The NAS is as fond a parent as any, following the fate of its progeny with heartfelt concern. Among them, born back in 1992, is the
The AALE never became the sizeable body we and its other architects had dreamed. This was partly due to political correctness. Predictably, the AALE got tagged as “right wing,” and those for whom this epithet is damning succeeded in sidetracking its affiliation with several well-regarded colleges whose involvement would have firmly established its cachet. But the biggest drag on its growth was the loss of clarity within academe about the centerpiece of higher education’s mission, transmitting the heritage of civilization – liberal learning’s essential meaning and the ultimate reason for the AALE’s existence.
Nonetheless, the AALE managed to attract enough institutions to keep its flag aloft. This was important for two reasons, first because the traditional ideals of liberal education had no similar champion in academe either in
Unfortunately, the AALE has just run afoul of Leviathan, and for the moment lies bleeding (though still, I think, unbowed). The bureaucratic beast first laid bare its fangs under Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. Believing that one could paint higher education “by the numbers,” Spellings and her associates strove to reimagine accreditation as an exercise in outcomes assessment and academic micromanagement, approaches that may recommend themselves in tracking the acquisition of basic literacy and numeracy in our schools – that part of the academic world from which Spellings emerged – but are less readily applicable to the attainment of more sophisticated intellectual abilities. And this simplistic outlook, together with a growing penchant to view the value added of higher education mainly in vocational terms, appears to have carried the day with the current administration as well.
Such a top-down, rote conception of academic assessment is entirely foreign to the AALE. And, quite early on, the AALE made this clear both to the department and the higher education community, earning bureaucratic ire that has unfortunately turned out to be deep-seated and enduring. The AALE regards accreditation as a facilitator of choice – liberal education may not be for everyone, but some, at least, want to know where it can be obtained. Its method is consumer democracy, not ministerial ukase. The AALE is also a creature of judgment, not checklists. Its intellectual assessor, a “Council of Scholars”, doesn’t tabulate—it thinks! I’m prepared to argue with those who believe this “quaint” even “odd,” but if they content themselves with just saying it is “obsolete,” I might have to concede their point – in any event that is what the last round of accreditation reviews certainly suggests.
Having had a narrow escape when seeking renewal of its recognition by the Spellings Department of Education in 2007, the AALE returned to the bar of administrative judgment this fall. The result was the department’s staff finding it wanting on a preposterous 46 counts – up from 0, after everything had been said and done, during the last go round. Not wanting to play with a deck so clearly stacked, the AALE withdrew its recognition bid, picked up its intellectual chips, and walked away from the departmental table. (Federal recognition is necessary if an accreditor’s certification is to convey eligibility for federal funding to colleges receiving it. Accreditors that confer overall institutional accreditation – as the AALE now does in some of its activities – thus require a nod from the Feds, while specialized accreditors that deal with specific programs, like social work, do not.)
With its recognition about to lapse, what should the AALE do? The question isn’t easy to answer because without the government’s benediction, fees and solvency may be much harder to come by. But here’s some parental advice to our now adult progeny. Your divorce from
To all those in the academic community concerned about liberal education’s future and American academe’s traditions of institutional independence, I’d say something more. Be warned. There’s a drive afoot in