The American Academy for Liberal Education and Leviathan

Steve Balch

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 American Academy for Liberal Education (AALE), a novel accrediting agency we hoped would remedy some of the sins of omission and commission then being committed by the established accreditors, and, generally speaking, reinvent this academic art on a higher and truer plane. The sins of omission were principally those of blandness – among general accreditors the process had taken on an increasingly routinized aspect often marginal to the core aspects of education. Those of commission exhibited themselves in a growing tendency to insist on philosophic conformity as a condition for certification, several troubling instances involving the imposition of “diversity” standards having occurred shortly before the AALE’s launch. Ironically, perhaps, the advent of the AALE was also meant as a step toward creating greater diversity among accreditors, on the surmise that differences among competing agencies would allow differently situated and motivated higher education consumers to find the “brand” of education most suitable to their individual aspirations. We’ve been proud of our hatchling, having watched its flights, and occasional wobbles, with unbroken affection.

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 America or abroad. (Interestingly, many of the institutions that ultimately came to seek the AALE’s approval were universities in Third World countries). Second, because, however ignored, forgotten, or disparaged they might currently be, the traditional ideals of liberal education have an appeal too fundamental ever to be counted out. A truly civilized man or woman is a most valuable commodity, and colleges rediscovering the profit in producing such persons will someday want a rallying point. For this the AALE has always stood ready.

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 Washington could well be a blessing in disguise. A spouse obsessed with standardization can only butcher a civilizing mission. Escape from that abuse, and find your own way. Freedom carries danger but is generally the better choice. Advertising genuine intellectual value for money in an educational marketplace bedeviled by rising costs, and consumer doubt could eventually become a service with numerous takers, whatever the Feds think of its provider. Imagination and agility will be necessary to get through the coming rough patch, but with perseverance there may still be sunlit uplands to ascend.                      

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 Washington – bureaucratically bipartisan, but clearly gaining momentum – to force our colleges and universities into a procrustean bed of regulatory mandates, mediated, in significant measure, via accreditation. In the past, accreditors may have been the fifth wheels of higher education, at worst distracting instigators of make-work, at best, a periodic prod for institutional reflection and improvement. Increasingly bound to compliance themselves, and pressured to force it on others, accreditors may now be on the way to transformation into mechanisms for imposing ever more weighty burdens on institutional freedom, including curricular freedom and academic freedom. Trouble came upon the AALE because it was small and a philosophically vocal outlier. But it’s hard to draw any other conclusion from its shabby treatment than that it has been made an example, an example of what happens to those who insist on being guided by their own lights. It is an example to be ignored at peril.   

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