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My until now undeclared war with the Syracuse University administration concerning assessment and accountability began in the Summer of last year (1997). I may well have been a little late coming to the fray, given the recent appearance of an enormous literature. The deluge has been in print, in the media and on the web: for example, Robert Bellah's essay, "Class Wars and Cultures in the University Today: Why We Can't Defend Ourselves," in the July/August issue of Academe (1997); Frank Kermode's review of John Ellis' book, a review in the August Atlantic Monthly, entitled "The Academy versus the Humanities"; James Groccia's article, "The Student as Customer versus the Student as Learner," in About Campus' May/June issue; Joel Gold's article, "Student Evaluations Deconstructed," in the Chronicle of Higher Education of September 12th; Mark Edmundson's article in the September Harpers, "On the Uses of a Liberal Education as Lite Entertainment for Bored College Students"; the article in the January 16th Chronicle that reports the statistical research by Anthony Greenwald and Gerald Gilmore casting doubt upon the assumption of any value in student assessment; the article in a recent education supplement to the Sunday New York Times, "The Ivory Tower Under Siege"; the report on "Academic Capitalism, Managed Professionals, and Supply-Side Higher Education," by Gary Rhoades and Sheila Slaughter, in last Summer's issue of the journal, Social Text; and a number of remarkable recent books, including William Spanos' The End of Education: Toward Posthumanism, Bill Readings' The University in Ruins, Donald Kennedy's Academic Duty, and Martha Nussbaum's Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education.
I won't continue this litany. The data is widely known. The point is that it seemed to me in retrospect that my little battle was not a limited warfare, not a border skirmish in upstate New York. Indeed, from California and Texas to Tennessee and Connecticut, many academic professionals had personally told me that similar battles were breaking out everywhere. I suppose the convening of this third conference on values in higher education under the aegis of the thematic of assessment and accountability is itself testimony to a national tension, if not an academic not-so-civil war. Nor may the issues at stake be limited even to North America. At the end of the book, Pourparlers (translated as Negotiations), by the French theorist, Gilles Deleuze, the author bemoans the fact that education in France has turned to business for its models, that the principle of "getting paid for results" has taken over. "School," Deleuze writes, "is being replaced by continuing education and exams by continuous assessment. It's the surest way of turning education into a business" (179). This is what my colleagues at Syracuse thought was happening also on this side of the Atlantic, which led me into the accountability and assessment fray.
It began as a result of my responsibilities at Syracuse University as a so-called "teaching professor" and "mentor"-a phrase and term that I absolutely repudiate as empty rhetoric and without relevance to the proper work of any university. I had mounted a July conference of colleagues at a lovely lodge in the Adirondacks. The white paper produced after three days by the two-dozen faculty in the humanities was filled with contestation and passion concerning the rhetoric of our central administration, especially having to do with calling Syracuse the number one "student-centered research university" and identifying students as customers and consumers, and faculty as service providers. The Chancellor had just before our Summer meeting written a memo to all faculty entitled: "Customer is an Eight Letter Word"! But this was not the only provocation. There had been pressure on the faculty from administrative intitiatives to identify desired learning objectives and means of assessing outcomes, a requirement to name in advance behavioral goals in the teaching of arts and ideas, that is, in courses whose aim it was precisely to remain open to discovery and surprise. I was directed by my friends at the conference to send our position-paper to the Chancellor, the Vice Chancellor, the Vice President for Undergraduate Teaching, as well as to publish it on a web-page connected with my professorship. The results could not have been anticipated!
I was summoned to lengthy conversations with the Vice Chancellor and the Director of the Center for Instructional Development, attacked orally and in memoranda from the central administrative officers concerning my competence in the classroom, and addressed (or rather, dressed down) directly in three lengthy letters from the Chancellor. It seemed to be a case of kill the messenger! After the third letter from my Chancellor, I found myself in exasperation writing these irrational words to the senior officer of my University: "You cannot possibly understand the pedagogical perspectives of my colleagues and me if you cannot understand the phrase 'we have nothing to teach, no way to teach it, together with the obligation to teach.'" I meant, of course, that there are certain subject matters in arts and ideas whose nature is that they are not "things," no-things, and therefore the goals of education, at least in these particular instances. cannot be served up in a priori desired learning outcomes nor assessed as products or commodities by student-customers at the end of fourteen weeks. I was thinking that in the teaching of matters that are in principle imponderable and undecideable-subject-matters like truth, beauty, goodness, not to mention meanings and gods-commodification and thingification in assessment might be entirely inappropriate and beside the point. Many recent articulations lay behind my thought, as, for example, Mark Taylor's theological essay, "How to Do Nothing with Words," Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen's chapter on Lacan by this very same title, and Jacques Derrida's now well-known Jerusalem essay, Comment ne pas parler (translated as "How to Avoid Speaking"). Also, I should add that I thought that in writing to the Chancellor I was paraphrasing a sentence by Samuel Beckett. In any case, that was the very day Professor Burstein, our host, asked me for a title for this talk.
