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Valuing Teachers of Judgement

On educating to decision making.
By Thomas J. Cottle

I was struck by the concluding sentences of a January 20, 2014, article in the Boston Globe by Nathaniel Morris, a Harvard Medical School student: “Health care providers must discern when to apply the powerful instruments at their disposal and when to carefully hold back. It often just comes down to clinical judgment, a skill I’ve yet to learn but I’m hoping to find in my education.”

Here is a student recognizing something he calls judgment, a palpable skill he hopes to discover in his education. What Morris perceives as a need represents a strain of wisdom that comes with age and experience. However, “If it’s new, it’s good” has become our mantra in a society that worships the young and imposes constant pressure to consume. Inevitably, a culture of this sort worships science over art, numbers over letters. It is a culture that prefers rationalism over intuition, alleged fact over sensibility, accomplishment and status over experience.

For a doctor, these distinctions are captured in the two worlds constituting his medical education and career: the science of his discipline, and the art of it. They combine, in what we casually label “bedside manner,” all of the human experiences that go into those moments when a doctor heals.

Judgment arises from both of these realms. Chris Schlauch, professor of counseling and theology at Boston University, speaks of it as a borderland concept connecting the theoretical and the practical. A second border sits between the so-called professional and the personal. The third, he writes, “lies on the borders between psychological, moral, and religious, as it encompasses ideas that guide understanding and interpretation, judgments about good and bad, right and wrong, virtue and evil, and beliefs about who we are and whose we are.” I suspect Morris would appreciate Schlauch’s language as well as Albert Einstein’s bold insistence that “the only source of knowledge is experience.” One wonders whether he has ever come across this statement by C. S. Lewis: “Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn.”

Judgment in a medical context is similar to that in my own worlds of psychology and education. There is a science, surely, to counseling and teaching, but there is also an art. Granted, just about everybody in these fields proclaims this, but the art sector appears to have receded over time, the science sector emerging tall and proud at center stage. Science and systematic inquiry reside these days at the epicenter of clinical and educational research. The measurable has become the be-all and end-all of the entire educational enterprise.

It is not simply that one is focusing on that notorious drama that teachers know as “teaching to the test.” Nor is it even the ethics inherent in a decision to judge or evaluate teachers on the basis of their students’ test scores. It isn’t even the thoughtlessness underlying a president’s belief that one criterion of students’ success is the amount of money they will earn during their career.

In the hunt for measurable variables, a whole lot of life gets passed by; it is ignored or, even worse, remains invisible. “Even if all our scientific questions are answered,” Ludwig Wittgenstein observed, “our problem is still not touched at all.” A child’s inner world may get overlooked; much of it, after all, is difficult to measure. The full richness of a teacher’s virtues won’t be properly understood, only how “well” she teaches, whatever that might mean. Typically what it will eventually come to mean will be defined by the parts of goodness or virtue that can be measured. Yet virtues like humanity and transcendence do not readily lend themselves to quantification. Remember, we are not talking about criteria of efficiency, or comprehensiveness of curriculum, or even the manner of discipline. We are talking about what concerns these men and women about their students, and what the teachers carry in their hearts about the students that rises to the surface as each teacher develops relationships with them.

Imagine trying to develop some systematic way to assess this teacher’s merit. How do we measure merit if we must rule out of our calculations clearly immeasurable qualities? Will we be careful to include all of the so-called human layers of teacher merit as we undertake this task? I don’t even know how to accurately define what it is that renders an activity like teaching or counseling meritorious. In the development of a student’s career or his or her character, for example, might informal meetings with a teacher prove more valuable than anything the teacher presents in a classroom?

Several years ago a woman came to our university as part of our search for new faculty members. All of us in the room during the obligatory job talk were struck by the sophisticated methodology of her studies. I was more impressed, though, by the humanity of her research, her abiding concern for the well-being of young people, and her insistence that without a substantial career and satisfying work, the young people with whom she works are not going to get anywhere. I appreciated her special concern for the fate of girls in our society.

It was this philosophical aspect, this humanistic slice in which she revealed herself that won me over. Her handsome science was wrapped in and safeguarded by experience. A gifted researcher, she had also responded to Wittgenstein’s admonition: She had answered scientific questions, but at the same time she had responded to “the problem,” which, not so incidentally, she had introduced with a poignant memory from her own childhood. Listening to her, I thought what I always think in sessions of this sort: I can calculate numerical ratings on a host of scales regarding the merit of a talk, but it’s going to mean leaving out the genuine power of her presentation.

If need be, all of us in our respective businesses can develop protocols for assessing, grading, and judging. We can make assessments of one sort or another of every move made. We can formulate numerical scales for people’s commitment to committee work, the intellectual value of their contributions, the goodness of the spirit they evince during meetings, their willingness to support colleagues and undertake difficult tasks. We can even maintain an accurate accounting of how many minutes they are late to meetings or leave meetings before adjournment.

Paul Kalanithi asserts in the January 24, 2014, New York Times Sunday Review that “getting too deep into statistics is like trying to quench a thirst with salty water.” Is this what generates transparency in decision making? Does this make a community more caring? Is this ultimately what one does to produce the sort of judgment Morris covets?

Emphasis on pure rationalism reminds me of something my mother pointed out. A concert pianist, she often remarked that some young pianist or another could present things brilliantly in his or her playing but, alas, had nothing to say.

Another aspect of the problem is found in the complicated world of grade inflation. How do we lower grades in a fair and just manner inasmuch as inflation ostensibly devalues all grades? At least this is what I gather the problem to be.

