credit: minnpost.com

credit: minnpost.com

I admire Victor Davis Hanson. His writing and broad and deep base of knowledge and understanding have always been an inspiration. We do not, of course, always agree in every particular, and I doubt the good Professor loses any sleep over that. I certainly don’t.

But in one assertion, I could scarcely disagree more: exit exams for college. Dr. Hanson should know better: 

The public is steadily losing confidence in undergraduate education, given that we hear constantly about how poorly educated are today’s graduates and how few well-paying jobs await them.

The cost of college is a national scandal. Collective student-loan debt in America is about $1.2 trillion. Campus political correctness is now daily news.

How could higher education be held accountable and thereby be reformed?

Just as expensive new roofs are not supposed to leak, $100,000 educations should not leave students unprepared for the real world upon graduation. Rain and snow calibrate the effectiveness of a roofer’s work, but how does society know whether students’ expensive investments in their professors and courses have led to any quantifiable knowledge?

The fact that we are discussing this issue reveals that we all understand the nature and depth of the problem. I deal with the same straw man argument every day. How can we know if a given school is doing its job without grotesquely expensive, mandatory testing? Simple: we pay attention. Parents carefully follow their children’s learning. Principals carefully supervise teachers. Administrators carefully supervise principals, school boards carefully supervise administrators, and citizens throw the bastards out on their ears if they become lazy and inattentive or corrupt. All of this costs no more than the normal operating budget of any school district and does not grow the size and cost of unaccountable, unresponsive, and corrupt government, nor does it take months, even years, away from necessary learning.

credit: hartnell.edu

credit: hartnell.edu

SAT and ACT examinations originated in the 1920s and 1960s, respectively, as meritocratic ways to allow applicants from less prestigious high schools and from minority groups to be assessed on their aptitude for college — without the old-boy, establishment prejudices of class, gender, and race. Would such blind exams also work in reverse as national college exit tests? Could bachelor’s degrees be predicated on certifying that graduates possess a minimum level of common knowledge?

Oh dear. Let us ignore, for the purposes of this discussion, the fact that mandatory exit tests would do for higher education what they have done for K-12 education: take months and years away from actual learning in favor of teaching to one, specific, and useless, test. Imagine college students denied degrees after incurring hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loan debt, and passing every class because they scored just under the passing line on an exit test. Was the university lying to them every time they received a passing grade for four or more years? Was the university consciously defrauding those students? That, among other things, is what the lawsuits will argue.

The SAT and ACT, which are increasingly ignored in college admissions decisions, supposedly determine academic ability. How could this “work in reverse,” particularly since a great many people attending college are non-traditional students, people who do not, at the age of 18, graduate from high school and immediately enter college in the fall? This is one reason so many colleges no longer require SAT or ACT scores. Let us also ignore, for this article, that the SAT has been rewritten and about 1/3 thrown away.  Apparently that 1/3 really wasn’t necessary, and not particularly predictive?

Lawyers with degrees can only practice after passing bar exams. Doctors cannot practice medicine upon the completion of M.D. degrees unless they are board certified. Why can’t undergraduate degrees likewise be certified? One can certainly imagine the ensuing hysteria.

Lawyers and doctors are among the few true professions. They set and regulate the entrance requirements to their professions, and set their own compensation. They also set and regulate disciplinary procedures. For lawyers, bar exams are a means of ensuring the wrong sort of people are denied entrance to their ranks, ostensibly to protect the public and the integrity of the profession. And then there is Oklahoma, where the Bar is considering dumbing down the bar exam, because too many law school graduates are failing it. For doctors, lives are at stake if people without a minimum base of knowledge are admitted. This is not the case with the overwhelming majority of holders of college degrees.

When I graduated from college back in the 1400s, the National Teacher’s Exam was all the rage for education majors. I was–tragically, but only in the theatrical sense–born without the math gene. I aced my college math courses, but that was only due to my scholarly abilities: I know how to study and take tests. I do not gaze upon equations and perceive the inherent beauty and order of the universe. Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I scored better on the math section of the NTE than the English—my major!—section. If any of my future employers paid any attention to the results of that test—fortunately, they didn’t—would I have been able to find employment teaching English? Readers may judge my proficiency with written English as they please (yesturday I could not spell Englush techur, and today I are one!), but that was one test that did not remotely reflect my actual abilities; I absolutely do not have hidden genius in math. My scores did, however, have much to say about the validity and value of that particular test.

How did I do so well in math? It was fresh in my memory. Taking the same test now, I’d fail abysmally. I’m hardly a math illiterate. I do basic math very well, and excel at fractions (I do a great deal of carpentry), something that bedevils many (fractions, not carpentry, though maybe that too…). However, like all human beings, much of what we learn in formal courses, we retain only long enough to pass the test. We remember what we need and use.