The timing turned out to be terrible! That that sentence written in haste and in rage to my Chancellor was to become my title here was not felicitous, as will soon be apparent from my narrative. The problem was that when I searched for the reference it vanished. I could not find it anywhere! Was it a case of faulty memory, senility, or one more instance of giving a title that one would later regret, committing oneself to writing something that one could not write?
To be sure, Beckett said things something like what I thought I remembered. In Krapp's Last Tape, Krapp says: "Nothing to say, not a squeak" (25). In All that Fall, Mrs. Rooney says: "This is nothing ... nothing" (1960: 61). In Embers Henry says: "Nothing, all day nothing. All day all night nothing. Not a sound" (1960: 121). And there is the famous line in Waiting for Godot: "Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it's awful!" (27) There is also Estragon's line: "Nothing to be done" (14). And Vladimir's line: "There's nothing we can do" (44). They also have a back and forth in which Estragon says: "I tell you I wasn't doing anything." And Vladimir says: "Perhaps you weren't. But it's the way of doing it that counts" (38). None of this was what I sought. I had thought that Beckett had somewhere said about his vocation as an artist in our time: "Nothing to say. No way to say it. Together with the obligation to speak." Apparently he had not. What was I to do for my Tennesse talk?
I remembered a friend, Ted Estess, Dean of the Honors College of the University of Houston. He was an expert on Beckett and would surely know the referent and would be able to help. I e-mailed him my dilemma and he responded immediately. But his lead turned out to be completely off the mark. In fact, he could not find it either, and he told me that I had probably made it up. No help!
But what is a professional in the lineage of Socrates worth if she or he cannot make use of failure, or-to change the text but not the trope-is there not teacherly wisdom in the implicit advice of Lear's fool?-"What can you do with nothing, Nuncle?" This is when I thought of another dramatist, Italian rather than Irish. I mean Luigi Pirandello. When he was writing Six Characters in Search of an Author, he was presented in his imagination with six characters but no plot. So he wrote a play about that. I could do the same. I could write a speech about pedagogical responsibility and accountability using my irresponsibility and non-accountability as an example, showing that I indeed had nothing to say and no way to say it, together with the responsibility to speak. So I went to work on this nothing, only to be disappointed again. When will a person learn not to try to be clever or to force signification?
My nothing was itself naughted when my friend Estess wrote belatedly that he had found the citation! It was in a dialogue that Beckett had with Georges Duthuit. You may already suspect that I had known nothing about this source which, nonetheless, I had remembered! In the conversation Beckett and Duthuit are speaking about a surrealist French painter named Tal Coat, and they note that this artist is not painting things, but rather no-thing. Being finished with the ideals of realism, on the one hand, and symbolism and expressionism, on the other, Tal Coat-according to Beckett-had "nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express." After Beckett says this, his conversation partner, Duthuit, says: "Perhaps that is enough for today" (Esslin 17).
Perhaps it should have been enough. After all, it comes close to the point that I wanted to make about teaching arts and ideas. But it was not enough for me. Who was Tal Coat, I wondered? I had never heard of this artist. There was no listing of the name in any of the art books that I owned. The art librarian and the professor of contemporary French painting at Syracuse University had neither of them heard of such a figure. Nothing, again! All of this was beginning to seem somehow like real research in the humanities, like real teaching in the humanities, where one finally never can enjoy the luxury of knowing the result, or at least one cannot ever know the final result. Gratification and closure are infinitely deferred.
However, on the virtual reality of the World Wide Web I did find a flicker. A word from an art dealer in Belgium confirmed that Tal Coat existed. He was born in 1905 in Brittany, self-taught as a painter, little understood and known, and disappeared mysteriously in 1985. He began as a realist and then became an expressionist, but moved after the war to what the web page called "allusive and fugitive manifestations" and monochromatic canvases in green, ochre and black. He loved to paint the rocks near Château Noir, the same rocks that fascinated Cezanne. I could find little else. Things were dark.
