Inspiration

The year is once again coming to a close. We take time at the holidays to leave work behind and reconnect with family and friends. Let us try to remember to carve out a little time for quiet—to silently stare at a crackling fire, to sip a warm drink while watching children and pets play in the glistening snow, to gaze...
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Why We Are Looking at the “Value” of College All Wrong

(This article first appeared here in Valerie Strauss’s education column for the Washington Post on November 1, and was discussed further in Danielle Douglas-Gabriel’s “Why a college degree shouldn’t be a commodity” on November 20.) As college admission deadlines loom, new lists and rankings proliferate along with reports questioning the “value” of a college education. The obsession with quantification is rooted in a habit of applying...
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How Statistics Turns Best into Worst

On one of its several different college-ranking lists, Washington Monthly recently designated Shimer College, a small great books college in Chicago, the worst college in America. Jon Ronson, in the US edition of The Guardian, wondered what such a terrible school would look like:  So what’s it like, this worst college? What criteria put it there? The compiler, Ben Miller, a former senior policy advisor in...
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What Competency-based Learning Cannot Do: Part II

In Part I, I considered the reasons why competency-based education is incompatible with liberal learning. Now I want to discuss why it hinders students after graduation, and deprives the world of extraordinary individuals. Liberal arts colleges have always tried to encourage students to develop not only the intellectual virtues, but also the practical, ethical, and—yes, it is still true to say it—moral...
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What Competency-based Education Cannot Do: Part I

Competency-based education is a popular trend in higher education circles. It also seems to be a trend that could do great damage to liberal learning. What is competency-based education? It has two key elements. First, any course of study must be accompanied by a “competency framework”—a detailed statement of the knowledge and skills expected of students who complete the course. Second,...
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Catching Up to St. John’s

At St. John’s we have long believed that the classroom belongs to the students, that the learners own the discussion, and that the teacher is an experienced learner assisting less experienced learners. Now it seems that many of our colleagues at other institutions are coming to this realization as well. A survey released by the Higher Education Research Institute last week shows...
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Giving Thanks

A week from today is Thanksgiving Day. By long custom at St. John’s College, the president invites to Thanksgiving dinner all our international students, as well as any other students and faculty who are spending Thanksgiving away from home and family. After the events of September 11, 2001, we added a series of readings to the tradition. Before we sit down to a home-cooked...
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Can Professional Programs Save the Liberal Arts?

Last week a new study appeared from the University of Iowa investigating whether liberal arts colleges undercut their mission by adding professional training programs like majors in business, nursing, or public policy. After testing students from 28 liberal arts institutions, the study found no significant difference in measurements of typical liberal-arts skills and dispositions (such as critical thinking, moral reasoning, and openness to diversity...
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Accountability- Commodifying the Examined Life

“Accountability” has recently become a buzzword in American higher education. The cost of a college education being what it is, a movement is in progress to determine whether the “product” of a college’s degree is “delivering value” to its students. It seems many believe that making this determination is a straightforward task. And why would they not? Accountability has become...
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