Liberal Education Value and Affordability

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 the guarantor of quality in nearly everything we do. We count and measure, weigh and rank everything from peanut butter to automobiles, from hospitals to investment firms, from parenthood to places of worship. Some of this numerical evaluation is reasonable, some is pure nonsense.

When applied to liberal education, attempts at accountability lean very much toward nonsense. It’s impossible to mathematically massage data points like cost, indebtedness, graduation rates, test scores, and post-graduation income levels in order to determine whether a college is being accountable to its students. This approach—which treats education like a commodity—may well apply to commercial transactions in which the producer promises a certain benefit to a buyer simply in return for a purchase. But a liberal education is not a transaction of this sort. It is true that students pay good money to attend a school where they aspire to learning. But if they don’t do their assignments, go to class, and actively engage in the educational process, they won’t learn anything. And even if they do go to class and hear the lecturers, they may still not get anything out of it, because learning is not consuming. The teacher does not pour knowledge into the student like water into a catch basin. On the contrary, learning is the student’s self-sustained effort, mediated by a teacher, to deepen and clarify his or her understanding.

This process often involves sacrificing more than one receives. To learn, students must be open to the new and the unknown. They must examine ideas inherited from others and question statements made by others. They must even reexamine what they think they know on the basis of prior examination. In other words, learning is grounded in recognition and acceptance of one’s own ignorance. A college and its faculty can be held accountable for the curriculum, for opening the classroom doors, and for a host of other things that create the opportunity for students to learn something. But they cannot be held entirely to account for what the student does or does not learn, because learning belongs to the student alone.

The attempt to commodify liberal education gets in the way of seeing the real nature of the relationship between teachers and students. In talking about education, we need to abandon the language of the marketplace.  Students are not consumers, colleges are not delivery systems or training centers, and education is not a commodity. Learning is a cooperative activity; it requires commitment and effort on the part of the student as well as on the part of the school—a relationship which is far more complicated than buying and selling goods at the shopping mall.  Diplomas are not bought and sold; they are earned.

The true nature of the relation between teachers and students is not one of accountability, but one of responsibility. Teachers are responsible for doing everything in their power to make the conditions for learning favorable; students are responsible for doing everything in their power to benefit from the optimal conditions.  Accountability is infinitely inferior to this mutual responsibility for one simple reason: the motivation for accountability comes from the outside, whereas the motivation for responsibility comes from within. Responsible people will indeed be accountable, but what is more, they can be counted on, because they have the inner drive to excel in all their commitments. People who are merely accountable cannot possibly rise to the level of responsibility, because their choices and actions are determined by an external authority.

In fact, this difference goes right to the heart of liberal education, which is quite literally education for freedom. The merely accountable person is neither free nor self-determined; the responsible person is both. It is not the aim of liberal education to help students become cogs in a vast hierarchical bureaucracy of accountability in which everyone’s free choice and action is circumscribed by the demands of someone else who is higher in the pecking order. The aim of liberal education is to help students become independent agents, capable of making their own judgments, and capable of being responsible to themselves, their loved ones, their associates, and their nation.

Liberal arts colleges rightly treasure the autonomy of the individual. They prize cultivation of the individual intellect and improvement of individual character both as ends in themselves and as means to maintaining the health of our communities. For they have found over the years that individuals educated for freedom will also improve the conditions of those around them.

Submitting to the decrees of the measurers—which means acceding to accountability rather than insisting on responsibility—is not something that liberal arts colleges should settle for without a fight.