Each fall, when the new academic year rolls around, a professor’s thoughts naturally turn once more toward educational matters. Over the course of a summer, jadedness gives way to fond hopes for what students—under the professor’s wise guidance, of course—will accomplish. At the outset of Western philosophy, in the Republic, Plato taught that education was fundamentally about the shaping of souls, surely as noble a task as one could imagine embarking upon. Like the would-be philosophers in the cave, each new batch of students must be transformed. Their young souls must be turned away from the shadows on the wall of the cave so that they can learn to gaze upon the sun itself, gradually coming to understand the nature of the Good. How will I shape my students’ souls in this new semester?
I found myself pondering this question as I took up one of the annual tasks of the new year: updating my syllabi. Unfortunately, I was prompted to such reflection less by optimism or grand ambitions than by a sense of gloom at the degree to which the soul-shaping is these days driven by people with perhaps the smallest of all souls: government bureaucrats. It seems that we have some new syllabi requirements to comply with this year. I was reminded of this by an email from my associate dean, who was dutifully seeking to ensure that we faculty do what we are supposed to do, especially as the institution where I teach undergoes the decadal ritual of seeking reaccreditation. Not all of the reminders were about entirely new requirements, but one especially annoying and useless—even annoyingly useless—requirement was.
Beginning this fall, I am supposed to include in my syllabi “time-on-task” expectations; that is, I am supposed to indicate how much time I expect my students to spend, on average, completing the various course assignments. For instance—just to borrow a few examples from the new policy language in our college catalog—they might spend “3 minutes per page (approx. 100 words per minute)” completing their “assigned reading”; or, if they are asked to “participat[e] in online dialogue(s)” (as my own students surely are not!), they can expect this to require of them “1 hour for 5 postings (original or in response to other posters), each of which consists of at least 5 sentences or 30 seconds of recorded material”; or, in an almost embarrassingly conventional assignment, they might need to spend “1.5 hours per finished page” completing the “writing/editing component” of a “researched paper.” (This is presumably the same thing as the more familiar “research paper.”) These estimates, I can assure you, are the result of considerable “dialogue,” much of it “synchronous,” but some of it also “asynchronous” and “online.”
As unlikely as it might first seem, I owe this inelegant invasion of my syllabi to the federal government. It is no secret that higher education has become a political issue of increasing salience in recent years. The Department of Education has therefore come up with a number of “Program Integrity Regulations.” Among its accomplishments in this regard is to have settled on an official federal definition of the credit hour, the lack of which has long been a source of profound concern among citizens of all political persuasions. The United States Department of Education defines a “credit hour” as an “amount of work represented in intended learning outcomes and verified by evidence of student achievement that is an institutionally established equivalency that reasonably approximates not less than: (1) one hour of classroom or direct faculty instruction and a minimum of two hours of out-of-class student work for approximately fifteen weeks for one semester or trimester hour of credit....”
There is more, but that is the basic idea. Before continuing, let us pause a moment to ponder how much more successful Socrates might have been in educating future philosopher-kings had he only known this definition, the Form of the Credit Hour, if you will. Might he have been spared the hemlock?
It does not, of course, take a satirist of any great skill to mock this sort of thing. So let me preface the coming criticism by insisting that I do not intend here to engage in any special pleading on behalf of colleges and universities. They have only themselves to blame for becoming the objects of such scrutiny and have, indeed, brought this fate upon themselves. The politicization of campuses; the revolt against much of Western culture and its values, and thus against students’ own homes and parents; the proliferation of pointless majors and silly classes; and, especially, the skyrocketing price tag for enjoying all of the above have made institutions of higher education into objects of profound cultural suspicion. The American public is overly prone to populist anti-intellectualism, but colleges and universities have made themselves increasingly easy targets over the last several decades. So one can reasonably defend the government’s motives (if not its actions or its common sense).
Even the time-on-task requirements have a reasonable explanation. The point of defining the credit hour is to protect students and their families against potential fraud. Ensuring that a credit hour represents some reasonably consistent amount of work, linked to measurable learning, enables more meaningful comparisons across institutions while creating barriers against watered-down programs, especially in new areas such as online and for-profit education, where students risk spending money to acquire paper credentials that are not what they claim to be. Nor is the government itself actually inspecting my syllabi (though the NSA has no doubt read them thoroughly, even before I have finished writing them). Rather, having established the definition of a credit hour, it entrusts the task of enforcing it in a consistent fashion to the accrediting agencies. And the easiest way for the accreditors to do that is simply to require me to document the amount of work that my course, which is ostensibly worth four hours of credit, actually requires of students. Hence the time-on-task reminder from my associate dean, especially in light of our coming re-accreditation review.
Even if this chain of cause and effect can be explained as the product of reasonable motives, surely the end result is absurd. Does any sane person really think that my including in my syllabi the amount of time it will take students to accomplish various tasks will improve their education? Surely not. But if not, why bother? What is really going on here?
At moments like these—which unfortunately are ever more frequent—I find myself wondering whether we are witnessing a new stage in the ongoing bureaucratization of society. Bureaucracy, of course, has long been recognized as a hallmark of the modern state; Max Weber famously explained it in terms of the increasing rationalization of society. But something like this time-on-task requirement—which is closely linked to the immensely powerful movement in higher education for “outcomes assessment,” alluded to in the credit hour definition’s reference to “intended learning outcomes”—does seem to reflect a more advanced degree of regulatory mania combined with silliness. (Readers in the field of education will know all too well what “outcomes assessment” is about. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, permit me simply to remind you that ignorance is bliss.) As a working hypothesis, I suggest that two social factors are combining to drive this development. The first is the growth of a knowledge-based economy, in which increasing numbers of jobs are white-collar and highly skilled workers are in ever greater demand. The second is the continually increasing number of Americans seeking a college education, fueled both by the knowledge that a college degree pays economic dividends and also by our continued political and cultural insistence that everyone ought to go to college.