What would happen if some students from less prestigious state schools graduated from college with higher exit-test scores than the majority of Harvard and Yale graduates? What if students still did not test any higher in analytics and vocabulary after thousands of dollars and several years of lectures and classroom hours?

Would schools then cut back on ‘studies’ courses, the number of administrators, or lavish recreational facilities to help ensure that students first and foremost mastered a classical body of common knowledge? Would administrators be forced to acknowledge that their campuses had price-gouged students but imparted to them little in return?

If one could reliably believe that anyone graduating from Harvard or Yale was thereby intellectually superior to anyone graduating from the University of Wyoming, this might make a kind of sense. However, we are dealing with individuals—teacher and student—not programmed artificial intelligences. May I be so bold as to suggest that for the last several decades, a serious student graduating from UW could easily be more capable, more educated than a Harvard or Yale graduate? Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, I present, for your consideration, our ruling elite. I rest my case.

What, then, would an exit test reveal?

Would test scores force the kind of change Dr. Hanson suggests? Of course not. Tests can’t fire incompetent, malicious professors. They can’t force corrupt, socialist administrators to do away with unnecessary, useless administrative positions. They can’t clean out every “studies” program. They can’t require genuine academic discipline rather than trendy, leftist social justice navel gazing. They can’t do away with witless social justice posturing taking the place of academic integrity. Tests can’t require colleges to stop tuition gouging, and to stop spending millions on feel good, politically correct nonsense. Again, that we are discussing these matters is more than adequate proof that we recognize the problems and the need to deal with them. What more information, what greater impetus to change, would any test provide?

Dr. Hanson is entirely right that all colleges should provide full disclosure to prospective students, and to the public at large. No one should enroll in any publically supported college without knowing exactly how much it is going to cost, and without the ability to know exactly how much is being spent for every professor, program, and administrator. Also correct is this:

Each school should publicize the percentage of its students who found employment in their particular area of studies — and after how long, and at what salary. Majoring in media studies is fine, but teenagers entering college should be warned that such jobs have become far more scarce than jobs in engineering or accounting.

Instead of spending billions on “diversity” deans and their staffs, money would be far better spent on keeping track of exactly how graduates fare in the real world job market. Keep in mind, however, that college is not merely a job training experience. Learning for the sake of learning is of inestimable value as long has another means of putting food on the table.

Shouldn’t campus diversity also be defined far more broadly?

Campuses need not be just different races, ethnicities, and religions to enrich their intellectual landscapes, but exposure to a wide variety of political and social views as well. The country is divided 50/50 on most hot-button issues, not 95/5 as it is so often on campus. Life after college is about hearing and tolerating views one doesn’t agree with — not about shouting down dissenting viewpoints in adolescent fashion, or demanding to feel always reaffirmed rather than occasionally uncomfortable.

Why make campuses exempt from realities commonly found elsewhere?

There’s a worthy insight. Reality ought to intrude on the sacred “safe spaces” of every university, or every special snowflake graduating will quickly melt in the mild heat of the real world.

Tech graduates will enter the workplace without guarantees of lifetime tenure at Google. There will be no ‘safe spaces’ for supervisors at GM or Ford where others of a different race cannot enter. Employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs or NASA cannot expect their complaints and accusations to proceed by suspending the due process and free-speech rights of the accused.

Actually, under Barack Obama, the accused at the VA, NASA, and other bureaucracies are normally guilty until they prove themselves innocent, and ruthless harassed in violation of whistleblower laws, but that’s another article…

No boss at Citibank will issue trigger warnings before ordering subordinates to work harder. Do not tell your supervisor at Comcast that his advice to pick up the pace was a microaggression. Try shouting down or otherwise disrupting a presenter of a new smart-phone product line whom you do not like and see what happens.

Quite so, however this is manifestly not an argument for testing, but for better and more realistic management of universities.

Dr. Hanson implies that all college graduates everywhere should be subject to the same test. How might one compare them, and their respective colleges, otherwise?

And how would such testing be mandated? Federal law? State law, or would it be voluntary, and as such, rare? Are we about to embark on another Common Core? Colleges have traditionally been bastions of freedom of speech and intellectual inquiry, features unlikely to survive Federal intervention and management. We can argue that freedom of speech and inquiry apply only to progressive speech and ideas, but that too is another article.

The testing mandates in the states for K-12 education have engendered enormous waste and corruption. Texas alone has been spending around a tenth of a billion dollars per year on those tests and all that revolves around them, and for what? To produce a few data points, which tell any educator or parent much less than years of observation, accomplishment and care provided by their teachers.

This is a political and cultural battle. Tests cannot fix what ails higher education. They can only waste additional billions, and by taking valuable instructional time, produce even less prepared graduates. Reform will come only when enough citizens have had enough, are mad as hell, and won’t take it anymore.

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