Anti-intellectualism in Academia and Learning-Oriented Assessment

Intellectualism in the classroom is a casualty of institutional accountability.
By Karin Brown

Open book

The assessment movement in academia has a decades-long history, and assessment practices are enforced in many colleges and universities at all institutional levels. This movement is grounded in the view that articulating desired student learning outcomes (SLOs) and assessing them will improve the quality of instruction and thereby enhance student learning and provide validation for accreditors and employers. Assessment is entrenched bureaucratically in the university through offices of assessment and designated assessment officers. For example, nationally, the Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education (VALUE) project of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) has sought for more than a decade to design rubrics and validation measures to ensure uniformity of standards and assessment reports across institutions.

Even if its ostensible pedagogical goals may be well intentioned, the assessment movement as practiced has come in for criticism. David Eubanks of the Office of Institutional Development at Furman University reviewed VALUE in the fall 2018 issue of AAC&U magazine Peer Review, which featured a collection of articles on the project. Eubanks notes that assessment practices in their current form are ineffective and have failed to deliver on the promise of improving student learning. He points to deep methodological flaws in collecting and utilizing data, notably related to small sample sizes, and he all but says “garbage in, garbage out.” Nonetheless, Eubanks finds assessment and the VALUE initiative potentially useful but in need of reform. Commenting earlier in 2018 in the Chronicle of Higher Education on a 2017 critique of assessment by Eubanks, Arkansas State University history professor Erik Gilbert emphasized that proponents of the assessment movement identify faculty members’ lack of cooperation and resistance to change as the real obstacle to improvement. One of the main reasons for this resistance, according to the assessment literature, is that professors do not fully understand the nature and value of assessment and consequently fail to appreciate the reasons they should embrace this practice. But as Robert Shireman, director of higher education excellence and senior fellow at the Century Foundation, pointed out in a 2016 report on college completion, the learning-outcomes approach has simply failed to promote high-quality learning in colleges. He attributes this failure to the reductive educational vision embedded in the attempt to capture the meaning, complexity, and depth of a college education in a list of learning outcomes.

While Eubanks’s analysis of the shortcomings in methodology is well-taken, I agree with Shireman’s evaluation and would like to pursue the argument that the failure of the assessment movement to improve student learning is due not only to poor methodology but also to the anti-intellectual nature of assessment practices. What is labeled assessment is in fact a combination of two conceptually independent procedures: one is pedagogical, occurring in the classroom, and is geared toward improving teaching; the other is administrative and consists of reports about classroom assessment for the purposes of accountability and accreditation. This article will show how the pedagogical aspect of assessment becomes an anti-intellectual practice when subordinated to the demand for accountability and the bureaucracy erected to track assessment. First, what is meant by anti-intellectualism?

Intellectualism versus Anti-intellectualism

Intellectualism pertains to the life of the mind and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake rather than in support of, for instance, a religious, political, or economic agenda. As such, intellectualism requires free and open inquiry. The intrinsic value of knowledge and the freedom it requires define the university for Thorstein Veblen. Although Veblen’s 1918 book The Higher Learning in America appeared over a century ago, it still speaks to debates about the American university. Veblen argues that the core value of higher learning is disinterested pursuit of knowledge and that the university is the only social institution in which such a pursuit takes place. Scientific and scholarly inquiry is what gives the university its intellectual character and distinguishes it from the lower schools. Such work, Veblen notes, cannot be carried out under coercive rule. He labels work performed under coercion as mechanical—in other words, meaningless.

Similarly, Richard Hofstadter, in his influential 1963 book Anti-intellectualism in American Life, argues that the essential qualities of an intellectual are “disinterested intelligence, generalizing power, free speculation, fresh observation, creative novelty, radical criticism.” Further, Hofstadter considers anti–intellectualism an attitude that embodies a resentment of the life of the mind and a disposition to minimize that life. Along these lines, but more specifically, I see the assessment movement as one that curtails intellectualism in the classroom by hindering the freedom and autonomy of professors and coercing them into engaging in tasks they do not find meaningful. But what is learning-oriented assessment?

