By Richard Vedder
The nation's best known group of academics, the Modern Language Association (MLA) is issuing a report on the Spellings Commission. The good news is that, if news reports are correct, the report appears to be on the whole moderately supportive of much of what the Commission said.
The biggest complaint is that the Spellings Commission ignored the humanities. I would agree with that, and as a Commission member I did make some efforts to instill some greater balance in the discussions, to no avail. I was insistent that Anne Neal be given a chance to speak, and she argued forcibly for a core curriculum, one that included some history, and probably other courses dear to the hearts of MLA members, such as literature offerings (although not of the kind of literature that many MLA members these days like to teach). I openly said that there were non-vocational dimensions of higher education, and that inculcating values, educating students in the things that bind us together as peoples, and analyzing the eternal questions that all adults must face are worthy in and of themselves. While a few others agreed, little of that nature was instilled in the report. The MLA criticism here is largely justified.
I was most delighted to read, however, that in principle the MLA accepts the notion that assessment of learning is desirable. To me, this is an absolutely critical recommendation of the Commission, combined with the twin objective of making transparent and readily available the results of assessments. We need to know: are students learning anything? In what ways are they better prepared as they reach graduation than they were when they matriculated? The MLA wants faculty involvement in assessment, which I accept in principle but in fact I suspect that independent (outside the university) measures of learning and competency have the most credibility, allow for more accurate inter-university comparisons, and lead to more informed customers evaluating colleges.
I do not expect much common sense to come from the MLA, a group given to rantings and ravings over the years on a variety of issues, often in a manner that shows how far that group, and many faculty, are isolated from the real world and hostile to mainstream values. Yet in this case, the MLA appears to be having taken a responsible, reasonable stand on the leading assessment of higher education in modern times.