This is a problematic combination. The economy demands more and more intelligent and talented people. So we seek to satisfy that demand by sending ever more people to college. It cannot be the case, however, that ever-increasing percentages of Americans are highly intelligent and talented. It would seem, therefore, that a society that produces increasing numbers of college graduates over time is necessarily producing increasing numbers of people who possess paper qualifications that overstate their actual accomplishments and abilities. (In this connection, it is interesting to note that the ACT, in its report “The Condition of College & Career Readiness 2014,” found that while 86 percent of those students who took the ACT in 2014 “aspired to postsecondary education,” only 39 percent of them, based on their ACT performance, had “a strong likelihood of experiencing success in first-year college courses.”) What are such qualified-on-paper-but-only-moderately-talented people to do? What sorts of jobs are suitable for them, jobs consonant with their own sense of achievement and merit but not actually requiring any great level of wisdom?
These are precisely the sorts of people who go on to become bureaucrats and middle managers, deputy assistant directors of this or associate junior manager of that. They constitute an army of people requiring work that seems important, regardless of how much truly important work there is to be done. They need to justify their existence, which they do by passing continuous regulations and revisions of regulations, which of course require in turn still more mid-level bureaucrats to oversee and enforce them. They derive satisfaction from doing things like requiring faculty to include time-on-task expectations in their syllabi, and perhaps they even believe that in doing so they are making the world a better place. Possibly they represent a new sociological phenomenon—a kind of combination of the “revolt of the masses” with the “iron law of bureaucracy”—in need of further study. Indeed, they would probably be happy to study it themselves. The Department of Education could create a special commission, naturally with numerous subcommittees, to study “Bureaucratic Expansion and the Knowledge Economy in a Global Age.” Such a committee could then issue a set of recommended “best practices” for the rest of us to implement, complete with expected outcomes and an assessment plan.
Tocqueville, as usual, saw it coming. Classical political philosophers like Aristotle understood democracy as the rule of the poor, by which poor majorities systematically sought to redistribute the wealthy’s riches to themselves. Tocqueville, writing as modern democracy took shape, understood that equality might take a somewhat different form and that majoritarian mediocrity, instead of targeting the wealth that emerged as talent’s effect, might pursue the more fundamental strategy of negating inequality’s cause by preventing the successful assertion of talent in the first place. In describing the new form of despotism that he thought was a possibility in democracy—a “brand of orderly, gentle, peaceful slavery”—he worried that democratic government
extends its embrace to include the whole of society. It covers the whole of social life with a network of petty, complicated rules that are both minute and uniform, through which even men of the greatest originality and the most vigorous temperament cannot force their heads above the crowd. It does not break men’s will, but softens, bends, and guides it; it seldom enjoins, but often inhibits, action; it does not destroy anything, but prevents much being born; it is not at all tyrannical, but it hinders, restrains, enervates, stifles, and stultifies...
Program integrity regulations for the twenty-first century: a network of petty, complicated rules that are both minute and uniform.
As I comply with these enervating, stifling, and stultifying regulations, I wonder: How am I shaping my students’ souls? When they see my syllabus filled with things like time-on-task expectations and learning outcomes, what impression does it make upon their conscious or subconscious minds? Time-on-task expectations, I fear, may send an implicit message that one should be satisfied with doing the minimum amount of work necessary to get by, clocking in for the requisite amount of time and then moving on to something else. But more importantly, will these young men and women mistakenly come to think that intelligent people—many students, God bless them, actually cling rather touchingly to the belief that their professors are intelligent—actually regard all of this stuff filling their syllabi as important? And if so, will they begin to think like that themselves, or worse, even aspire to become such people?
Perhaps such fears are unfounded. Students often have strong, sound instincts for detecting nonsense. But they also have powerful incentives to imitate behavior that appears associated with professional success. On more than one occasion I have had a student ask me if I had a “rubric” for grading papers. (The first time this happened, I had no idea what the student was talking about. I have since become better informed.) It would be disheartening indeed to think that by my compliance with these sorts of syllabi requirements—resistance, after all, is futile—I am being co-opted as a participant in the education of still more mid-level bureaucrats.
The Harvard political theorist Harvey C. Mansfield has long assigned his students, as a protest against grade inflation, two separate grades: their official grade, which appears on their transcript and follows a typical Harvard grade distribution, with lots of A’s and A-minuses; and their “ironic grade,” that is, the grade he believes their work really deserves, with an average closer to C. (The practice earned him the nickname Harvey “C-minus” Mansfield.) Perhaps I need to follow a similar practice with my syllabi. I could have two versions of them: Version A, “for students who, like Socrates, believe that the unexamined life is not worth living”; and Version B, filled with time-on-task expectations, learning outcomes, and whatever else is to follow, “for students whose ambition in life is to become middle managers and bureaucrats.” As Socrates knew well, after all, there will always be many people who prefer to remain in the cave.
Peter Meilaender is Professor of Political Science at Houghton College.