Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Price of Philosophy

Education is a funny business. Despite all the efforts made in assessing learning outcomes, it may well be that the net effect of educational experiences is not realized until much later in a person's life. Some things that we think are important may actually have little or no effect. This is especially true when considering the more philosophical aspects of higher education. Yesterday I mused about the value of a liberal education. It's an easy target for the practical-minded cost trimmer because the results are presumably not truly felt until years after the experience. And yet the budget executives have to be dealt with, especially in these lean times. They may even be right some of the time.

I've sat in a lot of budget meetings with both administrators and faculty, and an inevitable collision is that between greenbacks and philosophy. At these moments I usually make a mental note: We may not know the worth of philosophical goals, but we can often evaluate the cost. In lean times this skews the decision against philosophy and toward saving money. In fat times, the opposite is true. Some examples will help understand what I mean.

How many books is enough in the library? Is a cataloger in Sanskrit necessary and contributing toward educational outcomes? What about restrictive policies for course transfers, under the theory that courses at other institutions aren't as good as your own? This costs the institution enrollment with nebulous effect on students who do come. Whole departments like foreign languages get their raison d'etre questioned as well.

Like Pythagoras's philosophy of not eating beans, the items in the list above have economic impact (the great philosopher and mathematician is supposed to have died rather than escape his enemies through a bean field). Evaluating the actual worth relative to the cost is not something that can usually be done scientifically--this is where leadership is required. But it helps in these discussions to have the sensitivity to know when the discussion has wandered into philosophical territory.

Occasionally, hard data can come to the rescue, but this is probably an exception. One IR director related to me that the faculty at his institution were unhappy about accepting AP courses instead of their own prerequisite classes. They were on the verge of setting a new policy to ban AP course credit, which would have had a negative impact on admissions. He did some research and found that AP students actually did better in the subsequent classes than home grown ones (it could be that they were better students, of course). This proved to be the case in all instances except one subject area. When they investigated further, they discovered that the AP course content did not match that of the prerequisite course very well. I like this story because it shows what IR can do when the evidence is there. The harder decisions are unfortunately more common: placing a value on Sanskrit cataloging, for example.

More poetically, one might say
अमंत्रमक्षरं नास्ति नास्ति मूलमनौषधम्‌।
अयोग्यः पुरुषो नास्ति योजकस्तत्र दुर्लभः॥
[source and translation]

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