President's Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
Commencement 2007: The Measure of a College Education
July 18, 2007
On June 5, at Princeton’s 260th Commencement, we awarded degrees to 1,127 undergraduates and 716 graduate students. I used this happy occasion to reflect on how we should assess the quality of the education that Princeton and other colleges and universities provide, contrasting recent proposals for standardized testing by the U.S. Department of Education with measures of success that reflect the historic diversity and autonomy of American higher education and student achievement after graduation. Here are some excerpts from my remarks. — S.M.T.
Matriculating at a university is analogous to entering into a social contract: On one side the student is responsible for seeking out and taking advantage of the many and varied opportunities for learning, and on the other side the University is responsible for providing a fertile ground for learning in the form of a world-class faculty dedicated to both scholarship and teaching, extraordinary library and IT resources, classrooms, modern laboratories, and abundant support for thesis research—everything, in fact, but 24-hour study spaces and a bowling alley. Today is as good a time as any to ask whether the terms of that contract have been realized. More precisely, what have you learned?
This question is not a purely rhetorical one. For the past two years the issue of learning assessment has been the subject of intense discussion at colleges and universities and within the federal government. In 2005, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings commissioned a study on the future of higher education to identify the pressing national priorities for higher education. One of the issues the commission identified is, in my view, the most important one for this country: to ensure that students of modest means have access to affordable education. The commission’s call for a significant increase in federal need-based financial aid has been met with enthusiastic approval throughout higher education and on Capitol Hill.
A less salutary recommendation of the commission has led to proposals from the Department of Education that for the first time in American history would impose external measures of student learning—in other words, standardized testing—on colleges and universities. Now, the parents, in particular, might be asking themselves, “What is so wrong with the idea that a university should measure whether students have learned something?” In fact, we do that all the time. Our faculty spend a significant percentage of their time assessing student learning and providing feedback to students. But the notion that a federally mandated standardized test could be used to measure learning flies in the face of one of the great strengths of the U.S. education system—the tremendous diversity among universities and colleges. In a free market system that has made U.S. higher education the envy of the world, students are able to choose between a large public research university like the University of Michigan and an intimate liberal arts college like Amherst College; between the science and engineering strengths of MIT and the performing arts reputation of Bard College; between The College of New Jersey to study to be a teacher or the Juilliard School to become a musician. Our system ensures that for each college-bound student, there is a college or university designed with his or her talents and interests in mind. After all, students starting college are not cut from the same cloth, and if we are successful, their college experience will nurture and develop their distinctive talents and interests and motivate them to find not one, but many ways to use their education to make our world a better place. The homogeneity bred by standardization would almost certainly drain color and vitality from this rich national tapestry. Where we see our students as prime numbers, standardization sees them as elements of the least common denominator.
On another level, the imposition of federal standards flies in the face of a long and revered tradition in this country of respecting the academic freedom of universities. In the classic articulation by Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, this involves the freedom to decide “who may attend, who may teach, what may be taught and how it shall be taught.” Academic freedom does not provide universities with carte blanche by any means, and it requires a considerable degree of self-regulation by all members of the university community. However, when applied from outside the academic community, standardized testing as a means to assess student learning jeopardizes the freedom that universities need to craft their educational programs and fulfill the individualized goals of our own students.
Moreover, it is impossible to imagine a set of standardized tests that could accurately measure what our faculty aspire to impart to their students. As Woodrow Wilson, Princeton’s 13th president, said so eloquently 100 years ago:
“What we should seek to impart in our colleges … is not so much learning itself as the spirit of learning. … It consists in the power to distinguish good reasoning from bad, in the power to digest and interpret evidence, in a habit of catholic observation and a preference for the nonpartisan point of view, in an addiction to clear and logical processes of thought and yet an instinctive desire to interpret rather than to stick in the letter of the reasoning, in a taste for knowledge and a deep respect for the integrity of the human mind.”
Those qualities do not lend themselves to standardized testing. The value we place on those qualities is the reason why we require that our students participate in what we believe is the most rigorous test of all—the writing of a comprehensive thesis or the completion of a major independent research project.
So when it comes to the question of “How do you know you are providing your students with a good education?” my answer is as follows: “We can’t really know until their 25th Reunion, because the real measure of a Princeton education is the manifold ways it is used by Princetonians after they leave the University.” The undergraduate and graduate classes of 1982 celebrated their 25th Reunions this past weekend. What do their lives tell us about how well we’ve done?
Take, for example, David Spergel, of the undergraduate Class of 1982, the chair of Princeton’s Department of Astrophysical Sciences. His work has changed the way we think about the universe as the result of his participation in one of the most important of this century’s or any century’s experiments—sending a satellite called the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe into space to measure the background microwave radiation emanating from the Big Bang. Through his splendid scientific talents, David has sent us on a new quest to understand our universe.
Then consider Eileen Guggenheim, who received her Ph.D. in art history from Princeton in 1982. Together with a group of artists and collectors, she established the New York Academy of Art, a graduate school of fine arts that is devoted to representational and figurative painting, drawing, and sculpture. She has devoted many years to graduate education in the arts, and her service also extends to Princeton, where she has worked tirelessly for the last four years as a member of our Board of Trustees.
Or take Bart Gellman, another member of the undergraduate Class of 1982, who shared the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting with two other colleagues from the Washington Post for their investigation into international terrorism in the wake of 9/11. In 2004, he broke the story on the lack of evidence for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. By following the facts wherever they lead, Bart has illuminated some of the most important events of our time.
Then there is Eve Thompson of the Class of 1982, who has devoted her life to promoting good governance, democracy, and human rights all over the world. She has never wavered in this mission, whether she is directing a program to enhance the effectiveness of the national legislature of Guinea Bissau, or promoting environmental advocacy in Brazil, directing a program at the United Nations University International Leadership Academy in Amman, Jordan, or helping to draft the South African constitution. She truly embodies “Princeton in the service of all nations.”
Or judge the success of Jeffrey Merkley, who earned an M.P.A. from the Woodrow Wilson School in 1982. Jeff is a five-term member of the Oregon House of Representatives and currently speaker of the house. As executive director of Portland’s Habitat for Humanity and in other organizations, he helped build sustainable and affordable housing for low-income families. Jeff is part of a great Princeton tradition of elected public servants who have used their education to promote the public good.
Let me conclude with Lynda Clarizio of the Class of 1982, who works in one of the fastest-moving industries in the world as president of Advertising.com, a subsidiary of AOL. She came to AOL after a career as an attorney, where she coordinated the U.S. Foreign Policy Project, a study of human rights and foreign-policy issues, and she continues her commitment to international human rights by serving on the board of Human Rights First, demonstrating that Princetonians never lose their talent for multitasking.
These six Princetonians, while hardly a random sample, are splendid representatives of the graduates of 1982 who have used their education to make lasting contributions to and beyond their chosen fields. They have done what Princeton asked them to do—serve this nation and all nations, and make the world a better place for us all. Although my sample size is small, there are many more like them, and based on the evidence now available to us, I am prepared to give the Princeton graduates of 1982 an A: one that can even stand up to the rigorous scrutiny of Dean Malkiel.
I hope that you, the graduates of 2007, will likewise use your Princeton educations to lead well-considered lives in service to the common good; that you will be open to new ideas and have the courage to stand up for your beliefs and the rights and dignity of others; and that you will adopt a global sensibility and a lifelong devotion to justice and freedom, always informed by the highest standards of integrity and mutual respect. Your success in meeting these challenges will be judged in 2032, and not by any standardized test!