Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Making a declining grade; Academic freedom and grade schemes

So why bother going to University? You can outsource your education and probably get better results. Supposedly fifty percent of Business students cheat.

The raises the question of how valuable a higher education really is.

Some responses, like that of Denis Rancourt, challenge and contest the bums- in- seats approach to mass education. Listening to The Current this morning, its clear that most people like having a clear metric, whether or not it is a useful metric. Giving all A+ upsets some people because the whole debate threatens the perceived reputation of a given University. For Frank Appleyard, a student at the University of Ottawa, was also interviewed by The Current that seemed to be his main concern. Prof Rancourt's point was that the grading system impedes learning, so giving all A+s to his students was a way around that problem. The truth is, fourth year physics students probably like learning about physics, so an automatic A+ probably doesn't encourage laziness. Rancourt argues it opens up a spirit of inquiry, rather than grade chasing.

Stanley Fish, noted this approach to grading constitutes irresponsibility. The counter-arguments  to Prof. Fish's argument are historical(totalitarian and authoritarian states impose limits on how to answer certain questions) and a practical one- a professors job is not to be right, but to be clever. They have to ask questions nobody else has the time or inclination to try and answer. When their research is fruitful, for example, we get new approaches to medicine, as from basic research on genetics. When the freedom to ask these questions is curtailed, answers are imposed, as with Lysenkoism in the former Soviet Union. In a climate of academic freedom the dead ends have been explored and put to rest as with Lamarckism, which was the legitimate but erroneous hypothesis that acquired traits could be passed on genetically.

The university used to provide a place for scholars to ask and explore questions. The answers subsequently were available to who ever wanted them. Students followed along this path. Those who didn't want to become professors didn't bother with University.
Now the BA seems to have replaced the high school diploma. And research is looked upon by government and business as requiring a guaranteed outcome, which misses the point of academic freedom to follow research questions and train future scholars. This education reflects the broadest possible concerns in a given discipline. How could this education but include a political element, even if that politics is of tacit compliance, which is what Anna Maria Tremonte and Stanley fish seem to favour, judging by her interview of Prof's Fish and Rancourt.

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"If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country."
-E.M. Forster