(Incidentally, I hope that you will stay with me in this narrative. There is a point here, or so I passionately hope! It's like teaching, isn't it? You never know. You just try to be accountable to the material.)
Things were indeed dark. It was literally the darkest time of the calendar year, the end of December, winter recess. I stopped trying. I tended to personal affairs instead. In fact, I believe that I was giving up on my original idea.
Christmas came with the usual tinsel and trimmings and other distractions. My mother-in-law -being accountable and responsible in regard to my wish list to Santa-gave me a new edition of the poetry of Wallace Stevens for Christmas. I thanked her appropriately and turned right away to an assessment of its contents by checking one of my favorite poems, "Angel Surrounded by Paysans." In looking at the new critical apparatus by Frank Kermode and Joan Richardson, I discovered a surprising footnote to the poem (1004). There was Tal Coat! When not trying, I found what I sought without knowing what I was seeking! The experience I had had was somewhat like that of the poet. Sight unseen, Stevens had in 1949 bought a still life of Tal Coat's from Paule Vidal, the daughter of a dealer who owned the Librairie Coloniale in Paris. Though it was not what he thought he was getting, Stevens became obsessed with the painting. He wrote to Barbara Church (1977a: 654): "My Tal Coat occupies me as much as anything. It does not come to rest, but it fits it." He named the painting "Angel Surrounded by Paysans" and fourteen days after receiving the Tal Coat from Vidal, Stevens wrote the poem of the same name and sent it to Nicholas Moore.
In the poem "the necessary angel of the earth" (i.e., poetry or art), through whose imaginal reality one can "see the earth again," is characterized as an "apparition" which, when we look for it, is "gone" (1975: 496-97). It is gone like the Beckett quotation, like Tal Coat, like the no-thing of ideas and imagination. Indeed, Stevens often wrote about this process of signification. "Poetry," he said, "is a pheasant disappearing in the brush." (1977b: 173) It is "the great cat that leaps quickly from the fireside and is gone" (1975: 264). It is like a "meteor" (1977b: 158), or like "an Indian [hidden] in his glade" (1975: 412), or like "a woman writing a note and tearing it up" (1975: 488). Stevens also wrote: "I do not know which to prefer, / The beauty of inflections / Or the beauty of innuendoes,/ The blackbird whistling / Or just after" (1975: 93).
I was beginning to get the hang of this, but, like some stubborn literalist or skeptic, I wanted to see the Stevens' painting in which the necessary angel which disappears when one looks for it is actually a folded napkin, or a glass of red wine, or (as Stevens thought) a Venetian glass bowl with a spray of leaves in it. I suppose that it was to be expected that I could find it nowhere. However, I did discover that Stevens' literary estate, including pictures and paintings, had been lodged in the library at Trinity College in Hartford. When I inquired after the image that I sought, a very helpful special collections librarian there told me that the Stevens' materials were no longer at Trinity. They had been moved to the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. She gave me the phone number. After some negotiation with the manuscript library at the Huntington, I was told that they would provide me with a slide of the Tal Coat painting for ten dollars and for a promise that I would use it only at this one lecture at the University of Tennessee, and with appropriate reference to the Huntington Library. I wrote a check for ten dollars and swore an oath, and so it was that I located the slide that you now see on the screen Actually, what you see is a copy (slide) of a copy (painting) of a copy (poem) of a copy (angel) of nothing, i.e., of the nothingness about which I am talking, all the while remembering the advice of Martin Heidegger that it is very difficult to talk about nothing, because in talking about it one turns it into something (19), i.e., one turns it into a desired learning objective and then it is assessable.
While searching for this image, I had located interesting comments concerning it in many of Stevens' letters. For example, Stevens wrote to Paule Vidal in Paris that he had heard that "Tal Coat is one of the few young painters from whom it seems possible to expect a new reality" (1977a: 595). To Barbara Church he commented about the painting, saying that "all of the objects have solidity, burliness, aggressiveness. ... It contradicts all one's expectations of a still life" (1977a: 654). To the French dealer the American poet wrote: "It is obvious that this picture is the contrary of everything that one would expect in a still life. Thus it is commonly said that a still life is a problem in the painting of solids. Tal Coat has not interested himself in that problem. Here all the objects are painted with a slap-dash intensity, the purpose of which is to convey the vigor of the artist. Here nothing is mediocre or merely correct. Tal Coat scorns the fastidious. Moreover, this is not a manifestation of the crude strength of a peasant.... It is a display of imaginative force: an effort to attain a certain reality purely by way of the artist's own vitality.... He [Tal Coat] ... has the naturalness of a man who means to be something more than a follower" (1977a: 655).
