Not only is there something much greater in the purpose of education than merely attaining a grade or finding a job, but there is a genuine danger in focusing exclusively on those things. In his book A Primer for Philosophy & Education, Samuel Rocha points out, "The problem with grades, credentials, and formal schooling in general is that it often generates a culture and mentality of fear, distrust, and paranoia. Worst of all, it erodes what is truly worthwhile, replacing what is serious with a joke." (p. 33)
At the 2013 CELLConference, I had the opportunity of hearing Michael Wesch, a cultural anthropologist from Kansas State University. After he delivered the keynote talk at lunch, I was eager to attend his breakout session in the afternoon, and it was there that he made a statement similar to that quoted above. He said, “We don’t live in a culture of trust. That’s why we’re always assessing and assessing.”
Yes, students do need to be assessed. It is right that a teacher see what and how well a student has learned. Yes, teachers and administrators need to be evaluated. It is fair for an employer to know whether employees are fulfilling the tasks for which they have been hired.
Yet fear and distrust are at the heart of our current obsessive worship at the altar of data. They both fuel it and are a consequence of it. We do not trust that people hired to do a job are actually doing it, so we must check up on them. We fear that someone will blame us because our students have not learned something, so we assess them. And then we do it again. And then we report the results to each other and talk about them. And then we assess again. And when it is all said and done, we report the final scores to others who can assess whether we have been doing the job for which we were hired, despite that our students have a free will and perform in ways that are influenced by factors beyond our control. Students walk around with the perfectly reasonable assumption that assessment and grades are the be-all, end-all of education, which leads them to a toxic level of stress equal to that of psychiatric patients of the 1950s. That toxicity spreads among the faculty who likewise have little choice but to believe that their role in society is actually capable of being measured by instruments better suited in the natural sciences.
But can a teacher or a student truly be evaluated in such ways? Rocha asks it like this. “Can one know all the information of a “self” – physical details, family tree, likes and dislikes, and more – and claim to truly know that self?” (p. 37) This is a central question in philosophy of mind and studies in artificial intelligence. The classic statement of it is in the form of a thought experiment by Frank Jackson, which runs, in a grossly simplified way, as follows. Imagine Mary, who has spent her entire life in a black and white room. She learns everything there is to know about light and how the human eye and brain perceives and interprets light, and therefore color. There is no aspect of color that she does not know from a physical perspective, but she has never actually seen a color like red. One day, she is let out of her room and for the first time she sees red. The question then is whether or not she learns anything new or merely experiences what she already knows in a new way.
There are profound implications for artificial intelligence, and philosophers of mind are lined up on both sides of the answer (Daniel Dennett and Paul Churchland would say no, Erwin Schrodinger and David Chalmers would say yes, to name just a few). It is a question that must be answered within education as well. If we think that Mary learns no new thing and that she merely experiences old knowledge in a new way, then we are committed to the belief that the physical description of a thing completely defines it. From this we can confidently assess students and teachers with tools and methods derived from the natural sciences. If, on the other hand, we believe that Mary does learn something genuinely novel, then we must admit that the complete picture of a thing cannot be had by listing only certain, quantifiable facts.