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May 27, 2009 [feather]
Constructive criticism

One of the stock criticisms leveled at critics of the academy (and yes, the instantly baroque character of my prose here mirrors the infinitely baroque quality of the hall-of-mirrors, I'm-rubber-and-you're-glue quality of debates about academic reform as they have taken shape during the last twenty years) is that the critics of the academy only criticize. Why oh why, the critics of the critics lament, don't they offer something positive and constructive? Why do they only focus on the negative? The next step, of course, is to conclude that the critics are not serious, or are serious only about criticizing, and to dismiss their critiques out of hand--a bad faith move that justifies itself as responding to a bad faith move.

Peter Wood cuts right through all the crap this morning over at the NAS website, acknowledging (and not apologizing for) NAS' traditional stance as more of a critic than a problem-solver--and then taking the plunge into what can only be considered a desperately needed, and immensely welcome, effort at problem-solving.


The National Association of Scholars itself isn't really suited to giving such advice. NAS is perhaps best known for what it opposes than for what it supports. It opposes illiberal campuses ideologies; racial preferences; indoctrination in the classrooms; dumbed-down curricula; and authoritarian administrators. NAS typically presents its positive agenda in broad terms: it favors intellectual and academic freedom, rational scholarship in a free society, and scholarly inquiry founded on reason and civil debate. NAS upholds a positive view of Western civilization and the legacy of the American founding. And NAS has long held that America is best served by the great variety of colleges and universities in the nation--a variety that speaks to many needs and interests and fosters experimentation and competition.

We get asked from time to time to be more specific. Is there a particular curriculum we favor? Do we have proposals to improve college teaching? Where do we stand on grade inflation? College sports? State subsidies? Do we have ideas about accreditation? Is there a model of college administration that we advocate?

The answer to all these questions has been a guarded "no."


Having gotten the caveats out of the way, and having stressed that what is coming is not an official undertaking of the NAS, but a personal and provisional undertaking of Peter Wood, Wood begins to outline some ideas about the nature of the problem with American education--hopefully we can all agree that there are some pretty serious problems--and from there begins to frame ten basic principles that could stand as the basis for reform. They are:

Education should focus on learning, not credentialing. Credentials such as high school diplomas, college degrees, and certification exams do have an important role to play, but they are rightly understood as outward tokens of inner accomplishment. Of course, encouraging actual learning rather than the accumulation of course credits and passing grades is more difficult.

We can learn from others who already know. For nearly a century, the dominant pedagogy in American schools has been based on psychological theories that emphasize individual "discovery" of knowledge. Guided by this precept, teachers are often reluctant to teach their students the "right answers" or to show them the best way to solve problems. We need to get past this self-imposed handicap. No child can or should be expected to invent human knowledge from scratch. We need a pedagogy that empowers teachers to teach actual knowledge. That has important implications, beginning with the need to make sure that the teachers themselves possess the knowledge they are supposed to teach.

Some knowledge is basic. Students should learn it first. This principle applies to all levels of education and seems obvious, except that it is so often violated.

Some knowledge is intermediate. It demands its own kind of teaching. The mid-level between basic and advanced is a crucial stage in education and seems poorly served by our current system.

Higher education should focus on higher knowledge. Although almost anything can be taught at a college and students can be awarded college credit studying it, the proper purpose of college is to focus on higher knowledge.

Critical thinking is a component, not the whole of higher learning. This principle seems needed because of the widespread idolization of "critical thinking" as the sole legitimate intellectual goal of liberal education. In that context "critical thinking" often translates into learning how to debunk any idea that rests on the authority of tradition, learning, or intellectual inquiry. But "critical thinking" rightly understood is part of a project that entails learning to synthesize, abstract, develop cogent overviews, frame creative hypotheses, entertain counter-factual ideas, pursue analogies, and draw in both disciplined and imaginative ways on the resources of an educated mind. And critical thinking should never be disjunct from intellectual modesty and deference.

Education should be transparent. Schools and colleges should not be mystery cults. They should be clear about what they teach and why and what else they do.

Academic freedom depends on adherence to rational discourse. The much-abused term "academic freedom" gets invoked these days as justification for a great many things that have little or nothing to do with the rational pursuit of truth. No doubt this is because many who invoke the term doubt that "the pursuit of truth" is a meaningful goal of academic inquiry, though they would like to preserve the social privileges that come with academic freedom. But this is intellectual misappropriation. Academic freedom depends on a shared commitment to rational discourse in pursuit of truth.

Education in a democracy should be for everyone, but higher learning isn't. Our system of colleges and universities pursues many forms of training for many purposes. It isn't realistic to imagine a quick retreat from the something-for-everyone approach that has become dominant in American higher education, but that doesn't prevent the recognition that only a small part of our system actually focuses on "higher learning." In principle, we need to identify and foster this sector.

Vocational training is important, but college may not be the best way to foster it. Our society requires many specialized forms of knowledge and skill. We need to think more creatively about ways to develop these.


Wood wants feedback, isn't wedded to this point or that, wants to begin a discussion (in his next installment, he's going to talk about how we might move from "purposes to incentives"). Along the way, he hopes to work toward something like a comprehensive platform for reform that people who care about education can agree on. If you are one of those people, take him at his word, and please offer your thoughts. You don't have to agree with him--and I know many of the folks who read this site will disagree with some or all of what he has to say, just as you do with me. But real reform has to bridge differences, and emerge from fruitful discussion that includes a wide range of perspectives. Wood's is one of those--and yours can be, too.

posted on May 27, 2009 7:24 AM




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