I recently had a wonderful letter from a former student who had graduated magna cum laude from her university. A remarkable student, she avidly learned English, which was not her native language, and she did very well in Theory of Knowledge, which was not in her “comfort zone,” as she put it. Nonetheless, she said that her English and ToK studies still have “resonating effects” on her.

I mention this not because I revel in incense-burning by former students (though incense is pleasantly fragrant) but because my former student went to Penn’s Wharton School, where she undertook a double major in finance and computer science engineering. This is not the first time I have had a good word come back to me from a business student about studying Theory of Knowledge, and I think it illustrates some important features of good education. They are in danger of being forgotten in a public rhetoric that focuses on narrow results, narrow measures of accountability, and impersonality in how learning is “delivered.”

The effects of a good education on a receptive student are long-lasting, dynamic, varied, and hard to predict—or to “measure.” We should not disparage the transfer effect. Indeed, we had better trust it, for it is of vital importance in a world both where education matters and where things change rapidly. I have argued that the study of literature and of the work of first-rate thinkers who are also good writers can be like an ideal conversation, which is not just entertaining but also beneficial and educative. My own undergraduate education has lasted nearly forty-five years, for I rarely spend a week when I don’t go back in some significant way to the terrain that I first scouted in college. It was bigger than I thought. My former student says, “I continue to value philosophy, and I continue to look forward to challenges rather than staying in comfort zones.” She will do well not because reading Hardy, James, or St. Anselm was relevant or irrelevant to finance and computer engineering but because the liberal education of which they were a part made possible a capacity and plasticity of intellect that allowed her to absorb and understand disparate material and to make sense of a young life that has been intense and varied.

It should then be obvious that there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in value added metrics. I hate to beat a horse that should have a death certificate pinned on its decaying rump, but there are a lot of people that keep carrying the corpse around and acting as if riding it will get us somewhere. The reason to despise VAM (and their agents GERM, NCLB and RAT) is not that teachers’ unions are against them, but that they are empty measurements and don’t get at what education is about or what seems to trouble it in much of the U. S. I am not going to review all the arguments that have been made (those interested may thumb through my past postings, visit Diane Ravitch’s website, or read articles by the New York Times reporter Michael Winerip), but it is disheartening, after studying these arguments and finding them persuasive, to discover that noted columnists are still rallying around this zombie warhorse. It is simply impossible to credit, as one of them does, the value of “discovering” what ails university education by testing entering freshmen and emerging sophomores to find out how good they are at buying airplanes[1]! My former student would consider it absurd. She had other things to do than be a make-believe purchasing agent in order to see whether her professors were “delivering” value for money.

There is something valuable—I would say essential—in the personal ties that make good teaching and learning possible, whether in high school or in college. These ties, shaped by feeling and by the conventions of the student-teacher relationship in a culture where education is valued, are overlooked in the current quality hubbub. Though it is hard to say just what the signs of such ties should be, I instance a few examples. I have mentioned students who write or return to school to thank their teachers.  Teachers also receive notes from students thanking them for writing college recommendations or conducting interviews for admission to a university. In some places it is traditional to give presents of nominal value to teachers. In China I have seen Teachers’ Day cards.  Richard Lanham in his Handlist of Rhetorical Terms notes a kind of composition called padeuteria, a poem originating in ancient Greece thanking a teacher for what the writer has learned, or thanking God for teachers. Professor Lanham says drily of this kind of composition that it is a “genre which has often suffered from neglect.” If you look up this word in an American dictionary, you will not find it. That may tell us more than value-added metrics.

[1] Read this article by Louis Menand in The New Yorker, which discusses not just the value of airplane purchasing but also the value of university education.


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