I hope by now you will begin to sense that all of the time-while appearing to be reporting on the Beckett, Tal Coat, Stevens triangle-I have actually been talking about teaching and about accountability and assessment in higher education, especially in the humanities. So, teaching that is properly accountable to itself and to its subject matter is like Tal Coat's painting. It is the contrary of everything that one would expect, not solid but intense, vigorous, scornful of the fastidious or the mediocre or the merely correct, a display of imaginative force, strong and natural and vital, and never following as a mere follower. It is the experience of a new reality, not what one desires or expects. Again, Stevens writes to Church, now four years later: "[Tal Coat] is so effective that the most brutal design gives one an unexpected satisfaction" (1977a: 799), i.e., not a desired learning outcome, nor anything that one can in principle assess.
II. What Counts? The Language of Accountability & Assessment
The errant wandering through Beckett, Tal Coat, and Stevens brings to mind a story told to me by my former colleague, Professor Huston Smith. Huston had taught Philosophy at MIT in the humanities program before coming to the Department of Religion at Syracuse. One day he told me about having lunch with a high-energy particle physicist at MIT. During the course of the lunch the philosopher of religion and the post-quantum mechanics scientist discovered that they had many perspectives in common on matters of cosmos, society, and self. This did not much surprise Huston, but it did surprise the physicist. What surprised Houston was the physicist's way of acknowledging his surprise. The scientist said: "Why, there is only one difference between us. You don't count!" So, counting is what counts. Assessment is what confirms value.
The play in language can provide wondrous discovery, i.e., learning and unexpected surprise in learning outcomes. There are leaps in learning hiding in words' metonymies, in the very words the people have used to name what they think that they are naming when they name things. As Martin Heidegger says: "It is not we who play with words, but the nature of language plays with us" (1968: 118-19). Wittgenstein says it this way: "A picture [ein Bild] held us captive. It lay in our language, and our language repeated it to us inexorably" (115). So, I propose for a moment to look at the two terms in the rhetoric of values assessment in the contemporary university. Take the word and the idea of "accountability," for example.
"Accountability." It goes without saying that both the noun and verb forms of the word "account" come from the noun and verb forms of the word "count," which means "enumeration" or " to compute." The family includes the words "counter" (token) and "countless," as well as the words "putative," "amputate," "compute," "deputation," "dispute," "disputant," "impute," "imputation," "repute" and "reputation." Already one can see that there is some "fight" and some disputed signification in the word before we even use it.
The base for the family is Latin putare, meaning (a) "to prune," (b) "to purify," "to correct" (an account), therefore also "to count" or "calculate." But whichever sense of putare our notion of "accounting" comes from, there is implied some pruning (downsizing?) and some implicit political correctness or Puritanical self-confidence. In the Sanskrit background, there is a relation to the family of words from which we get the word "pave," Latin paure, meaning "to beat" or "tread earth down to level it," i.e., to flatten (mediocrity, democritization). There is also a connection to the Latin puteus, meaning "a hole cut in the ground," especially "a well," from which Middle English has the word "pit," meaning a "cavity." I'll return to this cave at the end.
The compounds of putare that are relevant to English are amputare, "to prune or cut around (am- for ambi-, meaning "on both sides), so "amputation"; computare, "to count" (intensive use of con-), hence "compute" means "really to count"; deputare, "to cut downwards," so to esteem, allot, depute, as in a deputy or deputation; disputare, "to think about contentiously"; imputare, "to put into the reckoning"; reputare, "to reckon or examine accounts again and again, to think over, to credit, so to repute and reputation." There also belong to this family "recount," to count again, or to relate, by way of French reconter, since Old French conter became differentiated into French conter, to tell, and French compter, to count (Partridge 124, 476).
Think of this verbal complex in relation to the words of the poet: "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways." The poem actually means: Don't count! Write a poem! And don't count on it! It's the love that counts not the counting. The jazz standard says: "Will I be in that number when the saints go marchin' in?" But in the singing there is implied the advice: Don't count! The number 144,000 is not a number, not a numbering. It means to discourage adding things up, like merits. Luther mounted a reformation against that. It you start counting, you might miss the rapture! (I'm speaking about education, not religion.)
