The Aims of Education

My approach to teaching could be described as “outcome-based education,” given the emphasis of my courses on helping students to develop particular skills of moral cognition.

For me, this narrower, short-term aim has always been tied to a broader vision of the humanities, or of liberal education, or of human life in the world. It has taken be by surprise, then, that on several occasions colleagues have asked something like the following critical questions:

In focusing so much on skills and measurable outcomes, are you not selling out to the corporate model of higher education as mere job-training? Are you not betraying the spirit of liberal education by capitulating to the increasingly corporate or consumerist approach to higher education, which reduces the whole enterprise to the provision of “credentials”?

This is a fair question, one made perhaps more urgent by the fact that the vast majority of my students are professionals-in-training, and much of what I do, particularly in engineering education, is to prepare them to work well and responsibly in their professional roles.

My first reply to the question of whether I am betraying the liberal arts is simply, “I hope not!”  I think I can do better though, in that I can draw a distinction between outcomes-based education of the kind I am developing from the job-skills-training model that seems more and more prevalent in higher education today.

Now, I really do hope that what I offer my students is a set of skills that will make them more desirable to employers, and that will help them to get along better in their workplace. But that’s only part of the picture.

The more basic aim of my course is to help my students to develop basic skills that will serve them well as human beings, help them to be more attentive, responsive, imaginative, and thoughtful as they navigate their way in the world as human beings, as members of families and communities, as citizens.

I aim to foster moral imagination and at least some appreciation for the vital importance and relevance of old books . . . and the long tradition of inquiry and struggle they represent.

Those aims, I think, put my work squarely in the tradition of a liberal education.

One aspect of my approach that seems to draw critical question is my use of a rubric and of scaffolding, which seems to reduce the broad and rich tradition of the humanities to rote tasks of word-sorting and word-counting.

(As an aside, my careful alignment of outcomes, assignments, and assessment has drawn the accusation that I must be “teaching to the test.” I will need to respond to that accusation, another time.)

Perhaps the best reply I can offer to this whole suite of questions is an argument from analogy.

Is it a betrayal of music to require students in a conservatory to practice their scales and arpeggios? The higher aim is to enable musicians to play more freely, more creatively, more beautifully, yes, but they still must spend hours and hours each day repeating basic, rote exercises.

One advantage of spending hours and hours playing scales and arpeggios, I have discovered as a mostly untrained amateur musician, is that it provides practical lessons in music theory, or at least a deeper appreciation for what theory means.

(Playing an “untempered” instrument like violin – no frets or keys to constrain me to the system of equal temperament invented for the piano – even gives me some insight into Pythagorean theory and the beautiful proportions of intervals . . . with the odd consequence, for example, that there are four different ways to play a C#!)

So, I have my students focus on and develop basic skills in ethical imagination and ethical thinking, and I evaluate them on those basic skills, but in order that they may live and work more responsively and responsibly, and I am providing them with practical lessons in ethical theory, or at least a deeper appreciation for what theory means.

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