What Gets Measured vs. What Gets Valued

Taken out of context—that is, considered within a contemporary American context—Alan Bennett’s play (and, later, movie) The History Boys can be read as satirizing the values of the standardized testing movement. Set in early-1980s England, the plot centers on a group of pupils who are preparing (or, perhaps more accurately, are being prepared) for the Oxbridge entrance exams. Their ambitious headmaster recruits a cynical and, as it turns out, fraudulently credentialed history teacher who dedicates himself to what we’d call “teaching to the test,” with all that that phrase implies. Meanwhile, Hector, an erudite and unorthodox English teacher, refuses the mandate to prepare his students for the all-important test, hoping instead to prepare them for life by exposing them to wisdom—and his own highly singular influence. “I count examinations, even for Oxford and Cambridge, as the enemy of education,” Hector explains.

As you’d expect, the test-happy headmaster is quick to recognize the threat Hector poses to his ambition. (Oxbridge scholarships would translate directly into increased prestige for the school.) “Shall I tell you what is wrong with Hector as a teacher?” the headmaster asks. “It isn’t that he doesn’t produce results. He does. But they are unpredictable and unquantifiable and in the current educational climate that is no use. He may well be doing his job, but there is no method that I know of that enables me to assess the job that he is doing. There is inspiration, certainly, but how do I quantify that?”

In pointing to the always fraught and potentially exclusive relationship between what gets measured and what gets valued, the headmaster also points to the play’s larger question of what education is for. For his part, “Hector never bothered with what he was educating these boys for.” He embodies the principle of learning for learning’s sake, and, accordingly, the sort of education he aims for concerns “enthusiasm shared, passion conveyed and seeds sown of future harvest”; it is decidedly avocational.

By contrast, America’s answer to the question of educational purpose is increasingly vocational. President Obama’s new American Graduation Initiative, for example, stresses “credentials” that “help graduates get ahead in their careers” as well as the need to “keep American businesses competitive.” And as AAC&U’s own survey revealed, students too are “very career focused, and their top reasons for going to college are specifically and directly related to enhancing their opportunities for career success.”

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with expecting higher education to prepare students for economic success by fostering a set of employment-related outcomes—not least because, as the LEAP initiative has demonstrated over and again, those outcomes are not purely instrumental; they are, in fact, the very outcomes that are associated with a liberal education. A responsible citizen is gainfully employed, after all, and a truly holistic education should lead to forms of gainful employment that provide a meaningful context within which to apply knowledge and continue learning.

But college students themselves ought to be able to expect even more from a liberal education. They ought to be able to expect that it will equip them not only for civic life and for their individual work lives but also for life itself. Here, however, the language of “outcomes” breaks down, principally because so many of the most valuable “outcomes” of a liberal education are intangible and, more to the point, unquantifiable. Even as they train the mind to think critically, for example, courses in the arts and humanities grant lasting access to difficult and life-enhancing pleasures. Even as they diminish credulity and relieve ignorance of the natural world, science courses stimulate wonder. And just because it’s not really possible to measure such things as pleasure and wonder does not mean that any failure of education to attend to them is inconsequential. As William Carlos Williams memorably put it, and as we quoted in the LEAP report, “it is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.”

It is wholly worthwhile to proclaim the remarkable correspondence between the needs of the twenty-first-century economy and the outcomes of a liberal education, just as it is, on balance, beneficial to develop and apply increasingly sophisticated metrics to assess those outcomes. But this utilitarian focus on the measurable must never be allowed to limit our response to the question of what a liberal education is for.

In an early confrontation, The History Boys’ teacher-to-the-test tells Hector that “education isn’t something for when [students are] old and grey and sitting by the fire. It’s for now. The exam is next month.” “And what,” Hector asks, “happens after the exam? Life goes on.” In addition to being the best preparation for work and citizenship, a liberal education is a liberating education, and liberation is among its lasting effects. A liberal education is for life. We must pursue meaningful assessment of all the essential learning outcomes, and still take care never to lose sight of these lasting effects.

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