"Assessment." There are similar problems with the language of assessment. If one were to bring the perspectives from the business and commercial world, the world of "total quality management," to bear upon assessment in the university, then one might first observe that it is not very high quality management to use the word "assessment" when what one really means is "evaluation." The term "assessment" has become empty jargon, meaning nothing, a real miracle term.
The word has actually referred to courts (a judge assesses a fine) and taxation (as in the assessment of property). In the former case, guilt is assumed and it is just a question of how much one is going to have to pay. In the other case, it is assumed that one should pay and it is just a question of how much. I well realize that this term has passed from business and commerce, from law and government, into the vernacular and that it merely means "evaluation." I realize, too, that to say "evaluate" education and teaching is not a rhetoric that is inflated enough to make university administrations sound like they are doing something out of the ordinary. But does the university want to ignore precision of ideas and language? Do we really want to use a term that carries these negative, if unconscious, connotations about behavior? Are we accountable about accountability? Are we willing to assess assessment?
There are some philosophers and theorists who have argued that language speaks, not the people who use language. These thinkers have argued that, even if we wanted to, we couldn't be Alice's Humpty Dumpty, who said that words would mean whatever he intended them to mean. Confucius-during a moment of cultural confusion in ancient China-called for a "rectification of names" in the land, for a proper use of language, without which, he seemed to believe, there could be no justice, or truth, or beauty.
The point about language is linked to the story of Huston Smith, who didn't count, according to the pun of his MIT colleague! Smith has argued passionately in his later life and writings for the important value of being accountable to matters that are precisely un-countable. According to Smith, the unassessables-at least in quantifiable and empirical terms-are the following: (1) qualities, (2) invisibles, (3) meanings that are existential as opposed to cognitive, (4) purposes that are metaphysical as opposed to teleonomical, and (5) values that are normative rather than descriptive. In my view, the experiences that some teaching professionals cherish for students have precisely to do with quality, invisibility, existential meaning, metaphysical purposes, and normative values. For these professors-on Smith's view-education is in principle not assessable.
I should like for a few moments to amplify Smith's point in regard to our conference thematic. For the sake of brevity, I will put these reflections in the form of aphorisms or epigrams. I believe that it was Michelet who said that an epigram is a half-truth so said as to irritate the person who believes in the other half. Perhaps there is a half truth in Michelet's saying, but it is not my purpose to provoke you, but rather to provoke thought, things to think about and to talk about at the beginning of our deliberations together at this conference.
* There is too much talk about teaching these days. It all leads to self-consciousness. No one knows what teaching is. It always must be thought in terms of something else. Metaphor and metonymy are need. Imagination and vision. Not counting and assessment.
* Teaching is like baseball. Even in the majors it's not baseball very often. Most of the time it's pretty boring. But sometimes it is baseball. And then it is really something. While waiting for it to be baseball, what does one do? One plays second base as best one can. Outcomes assessment implies that the value in baseball is that it be baseball all the time. It also implies that the players can control it. But that's not the way things are. Even for the pros. People who call for outcomes assessment don't understand the game. They don't understand the nature of the game.
* There are two things that one learns from baseball: (1) You don't have to swing at every pitch. (2) You know when a pitcher (professor) is tiring when the ball starts rising. It takes a lot of energy and concentration to keep it down. Letting it soar is easy.
* What is impossible is to undertake an evaluation of value in higher education if one takes one's eye off the subject matter and puts it instead on the performance of the teacher and/or the student. Education is not the passing of information from one person who has it to someone who does not. It is not the trading of databases. Rather, the subject matter is a vessel into which the professor and the student place themselves together. And then they see what happens. They observe and take note. It is like alchemy. One cares for the process in the alchemical vessel. It is like two people being in love.
* To speak of "improvement" in teaching is nonsense if the eye is really on the egos of the professor and the student rather than on the subject matter. Do we "improve" the subject matter by our activity? The irony is that attention to desired learning outcomes and to outcomes assessment produces in fact just what it sets out to eradicate: namely, emphasis on the professoriat rather than on the student. Assessment is a narcissistic endeavor. It is not student-centered. It puts the focus of consciousness on questions like "How am I doing?" and "How can I improve?" We are only student-centered when we have enough regard for the student to focus on the subject matter and to trust students to take care of themselves. They are not stupid. And they are not children.
