Seeking Value or Imposing Values?

Eric R. Terzuolo

In principle, I’m all for setting clear objectives and assessing whether one is meeting them. Historically, academic institutions have not done enough of it. But the process of objective-setting and assessment itself requires careful reflection and scrutiny. And it regrettably lends itself to politicization.

Knowing of my interests in internationalization of education and in assessment, a friend recently flagged for me an e-mail from the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), announcing the release of its new rubric for assessment of “global learning.” (Message from aacucomm@aacu.org, sent Wednesday, June 12, 2013 10:01 AM.) It is the latest chapter in the organization’s VALUE (Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education) project, which in turn is part of the LEAP (Liberal Education and America’s Promise) initiative. (Fortunately, having dealt extensively with the Department of Defense and the Armed Forces in a previous life, I’m not easily deterred by avalanches of acronyms.)

I was able to access the document only after providing considerable personal information, including institutional affiliation and the likely use I would make of the rubric. (Here is the document without such obstacles.) It is, frankly, disturbing. This proposed gold standard for assessment defines global learning in markedly political terms. I take the points about helping students to “become informed, open-minded, and responsible people who are attentive to diversity across the spectrum of differences” and that they should “understand how their actions affect both local and global communities.” But it is the third and last point of the definition, and the accompanying “Framing Language,” that concern me, and make me wonder whether the phrasing of the first two points is anodyne only in appearance.

The definition of global learning calls on students to take action to “address the world’s most pressing and enduring issues collaboratively and equitably.” To me, this implies political action, and the Framing Language seems more forthright in this respect. It fleshes out the definition of global learning as “based on the principle that the world is a collection of interdependent yet inequitable systems and that higher education has a vital role in expanding knowledge of human and natural systems, privilege and stratification, and sustainability and development to foster individuals’ ability to advance equity and justice at home and abroad” (emphasis added).

Sounds political to me, and it seems to presume that everyone using the rubric will have a shared concept of exactly what constitutes “equity and justice at home and abroad.” This is a matter on which decent and intelligent people from across the political spectrum legitimately could disagree, while the Framing Language in particular draws on terminology and views characteristic of the political Left. Perhaps, I thought, the drafting of the rubric had been left in the hands of a single, very strong-minded person. In fact, the AAC&U e-mail stresses that the rubric was the work of a national rubric development team “of fifteen faculty members, assessment experts, and academic administrators who were part of the AAC&U’s Shared Futures: General Education for a Global Century project, funded by the Luce Foundation.” Furthermore, the rubric “has been evaluated over nineteen months by many people across multiple disciplines and tested against student work at a wide array of institutions across the country—two- and four-year, private and public, research and liberal arts, large and small.” Overall, the LEAP rubrics have been popular, finding use at over three thousand colleges and universities in the United States and abroad, according to the AAC&U.

Did anyone raise questions about the global learning rubric during the development and evaluation process? I don’t know. Someone should have. And this comes from someone in no way on the political Right, as the Obama/Biden 2012 sticker on my Prius can attest. But I do worry about groupthink in the academic world, the apparently automatic assumption at most institutions that everyone there is on the same side of some very important and legitimate political debates.

I looked to see whether the AAC&U had issued a press release on the rubric, aimed at the broader public, without the obligation to sign in and provide personal data before receiving the rubric, but as of June 14 found nothing. It seems to me that a major, important effort to establish new standards for assessment of higher education should be of interest to a very broad public. I would not like to see a sort of “stealth implementation” of such standards, with only faculty and academic administrators in the know. With all the respect I have for them, the quality of higher education in America is too important to be left solely to the educators. Higher education is a compelling national interest that citizens must be able to debate in conditions of maximum transparency.

I can’t help but look at this as a parent, who not so long ago was writing large checks to a college that thankfully provided, overall, an excellent education for my daughter. Honestly, I did not put her on the plane in the expectation, or with the desire, that she be prepared for the career of an activist for “equity and justice at home and abroad,” according to anyone’s definition. Historically, America’s colleges and universities have provided important context for individual growth, via confrontation with a wide range of ideas and the challenges of organizing one’s life as a young adult. (Teaching in large European public universities for several years, I realized how much my students there lacked such facilitation of personal growth.) A possible, even desirable, outcome can be a commitment to activism, consistent with the ethical and political commitments of young adults, which should evolve freely.  Making activism a defining feature of successful education is going too far, particularly if the grown-ups delimit the acceptable goals of such activism. (As we know, students often will go with the flow to secure good grades and avoid hassles, which makes the fiduciary responsibilities of faculty and academic leaders all the greater.)

Am I wrong to think that a lot of the people who write the checks, for themselves or for loved ones, would share my concerns?

Eric R. Terzuolo is an education consultant, currently on contract to the Foreign Service Institute (the U.S. Department of State's professional development institute) as Chair of West European Advanced Area Studies. A teacher, scholar, and practitioner of international affairs, he has taught at colleges and universities in the U.S., Italy, and the Netherlands, and was for over twenty years a U.S. Foreign Service Officer. A graduate school recidivist, he is currently pursuing a doctorate in Higher Education Administration at the George Washington University. (His first doctorate, in East European History, was from Stanford University.)

Image: Fotopedia.com.

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