Student Learning Outcomes and their Assessment

The assessment movement has a dual origin: one, addressed below, is the philosophy of management; the other is the desire to improve teaching in colleges and universities. Regarding teaching, Graham Gibbs argues in his 2010 manual “Using Assessment to Support Student Learning” that students are strategic learners, and they study according to what is required by institutional assessment systems, which might not be much. His perspective points to problems in higher education such as the existence of classes composed entirely of lectures and multiple-choice exams. Such classes embody an impoverished pedagogy that is not well-suited to college-level education. The pedagogical aspect of the assessment movement sets out to promote learning through articulating learning outcomes, designing learning tasks such as papers and projects, providing feedback to students, and inculcating the value of self-assessment for lifelong learning. These principles constitute what is termed learning-oriented assessment, a phrase coined by David Carless in 2007 and now prevalent in the literature to describe assessment geared toward enhancing student’s learning rather than merely measuring it.

At this point the literature on assessment is vast, and a good portion of it is research-based. Many studies show that learning-oriented assessment improves learning, yet assessment is anti-intellectual. Why? First, to be clear, I am not refuting the research. The research is framed by learning outcomes, and it successfully (and circularly) shows that having learning goals improves the learning of the learning goals. The pedagogical aspect of the assessment movement includes good and interesting ideas, but they are not new. As Michael Bennett and Jacqueline Brady point out in their 2014 article “A Radical Critique of the Learning Outcomes Assessment Movement,” learning outcomes is only a different term for lesson plans or course content. Certainly, going to class knowing what one wants to teach and assessing students to see that they have learned what you expected them to are basic principles that constitute good and reasonable teaching practices and are not contested here. This article questions the quality of the learning goals formulated for assessment. I argue that learning goals written for institutional accountability purposes have produced an anti-intellectual practice and culture in academia. The question is, What is the difference between an intellectual educational goal and an anti-intellectual one?

Intellectual versus Anti-intellectual, Standardized Learning Goals

John Dewey in his 1916 book Democracy and Education helpfully distinguishes between the inherent aims of education and the aims of teachers—or professors, as we would say in the case of higher education—in the classroom. For Dewey education possesses an intrinsic value, so the aim of education, he writes, is to “enable individuals to continue their education,” a capacity developed through studying the liberal arts. Liberal education as such cannot be outcome-based in any way we can specify because as Dewey puts it, “Liberal education aims to train intelligence for its proper office: to know.” In other words, there is a difference between a capacity and a learning outcome, and education pertains to developing capacities. However, Dewey notes that teachers have and ought to have more specific aims. Such aims provide direction to classroom activity and allow one to foresee an outcome. An educational aim is also an expression of value, and “to have an aim is to act with meaning.” But even teachers’ aims ought to be intellectual ones, and according to Dewey’s analysis, there are three criteria for an intellectual learning goal.

Who created the learning goal? In order for a learning goal to be meaningful, it must be defined by the actual teacher and only by that teacher. Dewey labels any learning goal that is determined by someone else and imposed by authority as external and “ready-made,” and he points out that such goals are subject to mechanical application. A meaningful educational experience would be one that the teacher cares about and finds relevant. Learning goals that are dictated by authority are intellectually empty for Dewey.

Is the learning goal flexible? A learning goal must be flexible and open to revision rather than rigid and static. Dewey argues that a valid educational aim must serve as a guideline only; otherwise, it can do more harm than good by limiting the education that can take place in the classroom. Learning is a contextual activity that “happens to an individual at a given time and place,” and learning goals need to be written in a specific context and remain adjustable to it. Aaron Stoller, in his 2015 article “Taylorism and the Logic of Leaning Outcomes,” aptly explains that for Dewey, articulating goals prior to the learning context is actually antithetical to deep learning and thus true learning goals are “emergent rather than teleological.” This formulation does not mean that teachers go into the classroom with no idea of what they want to achieve. But it does mean that real education, rather than occurring through what Dewey labels general and abstract goals detached and remote from the classroom activity, emerges through an experience orchestrated by the teacher.

