The Public Humanist

Conscience and Convenience in Liberal Arts Education

David Rothman’s book Conscience and Convenience provides a history of corrections in America and argues that the good intentions of reformers (conscience) are often thwarted by individuals and organizations (convenience)during the implementation and evaluation stages of the policy making process. There are multiple ways in which this occurs. For example, potential policy benefits could be reduced by inadequately funding the organizations that are tasked with their implementation. Another negative outcome we observe in the criminal justice system occurs as a result of developing assessment standards which are easy and cheap to calculate but are shallow in their reflection of the worth of a program. Last, attempting to achieve several (often conflicting) goals simultaneously could deflate the potential impacts of well-intentioned policies. A useful example of this effect revolves around the issue of risk prediction in criminal offenders. A plethora of prediction schemes aid criminal justice practitioners in making difficult decisions about offenders by quantifying a variety of measures that are tabulated to reveal a score about the level of risk to society an offender poses. That is, answer a series of questions about an offender, perform some calculations based on the scored answers, and voila! The resulting number will tell you whether or not an offender is of low, moderate, or high risk to society. As a self declared “quants” person, the math makes complete logical sense: By utilizing these prediction instruments agencies can save money by training practitioners to use an abbreviated decision-making process (efficiency), and utilize that same abbreviated process to assess everyone (equality). The problem is that even the best of these instruments only have an 80% accuracy rate (perceived effectiveness), and they tend to be most accurate for offenders who are on the extreme ends of the continuum, and less accurate for those offenders clustered in the middle. What is missing in these fancy schemes is the need for practitioners to critically think about a situation, collect multiple types of empirical data from different sources, and make a judgment call based on both experience and observation.

This problem of “conscience and convenience” also appears to exist in the realm of education. Although my scholarly background lies primarily in Political Science and Criminal Justice and not Education, from the vantage point of a parent, a college professor, and a quantitative researcher, I’d like to share some anecdotal observations: My primary argument here is that several major factors have converged, creating a perfect storm in this country that is producing a generation of students who are losing their ability to critically think and a culture that applauds information that is already synthesized and packaged in sound bites that can be quickly digested while accomplishing other tasks, resulting, at least at the aggregate lavel, in the fact-free world that Pleun Bouricius discussed in an earlier blog. The advances in technology have been so great in recent years that students at any grade level can utilize the internet to submit any question they conjure-up and receive an answer in under a minute. When doing his homework my 12 year old son relies on the information websites provides him, and he sighs when I tell him his research is either incomplete or inaccurate and that he must dig deeper. After all, why would Wikipedia give him bad information? For my own students, I find myself spending an increasing amount of time teaching them how to evaluate sources of information, question the source of the data, and discern what the data truly represents. Students appear to perform well on objective tests, but often have little idea how to apply their information in any context. That leads us to the second major factor contributing to our current situation.

The second major factor that contributes to the demise of critical thinking in our society is the tendency to pursue the most efficient means available to accomplish a task (in the case of education, developing and implementing standards of assessment that are easy to measure and calculate, but difficult to interpret in any meaningful way). Our culture’s love affair with “efficiency” interacts with this generation of students’ over reliance on unchecked, but easy to access sources of information, thus creating an interesting twist in education—garbage in (student’s faith in and reliance on incomplete and inaccurate information) and garbage out (standardized tests and other objective measures of assessment which do not adequately evaluate student learning—especially the ability to think critically) . Furthermore, students live in a world where focusing on one task at a time is considered inefficient. Technology, it seems, did not reduce our workload, but provided us the opportunity to perform multiple tasks at once. Instead of having more free time to spend with our families or doing other meaningful things, we simply cleared more time in our already busy lives to work on even more projects, and if the recent research is correct, we complete these tasks at a much more shallow level.

A third major factor threatening this generation’s ability to critically think and make sound decisions about the “wicked” problems they face is the tendency to pursue multiple goals simultaneously: in other words, multitasking in the pursuit of goals. To approach any problem with the idea that we will be 100% effective (such as is implied in the “No Child Left Behind” Act), while simultaneously chasing equality and efficiency is nonsensical, and this ideology impacts, no “infects”, the means necessary to make a meaningful difference. Similar to the recent Stanford research which finds that multitaskers are inefficient on every measure compared to non multitaskers; perhaps pursuing multiple goals with one program or policy is doomed to the same failure.

It is absolutely necessary, in the pursuit of progress, to identify goals and develop the structures necessary to achieve them. I am not arguing that efficiency, equality, or effectiveness are not worthy goals in the education system (or in any system for that matter); rather, I am suggesting that focusing on one goal at a time might yield us more results in the long term. Students succeed or fail due to a variety of complicated and intervening variables, many of which are outside the realm of control of our schools or the government. The lofty goals of equality, effectiveness, and efficiency in the No Child Left Behind Act and many other policies making their way through the education system have made the situation worse for many students and have not shown any meaningful measure of success for the minority of students they were designed to help. Combined with the advances in technology and an overreliance on information gathering that is quick but not reliable, and the tendency for people to multitask and only expend a shallow amount of attention to any given project, we are creating a generation of students that lacks the ability to think critically.

Trying to implement policies with the simultaneous and conflicting goals of efficiency, effectiveness, and equality dilutes potential impacts and wastes valuable resources. Evaluating these policies by relying solely on quantitative data and “proxy” measures only scratches the surface. This methodology is not necessarily flawed, but certainly incomplete and emphasizing this type of analysis (which is quick and cheap to do) only portrays a partial picture of any given problem, and our children, my students, are slowly but surely losing their ability to think critically. Furthermore, the failures of these policies add to the disillusionment and frustration of the practitioners tasked with addressing these problems and implementing the proposed solutions and ultimately chip away at society’s trust in government to effectively solve problems or improve our collective situation.

© 2014 The Valley Advocate