Accreditation and the Tyranny of the Social Sciences


Detail of The School of Athens by Raffaello Sa...

College and university accreditation and re-accreditation has become a nightmare. Accreditation agencies demand “continuous quality improvement” to be documented by quantifiable data. Following a model that has wreaked havoc with teachers in the public school system, specific departments at a university and the university as a whole must not only form a mission statement, but formulate a series of goals and objectives to meet those goals. The objectives must be measurable in a quantitative way. Some departments require not only a list of goals and objectives for the course, but also for each week of the course. Standardized group final exams are becoming more common in certain fields, such as the physical and social sciences. The comprehensive portion of the final exam may have some of the same questions year to year so that a department can track “improvement” in students’ ability to answer certain questions covering key goals of the course.

Such a social science oriented quantitative approach to education works neither in the physical sciences nor in the humanities, and I doubt it works in some social sciences either. Science involves critical thinking, something that is more than a quantifiable measure and often involves “abduction,” an inference to the best explanation that is as much an art as it is a science. The “social science approach,” a fortiori, does not work in the humanities. Students must do some memorization of facts in the humanities as in any other field,  and they can be “objectively” tested over such facts. The humanities, however, are about critical thinking, forming a world view, interacting with the great events and texts of history, reading Plato, Aristotle, and other great philosophers who sought wisdom. Wisdom uses knowledge, but refers to the practical wisdom (prudence, or what Aristotle called phronesis) to make the best decision about how to live the good life in a specific situation. A conception of the good life implies a world view, a vision of how all things fit together into a whole. World views are by nature qualitative, not quantitative. They demand weighing different and sometimes contradictory perspectives. That is why it is important in philosophy to allow faculty to use the textbooks and the approach they choose, rather than having a “cloned” approach to teaching a course. The trend toward conformity in academia has been accelerated by pressure from aggressive accrediting agencies.

There is a line of thought in the social sciences, which is also present among some scientists who work in the natural science, that nothing is real unless it is quantifiable, including knowledge (I doubt that this line of thought has room for “wisdom”). Many psychologists, especially, take a totally quantitative approach to what they are studying. As the most conservative of sciences, psychology tends to fit better into nineteenth century though rather than into twentieth and twenty-first century thought. The situation seems like the revenge of Jeremy Bentham‘s often criticized “hedonic calculus” that tried to quantify an exact measure of pleasures and pains. The basic idea of quantifying everything has been broadened to the idea that one can operationally define any learning task and test to determine whether students have actually learned. Can Plato’s view of the Forms be operationally defined? What about the significance of World War I in the development of interwar continental philosophy? Can wisdom be operationally defined? What about truth, beauty, and goodness? The accrediting agencies are attempting to destroy what is most valuable about education–becoming wiser, with a better ability to think critically and to make judgments, exposure to different world views, the privilege of discussing differing positions with a professor. To say that qualitative measures are allowed is disingenuous since even those “must be measurable”–how? There must be a quantitative rating scale. Hopefully college and university faculty will encourage accreditation agencies to re-examine this current trend toward a bad social science model of evaluating educational quality.

The Abuse of the Term “Hate”

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Logical Fallacies 1

Image by Mark Klotz via Flickr

As a long-time critic of brain death criteria and the current system of organ transplantation, I sometimes surf the web to check out discussion groups and blogs on these issues. On one blog, a woman wrote a message in the comments section concerning those who oppose organ transplantation: “How can anyone oppose organ transplantation? How can anyone be filled with so much hate?”

The woman’s reaction not only demonstrates a total lack of basic critical thinking skills, it also illustrates what happens when people follow the 1960s mantra, “The political is the personal.” Instead of arguing against her opponents, this woman accused them of being “haters.” That tactic is way too often used in debates over moral issues to avoid the difficult task of argumentation. Argumentation requires thinking, and thinking is hard work. It is easier to set one’s brain aside and appeal to emotion–saying that someone who disagrees with one’s own position is “full of hate” is an appeal to emotion and an abusive ad hominem fallacy.

Such individuals do not listen to claims by their opponents that their position is not a personal matter or that it was arrived at through reason. Debates from abortion to the moral acceptability of homosexual activity have been poisoned by the misuse of the word “hate.” But the supporters of abortion and of homosexuality (and other causes as well) who call their opponents haters are not interested in rational argument–they are interested in power. And if they take away any social capital from their opponents, they gain power at the expense of their opponents. Thus, an academic who opposes abortion, premarital sex, or homosexual practice will be labeled a hater, accused of holding “unacceptable positions,” and terminated, as happened with a professor in the University of Illinois system who presented in class a natural law argument against the morality of homosexual practice. He was later rehired after protests, but it shows the extent to which professors and college and university administrators have abandoned reason in favor of emotional screeds.

Anyone with a minimum of critical thinking skills realizes that just because someone disagrees with another person’s moral actions, this does not imply any hatred. I disagree with people who engage in premarital sex, but if I hated them I would have virtually no friends. I disagree sharply with abortion, but I do not hate women who have abortions. I feel anger toward doctors and nurses who participate in abortions but do not hate them. As for homosexuality, I disagree with people practicing it, but it no more implies that I hate them than my disagreement with premarital sex implies that I hate those who engage in that practice. Of course my opponents know this–they are not interested in honest debate. They are interested in silencing their opponents. The radical left has done well in accusing those who disagree with its agenda of reworking society in its image of being “haters” or “full of hate.” In that way, the radical left puts their opponents on the defensive and eventually silences them, by force (threatening their careers, for example) if they deem it necessary. This is dirty pool, and it is dishonest. When radical leftists accuse their opponents of hating, these radical leftists are liars–and most of them likely realize they are lying.

There are leftists, a few, who will present rational arguments for their positions and who will not stoop to the gutter tactics of hate accusations. I would hope that these honest leftists would encourage other leftists to take the high road in their arguments. And to the extent that conservatives attempt to emulate unfair tactics of the left, they should also be called to task, first of all by other conservatives. I fear that if public discourse does not get out of the gutter, then the culture war will be moving in a disturbing direction that society as a whole will end up regretting.