Does the learning goal prioritize the learning process? A learning goal must represent what Dewey labels a “freeing activity,” which means that education is about the process, and the process ought to remain open to exploration. Dewey notes that an education is not about what the students learned; it is, rather, about the quality of thinking and the learning that will follow. If education is about the learning goal and not about the process, this approach turns education upside down, and the activity becomes a means to an end or a “necessary evil.”

Dewey warns that learning goals can have an adverse effect on education unless “one recognizes that they are not aims, but rather suggestions to educators.” Unfortunately, assessment is an enormous project that requires prefixed aims and thus disregards the three criteria just mentioned. Assessment necessarily contravenes intellectualism in the classroom. It does so in the following ways.

First, learning goals for assessment purposes are not written by the professors who teach students; rather they are handed down as edicts to be followed. Trevor Hussey and Patrick Smith, in their 2008 article “Learning Outcomes,” distinguish between and among learning goals written for a lesson, for a course, and for a program, and the authors point out that the more remote the learning goals are from the classroom itself, the more irrelevant learning outcomes become. Robert Shireman, in his 2016 op-ed “SLO Madness,” amusingly labels student learning outcomes as “gibberish,” capturing Dewey’s point that for a learning goal to be an intellectual one it has to arise from the intelligence and experience of the teacher; otherwise it is meaningless. Similarly, one cannot function as a true scholar or an intellectual while being told what to do. Moreover, the sheer number of classes that need to be certified necessitates that learning goals be written in categories that may or may not be relevant to the material taught. For example, in the general education category at San José State University (SJSU), where I teach, a single learning goal can apply to ten to twenty different disciplines.

Second, learning goals can and should function only as guidelines, but in order for those goals to be assessed and certified they must be fixed and rigid. In this way, the assessment movement is shifting education from a scholarly, free inquiry—open to exploration and discovery—to a dogmatic practice.

Finally, and most important, the philosophy of assessment envisions education as outcome-based as opposed to process-based. Paradoxically, ameliorating the process is a significant tenet of the assessment movement, the main idea being that learning-oriented assessment promotes active learning. But the process of learning itself isn’t subject to assessment, nor could it be, and Dewey’s prediction of privileging the outcome over the process has come to fruition. If reformers considered the process of education important, educational improvement would focus on decreasing class size to allow increased student-professor engagement rather than amassing and tracking a list of learning goals.

The culmination of the anti-intellectual learning goals movement is narrowing the scope of liberal education. The assessment literature, however, does include valuable goals. For instance, the Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) project of AAC&U includes learning outcomes such as “critical and creative thinking” and “civic knowledge and engagement local and global.” One might add Dewey’s goal of education for democracy or Paulo Freire’s goal of education for critical consciousness for social change. But these laudable goals cannot be assessed by themselves. To assess students’ social consciousness or civic engagement one would have to track them outside of the classroom and over a long period of time. And even if that were feasible, how is it possible to distinguish the impact of the class from all other factors in students’ lives? It is no surprise that these significant educational goals pertaining to the quality of thinking and moral conscience are not on the assessment agenda. Assessment programs have forcibly reduced educational goals to quantifiable and measurable ones. From the point of view of the assessment process, only what is certifiable holds value.

An outcomes-based education prepares the ground for the movement toward standardization, which is the epitome of anti-intellectualism. Standardization is inherently anti-intellectual because freedom and diversity are necessary conditions for intellectualism. In a 2015 AAC&U publication, The VALUE Breakthrough: Getting the Assessment of Student Learning in College Right, author Daniel Sullivan presents a vision for standardizing higher education on a federal level. He argues that assessment of a local curriculum and a specific institutional context is insufficient and may fall short of desired national standards. Sullivan is critical of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) initiative, and in attempting to capture the complexity and diversity of higher education he suggests replacing standardized tests with sixteen standardized learning outcomes and rubrics. Reducing liberal education to sixteen learning goals is, of course, an improvement over reducing education to standardized tests, but it embodies a reductive approach nonetheless. If one questions NCLB or its newer version, the Every Student Succeeds Act, criticizing the implementation does not address the root of the problem, which is the underlying philosophy of accountability and standardization. In other words, what needs reform is the idea of managed education and the bureaucracy it requires.

