Category: Educational principles

The Problem with Competency-Based Education

Time + co-presence = community.

An oversimplification, sure. But this equation captures a trait of classroom learning that I find essential, and that I fear is being overlooked in the chatter about “competency-based education.”

(A précis of the chatter: Department of Education, neoliberal as ever under the leadership of President Obama’s pick-up basketball partner Arne Duncan, has been pushing post-secondary institutions to adopt competency-based strategies. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has devoted $2.3 million to the cause. Southern New Hampshire University has been hawking its College for America, which features no faculty and no courses and yet awards degrees to students who demonstrate mastery of certain competencies. Politicians are stoked. Administrators are stoked. Businesspeople are stoked. You know who isn’t stoked? I’ll give you one guess.)

My objection is simple. Education, especially but not only in the humanities, is about more than the accumulation of standardized competencies. It’s about more than the attainment of “learning outcomes.”



“In [Ralph] Ellison’s America…”

In [Ralph] Ellison‘s America, the central challenge for the ‘inner eye’ was that of race, a stigmatized position almost impossible for the conventional white reader to inhabit. For [Rabindranath] Tagore…, a particular cultural blind spot was the agency and intelligence of women, and he ingeniously devised ways to promote a fuller curiosity and respect between the sexes. Both writers claim that information about social stigma and inequality will not convey the full understanding a democratic citizen needs without a participatory experience of the stigmatized position, which theater and literature both enable. The reflections of Tagore and Ellison suggest that schools that omit the arts omit essential occasions for democratic understanding.

~ Martha Nussbaum, in Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanitiesmaking the case that arts education and the democratic imagination go hand in hand