Bowdoin College’s motto is Ut Aquila Versus Coelum (“As an eagle towards the sky”). Such lofty goals for higher education are the rule, not the exception: Harvard, Veritas (truth); University of Michigan, Artes Scientia Veritas (arts, science, truth); University of Dallas, Veritatem, Justitiam Diligite (Love Ye Truth and Justice); James Madison University, “Knowledge is Liberty”; US Military Academy, “Duty, Honor, Country”; Grinell College, Veritas et Humanitas (truth and humanity).
Truth, Science, Art, Justice, Duty, Patriotism, Humanitas — what test, you ask, could one offer to determine whether an applicant is worthy to fly to such heights?
Behold the College Board’s new SAT, due out in 2016! “The redesigned SAT will be more focused on the few things shown by current research to matter most in college and career.” (For non-Americans, the SAT, or the Scholastic Assessment Test, is a standardized test for most college admissions in the US.)
What has the College Board’s “current research” “shown” about, say, “Duty,” or “Humanitas”?
Cue the crickets. If you follow these matters closely, you will have already reconciled yourself to the sad fact that those “few things shown by research to matter most” do not include “Honor,” or “Liberty,” or love of “Truth and Justice.” In turning its back on the loftier goals of higher education, the new SAT will be cementing a recent departure from a millennia-long consensus in civilized education, namely to encourage students to aim very high, beyond college, beyond simply the J-O-B, to good lives as free, virtuous, and flourishing human beings.
Why do this? Why recalibrate the SAT to lowered standards?
Let’s listen to the College Board’s new president, David Coleman: “The first, most important principle behind the core standards in literacy and mathematics is that they must be college and career ready.” He’s just restating new SAT talking points, right?
Some argue the retooling of the SAT is a move to recapture ground lost to the ACT, but if you follow the impassioned, Ahab-like Mr. Coleman, such commercial claims upon his heart do not ring fully true. Redesigning the SAT is just mopping up the opposition to his education revolution. Coleman wants to kill the whale; let Starbucks worry about the price of whale oil — or the safety of the ship for that matter.
Make no mistake, Coleman thinks the Common Core is “revolutionary.” And he’s right. Forty-five states (well, forty-four after Indiana pulled out last week) and one of the two leading college assessment tests in the country are all planning to lock in amber a terrible, late 20th century trend in education, namely setting students sights lower and lower in the hopes of keeping them in school and out of poverty as productive members of the global economy.
Everyone wants students to stay in school, study hard, and avoid poverty, but lowering their sights and lowering the demands schools make on them only renders school insipid to students—and worse, unhelpful.
The common sense of civilization holds that to mitigate the effects of gravity one must aim high to hit even a low target. But common sense does not come easily to a particular strain of data-mongers and education reformers who refuse to be guided by master teachers and educational history and instead focus their attention, and their shiny new SAT, on “the few things shown by current research to matter most in college and career.”
As a result, the SAT will be dumbed down, data analysis will be emphasized, and eloquence — the pinnacle of the liberal arts and the doorway to humanitas — will be deemphasized. The triumph of the practical over the noble will result in the loss of both the noble and the practical. We cannot allow the next generation to aim so low, for they will hit a still lower and unintended mark.
The false dichotomy between the good and useful is a confusion shared both by the right and by the left. Too often champions of true education reform begin their defense of the liberal arts and the humanities by emphasizing their uselessness. With such a presentation, it is little wonder that some thought leaders have been wowed by the initial sales pitch and that the business community has mistakenly endorsed the Common Core and, by logical necessity, the new SAT.
The liberal arts—or the arts of liberty—provide the training needed for self-government. When done well, they are a preparation for virtue. And what foolish business, what misguided government, or what muddle-headed civil society would look askance at historically proven educational reform that understood itself as a preparation for virtue, which would help to foster good employees, good citizens, and good people?
If we embrace Coleman’s Common Core and the new SAT, if we settle for teaching a hunched nation-wide curriculum synched to a drudge’s SAT, then we will be just that business, just that government, and just that society. We will be like a college that offers its students a more practical motto: “As a Pheasant towards the Brush”; or “Data”; or “Like Ye Facts and a 401K.”
Matthew Mehan is a teacher and US contributing editor for MercatorNet.