First off, I would like to WELCOME Flagg Taylor and Michael Davis (aka PSEUDOPLOTINUS) to the highly competent and effective TEAM POSTMODERN CONSERVATIVE. Other change you can believe in is around the corner.

I really appreciate John Presnall’s post below. I have been quarreling with various conservative types over the biggest threat to higher education in America today. No, it’s not political correctness. It’s the strange alliance of schools of education, government bureaucracies, accrediting agencies, and libertarian economists that’s all about techno-disruption. The key to understanding this alliance is the interesting work of Mr. Disruption himself, Clayton Christensen of the Harvard Business School. It’s not that the relevant trends weren’t in motion prior to the emergence of disruption theory as applied to higher education. It’s that Christensen has raised them to a higher level of self-consciousness or made them more “intentional.” Measurable assessment, Christensen says, is a form of technology. It’s the form of technology, the savvy and amazingly shameless libertarian economist Tyler Cowen adds, that will discipline educational workers with the reigning standard of productivity. It will subordinate clueless and tradition-bound professors to the cutting-edge intellectual labor done by the others.

Now when professors of education talk about competencies, they tend to be just applying standards that we’re developed for, say, second grade to college. And they’re just going through the motions because that’s what they know. It makes them nervous when something can’t be assessed. The same with accrediting associations, for the most part. So it’s easy to satisfy them by making up baloney couched in their fairly empty lingo.

But now the assessment movement has been directed toward orienting all education around workplace competencies. From one point of view, critical thinking, as John says, really doesn’t mean much of anything at all. It refers vaguely to some Kantian criticism of metaphysical thinking. But that criticism becomes reduced to the proposition that you can separate “critical thinking” as a competency from thinking about anything in particular. Thinking, as it were, is content neutral. But because experts who say stuff like “critical thinking” don’t know anything about the case for or against metaphysics, the phrase becomes merely a redundancy. What would uncritical thinking be? The phrase is also based on the proposition that “thinking” is a measurable skill, and there some residual Kantianism sneaks in. Critical thinking becomes (as does moral reasoning) being a Kantian.

But with Christensen, competencies like critical thinking and problem solving are only real if it can be proven that they can be connected with “real world” success—big money as the price paid for measurable productivity. And so, as John complains, the study of philosophy or history can only be justified as worth the student’s money if the techno-payoff in the marketplace can be captured by the technology of assessment. John is offended not so much because the study of philosophy doesn’t have that kind of payoff, but because it’s about so much MORE than that. If there’s no appreciation of the MORE, then students will pick up their critical thinking competency without having to endure the extra baggage.

John, of course, writes from Texas, where this kind of thinking is so advanced. There’s Governor Rick Perry, who’s heavily influenced by the Texas Public Policy Foundation. At the foundation, students of political philosophy are employed to convince people that disruption is the only way to save us from the emptiness of political correctness, from education that’s neither liberal nor vocational.

Our Mr. Ceaser, remember, stood up to save a liberal (and fairly political correct) sociologist president of the University of Virginia from forces of disruption.

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Articles by Peter Lawler

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