But again those other layers lurk. How, really, do we judge students’ work? How best to instruct them and work with them? How best to help them understand the complexity of our evaluations, the role of subjectivity in these evaluations, and ultimately the experiential ingredients contained in recipes for judgment? Once again, we may be attacking the scientific problem inherent in lowering grades, but lowering grades isn’t really the problem. Morris seems to feel, rightly, that a series of excursions into the mind of a master teacher, or for him master clinician, would be as valuable as the lessons learned in the physiology and histology laboratories. “The years,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “teach much which the days never know.”

In the end, Immanuel Kant spoke for me when he said that we don’t see the world the way it is; we see the world the way we are. He observed as well that “the human being can become human only through education.” Throughout his writings Kant speaks of two fundamental interrelated properties of human nature: concept making, or understanding, and sensible intuition. He warned against the roles of excessive rationalism, on the one hand, and empiricism, on the other. It is as dangerous, he alleged, to neglect intuition, as it is to worship empiricism to the point that we neglect our power to create concepts.

I fail to understand why our culture so regularly seeks to rid its institutions of elderly people, the very people leaning less on their glorious scientific training and more on their experiences of just having lived, and watched, and heard, and touched. And learned. We underestimate what goes into the attitude of the experienced teacher or clinician, the lived experience that upholds the approach one assumes and the very utterances one makes. Psychoanalyst Roy Schafer speaks of attitude as part of the drama of interaction, of teaching or clinical work that goes on “behind the scenes.” But it may be that the act of judgment is quintessentially a temporal drama; “behind the scenes” refers more to maturity and experience than “pure” knowledge and professional training.

Attitude also may refer to humility, yet another dividend of lived experience. The psychoanalyst, for example, as Jacques Lacan wrote, must at some point understand that he fails to possess “the sovereign good that is asked of him, but he also knows there isn’t any.”

Then again, perhaps this entire argument is merely the result of what one inexorably experiences when one’s institution has found one no longer of value, and one seeks to regain what psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut calls his “expanded self-empathy.”

Two dear friends of mine, both in their seventies, both with tenured positions in a prominent university, are being pressured to retire. Combined, they probably have written thirty-five books and received fifty honorary degrees. From what I hear from their present and former students, they are loved and admired. One of these professors wrote me recently that he recognizes that those of a certain age belong to what John Kenneth Galbraith called the “Still at Generation”: “Professor Galbraith, you’re still at it?”

Isn’t the work they are still at the very work Morris requires as part of his education? Isn’t the operative word here “still”? Are these two renowned friends not invaluable participants in the essential conversation of education and judgment and the development and education of the mind? Doesn’t their work require an appreciation of Kant’s admonition? Of course, systematic studies in their respective fields must be performed, in the manner perhaps that these two performed decades ago. No one doubts this. Are these not the very people Søren Kierkegaard had in mind when he advanced that “life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards”?

These are two of the “backward understanders” who—the “forward livers” require in order to develop that skill called judgment. Once upon a time they were the forward livers enriched by the “still at” mentoring seniors of their day. Shakespeare said it all (in Two Gentlemen of Verona):

Experience is by industry achieved,
And perfected by the swift course of time.

The “still at” crowd serves another equally valuable function. Their humane layers provide not mere nuance but humanity and necessarily influence the very nature and identity of the communities in which they participate. Hard work, Shakespeare’s industry, and the demands of young careers often leave little time to serve as leaders and custodians of genuinely caring and supportive communities, themselves deeply affecting human judgment.

All of us seek advancement and reward in the outside world while, inside, the family yearns for those people, their experiences, and, yes, their wisdom and judgment. Morris has this right. The parents who never leave the home never stop protecting, supporting, and educating. To the very end, they are still at it. What they provide, moreover, as the old sentiment has it, can neither be accurately measured, nor properly compensated; it’s worth more than all the money in the world.

Maybe I am the character in Alan Lightman’s novel Song of Two Worlds, searching for something to believe in. Or perhaps I merely personify what the novelist Christopher Bigsby labeled the pessimism of humanists, those of us convinced it all ends with a whimper. Perhaps what troubles me, the paucity of truly caring communities, what Erich Fromm in The Art of Loving called loving communities, is not necessarily a concern shared by everyone. I suppose one could design a scientific study and determine the demographics and personality characteristics of the “Still at Generation” that correlate with such a worldview, but I doubt we wish to waste valuable resources on such an inquiry. Better perhaps to keep an eye on the perils of old fashioned institutional ageism, root for the marriage (or at least the cohabiting) of science and art to endure, and retain some of those old folks so that people like Nathaniel Morris can be assured that someday he will be making the sort of judgments that both honor and heal his patients.

I am certain I simplify Morris’s focus on clinical judgment, but surely it rests in some measure on the decisions we make and the stuff of life, and yes, on the human experiences that pour into that moment of decision making. One hopes that significant decisions of the sort required in medicine and education will be predicated on truths, or will lead to some truth. Life and death, after all, may hang in the balance of a judgment. The circle turns; we confront that wrenching question of what precisely is the truth we seek in formulating our decisions.

I certainly have no answers, but I do draw comfort from the words of David Foster Wallace, who found his way into the realm of lived life, human experience, and ultimately understanding ourselves by working backward: “The only thing that’s capital T-True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. . . .This, I submit, is the freedom of real education. . . . You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t.”

Thomas J. Cottle is professor emeritus of counseling, psychology, and human development at Boston University. His latest book is Drawing Life: Narratives and the Sense of Self. His e-mail address is

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