We live in a time where STEM training, AP-tests, SAT/ACT performances, and the “measurables” of scores, scores, and scores are considered the deepest and most important expressions of a student’s intellect. Beyond being paramount judges of a student’s ability, these student-assessments are considered accurate measures of teaching ability as well. How, then, is one to justify the practical value of a Great Books education and the belief that a Great Books model offers a better education than a test-based model which caters to, say, the entrance requirements of top universities, the force of public opinion or public policy (are these still the same?), and a never-ending stream of legislation supporting test-based models of performance of students and teachers? If the test-based teaching model is proven and effective, what could remain to be said in this brief article? Let us consider.
If we first look at certain admission standards from NYU, they say nothing about reasoning ability, knowledge of values and morals, or liberty of spirit and mind of a student, one might well say that the country, therefore, does not truly care about such highfaluting, idealistic, and distinctly nebulous and difficult to measure outcomes. Let us then break the issue, initially, down to two questions: 1) In a Great Books curriculum, how does one measure student performance, and 2) in a Great Books curriculum, how does one measure teacher performance? After these two questions, we will consider whether in fact a Great Books curriculum, regardless of its testing potential, prepares one for work in a modern-day economy–with the skills necessary either to lead or to follow.
How, then, is student performance measured in a Great Books curriculum? Surely there is no standardized test called the V.A.L.U.E (Virtue Accelerated Learning and Understanding Exam)* where a student exhibits a masterful understanding of Great Works on a one hundred question scan-tron based multiple-choice test. Perhaps, more modernly, it would use a computerized adaptive model like the GRE which starts with simple paradoxes of Zeno, and at the highest level perhaps invites advanced interpretations (also multiple choice) on Plato’s Allegory of the Cave). No, this would be absurd. There are, however, some very simply measurements of student ability.
In a Great Books curriculum, the main focus of the curriculum is teaching a student to read, speak, and write with a focus on critical thinking (reasoning) expressed through each one of these activities. Therefore, the effective teacher, through valuable and rigorous formative and summative assessments, will see marked progress from basic levels of thinking, speaking (in seminars), reading, and writing. Categories for assessment might include: competent up through advanced depending on student engagement, ability, and how accessible the texts are made through activities and teacher’s acumen. Did the sentence before disengage your thinking because it looked like education-ese? Did you start to fog over just blindly accepting its bland truistic status? Good, because that is the exact language of standards in education. Let us look again to what NYU, as an example, expects of its successful applicants.
“NYU seeks talented students from every corner of the globe. As an applicant, you are expected to demonstrate your talents and mastery of subject matter to support your application and marshal your best cases for admission to NYU. As a result, NYU has one of the most flexible testing policies of any college or university.”
If one takes the professionally written and observed statement above from a top 50 university in the nation seriously, how exactly would one measure or demonstrate talent as a student? Well, according to NYU, through excelling at the SAT Reasoning Test or the ACT Writing Test amongst several other options. But, if one takes a moment to look at the paragraph before NYU’s professional application instructions, one sees another instance of the language of developing both “reasoning” and “writing” ability.
Clearly, the full measure of a Great Books curriculum is not simply to demonstrate talent and mastery on a standardized test; this, however, does not mean that a Great Books curriculum is incapable of developing such capacities in a meaningful and demonstrable way in students seeking admittance to top-tier schools. In this sense, one might consider the Great Books curriculum a well-rounded athlete who also happens to post the highest dead-lift total in a weight-room without specifically training for it. Obviously, the dead-lift performance is simply ancillary to the athlete’s sports performance, but the results are there all the same. Thus, a student of the Great Books, without focusing specifically on test-prep as the main purpose of his or her education might become a fuller and richer human, in tune with the values of his or her time and posterity–and perform well on standardized tests. This theory is being tested in the field at my Charter school as we speak.
The next question which remains to be answered is: 2) how does one measure teacher performance in a Great Books curriculum. Marcus Winters from The Manhattan Institute offers a sweeping generalization below:
“Test scores are important because they’re objective measures of the schooling outcome. It’s appropriate to emphasize student achievement on math and reading tests because these are the building blocks for success, and far too few students attending public schools today adequately possess these basic skills. Developing new tests and the right methods for analyzing them can be costly. But their potential contribution to improving teacher quality — the single most important school-based factor for fostering student learning — far outweighs the upfront cost.”
Beyond the claim that improving testing methods by necessity improves teaching quality, it is certainly acceptable that teacher quality directly influences the effect of the education. Why, then, would one choose a testing manual as the vehicle for education rather than a Great Book? This question at first seems paradoxical until one sees that in a Great Books curriculum, it is not the steward-like instructor who is the “teacher”, but rather the texts themselves which serve as “teachers” of the students. The debate then exists between whether Plato’s Republic is more valuable for preparation for life and the SAT than a more expensive and recently written College-Board book (made and sold by the College-Board, naturally).
I refuse to grant that a multiple-choice test is a better indicator of instructor effectiveness and student-learning, so instead of simply hanging my head and accepting what is not true, or petulantly refusing to face what masquerade as “the facts”, I will suggest opinions of potential employers of students who engage with Liberal Studies or the Great Books as a better example of the effects, though less immediate. Clearly, employers are more economically minded than they are motivated by educational philosophies–and if ultimately the point of an education is “to develop the skills necessary to get a job, pursue happiness, and fulfill one’s duty as a citizen,” then the job-makers must have an important, if not the last, word on the issue.
Immediately, one sees several affirmations of the value of an education which prepares students to think, read, and write. Such higher order skills like: to communicate, to lead, and to collaborate–rather than simply to effectively eliminate options A and C–are strongly advocated for in the following three examples:(1) Acenet; (2) Huffingtonpost; and (3) Fastcompany. From the tech-industry to Fortune 500 companies, the three articles above, just as examples (and by no means exhaustive ones), illustrate the modern desire and need for high-level thinkers capable of reasoning, decision-making, and concept management. This immediately strikes me as greater evidence of the necessity for such an education than a college entrance counselor’s opinion on one’s SAT score, though, clearly, this is not a whole-sale replacement mechanism for contemporary high-stakes testing methods. But as the burden of the article at hand is to reply to an objection that Great Books curricula are impractical, and job-creators, pundits, university presidents from differing backgrounds (business, technology, scientific research–STEM) have published their desire to produce and hire such people, the objection that a Great Books or Liberal Arts curriculum is impractical (especially economically) must be considered answered.
*Do not create an exam called the V.A.L.U.E.