Outcomes program could only have been confected by the Behavioral Science and Education departments at the University of Mare Imbrium on the moon. I do not mean to carpet indiscriminately all the partisans and fellow-travelers of the Outcomes system, some of whom are well-intentioned but seriously deluded. But I remain convinced that it represents the apex of all that is beside the point in general education, displacing the psychological centers of learning to the peripheries of pre-ordained acquisition, taxonomic infatuation and mechanical process, mere ectopic pedagogy at its routine and perfunctory worst.

The trouble is that the responsible and thoughtful self, reasonably secure in its grasp of the manifold complexities of life, modestly confident in the felt stability and continuity of its moral and intellectual center and capable as well of developing a consistent and defensible outlook on the world, is aborted practically at the start in the name of some presumptive competency. As Socrates confides to his attentive acolyte in the Phaedrus, “It is noble to aim at a noble goal, whatever the outcome” (italics mine). As for Outcomes-based education, it is little more and nothing less than a form of self-estrangement, the externalizing of mind into a set of operational prompts for actors who would otherwise forget their lines and spend a good portion of the play wandering aimlessly about the stage. As indeed they appear to do.

Students may at best acquire a small kit or cluster of professional “skills” -- but such specific competencies are only a fraction of what we mean and have always intended by “education.” It is true they may pick up a whiff of culcha from an incidental sprinkle of English and Humanities courses along the way, but this amounts to little more than a cosmetic nicety, the eau-de-toilette of pseudocivilized discourse. One thinks of the bereft condition of the little boy in Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, who wanted to say his prayers but could only remember the multiplication table.

The business of the teachers, writes Gilbert Highet in his classic The Art of Teaching, is “to pass currents of interest and energy through the facts” and that this may reasonably be done “more happily as improvisation than as a prepared part of a lesson.” Certainly it is preferable, at least in the Humanities, “to allow the teacher and the class scope to develop their discussions without being kept to a timetable.” It is discouraging “to have the work sliced up and packed into airtight compartments, each containing one week’s rations.” The thought goes back to Thoreau who, in the last essay he wrote, Walking, proposes that true knowledge is acquired by “sauntering.” This alone can generate “the requisite leisure, freedom, and independence which are the capital of this profession.” It is precisely the joy of the leisurely and metaphorical saunter through a discipline or area of study which the current paradigm has sabotaged, substituting in its stead a rigid confinement to a narrow and pre-established methodological regime. The result is cultural destitution.

Having sent our students to the wrong explanatory paradigm, we are now presiding over a referential tragedy of the first magnitude. I am very much afraid that Thoreau is right and the “evil days” he warns against in his essay have at last come upon us, “when fences shall be multiplied, and man-traps and other engines invented to confine men to the public road.” By the “public road,” Thoreau intends the conventional and uninstructed complacency of unchallenged assumptions about the world. The “knowledge” we are busy inculcating and the restrictive ways in which we are commanded to deliver it mean that we will not succeed in evoking in our students what Thoreau describes as “Sympathy with Intelligence” -- the broad, personal, and historically resonant form of knowledge which is the aim and ideal of all genuine education no matter how much it may be honored only in the breach.

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