Managed Education and Meaningless Bureaucracy

Michael Bennett and Jacqueline Brady trace the ideology of managed education to William C. Bagley’s 1907 book Classroom Management, which applies the principles of scientific management to education and advances the idea that schools ought to be efficient and accountable to their communities. The assessment movement sets out to exercise managerial control over teaching by shifting the power from professors to a centralized, top-down authority and then monitoring professors’ work. Managed education gave rise to a bureaucratic mechanism labeled assessment, but the term assessment here is a misnomer. As I have argued previously in my 2015 article “Is Assessment Destroying the Liberal Arts?,” assessment should be distinguished from having to write a report about assessment. Actual assessment (and the traditional use of the term) pertains to the classroom and is an internal matter. The reports about assessment are an external matter, one of pure bureaucracy, and should be more accurately labeled assessment bureaucracy. Bureaucracy here refers to the forms and reports required for assessment administration.

The assessment bureaucracy at this point is a vast, massive, and senseless machine. My esteemed SJSU colleagues, for the sake of compliance, are burdened with an enormous project because our university offers more than three hundred general education courses, many with multiple sections. Each course is assigned a course coordinator whose job it is to solicit assessment reports from the section instructors. Then, each year the course coordinator must fill out an assessment report and send it to the Office of Institutional Research. This procedure is even more senseless because whoever reads these reports cannot possibly be qualified to judge so many disciplines and, in any case, disciplinary expertise is rendered unimportant. Not to mention the fact that one or more individuals have to read three hundred assessment reports every year. All this for what?

The consequence of this bureaucracy means that I am forced to put SLOs on my syllabus that I did not write and that I find neither meaningful nor helpful. To make matters worse, I am then forced to write a report proving that I met these goals. In other words, I am forced to adopt a pedagogy that I consider anti-intellectual and fill out a report on it explaining how this anti-intellectual assessment requirement helped me to improve my course. Could this really be happening in a university?

This kind of supervising, monitoring, and micromanaging of faculty members is harmful, and it erodes the profession. Managing professors means depriving us of the freedom, autonomy, and meaningful engagement necessary for intellectualism. Accreditation agencies, such as the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), which has jurisdiction over SJSU, did not originate this ideology, but they institutionalize and implement the bureaucracy and have become a fearsome enforcer of anti-intellectualism in academia. Whatever merit assessment-related pedagogical ideas or approaches may have, there is no justification for using them to impose harmful bureaucratic requirements on instructors. It is the bureaucracy that has hurt the learning-outcome assessment movement. This is a shame because there are interesting and creative pedagogical ideas in the literature on assessment that are indeed focused on fostering lifelong learning and thereby promise to improve teaching in higher education. The good ideas are lost in what professors perceive as, and what is, a poor-quality, anti-intellectual approach to education. Academia needs meaningful reform—not burdensome bureaucracy.


While I appreciate the desire to improve the quality of teaching in higher education, it is unacceptable to use methods that are based on an ideology of coercion and disrespect for professional autonomy to improve quality. Wouldn’t an approach that supports and respects faculty be better than one that forces professors to adopt a pedagogy that they find harmful?

In the spirit of respect for professional autonomy, there is also room for a learning-outcome approach to education in the academy, but a more appropriate way to implement that approach is through faculty professional development workshops and retreats. Professors need to design their own learning goals, assess them as they see fit, and not have to report to administrators. Learning goals should serve as guidelines only, and they should certainly never be tied to a managerial bureaucracy. Educational reform in the academy ought to be faculty-driven, which means it needs to take place within departments and in the context of the material department members teach. For intellectualism to thrive, meaningful engagements, academic freedom, and professional autonomy must be core institutional values. The responsibility for a high-quality education should be returned to the faculty, whose proper domain it is.

Karin Brown is professor of philosophy at San José State University.