Who Cares about Accreditation?

Roger Olson on accreditation and private, religious universities:

My firsthand experience with accrediting agencies, societies and associations is that they seek to hold out accreditation or renewal of accreditation as the proverbial carrot on a stick to manipulate institutions of higher education to embrace their values.

What do I mean by ‘values?’ One clear, undeniable example is ‘measurable outcomes.’ To put it colloquially, the bean counter mentality has taken over. Every program, every course is now supposed to have measurable outcomes for students. This has created havoc, of course, with the liberal arts and is one reason, I believe, for the struggles colleges and universities in the U.S. are having over sustaining liberal arts education. How, for example, does one measure wisdom, maturity, acumen, insight, and appreciation of beauty (broadly defined) numerically? The value here is instrumentalism—the belief that education is primarily about functionality, skill, productivity, problem solving.

This discussion will continue to be one of importance for private universities in the next few years. In recent decades (perhaps since the GI Bill was created?), Americans have viewed higher education as a means to wealth and higher levels of production and societal status. This has further led us to shift our focus from liberal arts and humanities to degrees that bestow and signify technical skill (computer science, business, education, etc.).

That’s not to say I don’t believe that those areas of education are useless or need not be pursued. The question, really, is what is the purpose of higher education in the first place? Is it to create better workers in a society, to produce more wealth, to move up the chain just a little bit? Or is it to build wisdom and character and virtue? I addressed this a little bit in “The Non-Pragmatic Private University.”

Olson is right to be concerned that accreditation agencies have moved from simply making sure colleges do what they say they do to imposing values (curiously, American “pragmatic” values) upon colleges. Forcing colleges that attempt to teach philosophy (the love of wisdom), theology (the study of God), and the like, while also producing “measurable outcomes” in students necessarily changes both the subject matter and focus of the education in question. How do we confirm that students have gained a “love of wisdom” in a philosophy course? The answer, of course, is that we can’t. All those courses can do is attempt to create an atmosphere that encourages critical thought and engagement in students.

At their best, philosophy courses and degrees cannot give an account of a measurable outcome, and further cannot prove to society that they are somehow “useful” or “pragmatic.” They aren’t meant to be useful or pragmatic. They’re meant to change how people live and think and act. They’re meant to make us ask the question, “What does it mean to be human?” Unfortunately, that doesn’t neatly into the American dream of health, wealth, and prosperity. But it just might help create a more just and beautiful society.

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