* In education, as in love, sometimes the only way to improve the quality and value of education is to stop focusing on oneself and to stop asking, "Am I doing it well?" Such ego-consciousness can ruin learning just as it can be a pain in the neck to the lover. When the child says, "Look, Ma, I'm dancing!" she or he is no longer dancing. It is the same with teaching and learning, not to mention loving. If you ask about it, you are not doing it.
* Teaching in the humanities is like the fire-consumed stick in Buddhism. A disciple once asked the Buddha how one should approach his teachings, given that the overall aim of the Buddha's teaching was non-attachment, including non-attachment to the teachings! The Buddha replied that his teaching was like a stick that keeps the fire going, stirring the coals, until the stick is itself consumed by the fire. The stick disappears, like Wallace Stevens' angel. There is nothing in the end to assess, if the teaching is really successful.
* Confucius said: "Do not wish for quick results, nor look for small advantages. It you seek quick results, you will not attain the ultimate goal. If you are led astray by small advantages, you will never accomplish great things" (Smith 159). There are no quick results in education. If an educator seeks a quick result, the ultimate goal of great teaching is not accomplished. No assessment is worthwhile until many years have passed. And then the need for assessment has passed anyway.
* The great teachers-Socrates, Moses, Jesus, Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tzu, Maimondies, al-Ghazzali, etc.--- confounded expected outcomes and in principle and iconoclastically made assessment impossible. They would have failed in our current attempts to focus on values in education. Their expected outcome was to make impossible the achievement of outcomes that were expected before the teaching began. One desirable learning outcome is not to have a desired learning outcome.
* Think of the parable of the sower in the Gospel of Mark (Mark 4.3-9). It is the various soils that get in the way of the sowing. Or the birds. Not the sower. Imagine assessing the outcome of sowing by evaluating the sower!
* Teaching is improv, like good jazz. Does one ask a jazz musician for objectives, goals, outcomes, and ways to achieve outcomes assessment? Good scat is not playing it, but playing with it. In scat, as in glossolalia, the discourse is non-mimetic. Good teaching is scat. It is like speaking in tongues. The tongues of the material.
* Jazzman Wynton Marsalis, introducing Benny Carter at the Kennedy Center awards in December 1996, said: "A man should not be forced to live up to his art." The same is true of professors, which is only one thing wrong with the demand for continual assessment.
* Being interesting and enthusiastic are not necessarily marks of a good course or teacher. They may well be marks of educational fraud. A famous Rabbi, commenting angrily on reports of his renown for preaching, said: "God forbid that I should ever 'talk well'" (Ettin 183-84). This is tantamount to saying: God forbid that I should ever be a good teacher in terms of conventional criteria of assessment. Then I would not have taught at all.
* There is a sign hanging on a bulletin board down the hall from my office. It announces "Teaching Tools for the Nineties!" and it promises that if you get these tools your outcomes assessment will be more successful. This sign of our academic times puts me in mind of a line from the 1960 Phi Beta Kappa oration at Columbia University by Norman O. Brown. Brown was recapitulating the values expressed in Emerson's Phi Beta Kappa lecture entitled "The American Scholar." In the light of those values, Brown announced "Fools with tools are still fools" (9).
* Continual assessment and a demand for accountability are symptoms of a sickness, symptoms of the very sickness that they are meant to cure: namely, they are signs that the intrinsic value of education is not sensed or affirmed, that it must be proved. Even when pedagogy fails--as it did again and again with Socrates, Moses, Jesus, Jeremiah, Mohammed, Lao-Tzu, and the Buddha--the attempt to assess learning outcomes is likely the worst possible indicator of accountability, at least in the case of certain pedagogies in certain subject matters. Socrates got hemlock in the assessment; Jesus, the cross; Moses, no promised lands; and so forth. It is even arguable that a negative assessment may indicate that important learning is taking place. It is like the putative course evaluation by a professor at Columbia. One of the questions he asks his students at the end is the following: Tell which text you liked the least, and explain what character flaw in you accounts for this dislike!
* The political correctness of the eighties has become the pedagogical correctness of the nineties.
* If one wanted an assessment of value in teaching and learning, one might ask the professional. That is, one might ask the professor how she or he knows when it is going well. But even here one must be careful. Long term psychoanalysis reveals that the conscious and volitional ego is almost always wrong. Or rather that it is partially correct. It is one-sided. There is always at least one other narrative of what is taking place. We egos cannot be in on it.
* Thomas Green-a renowned philosopher of education-once told me that he thought that the only useful question to ask students in course evaluation was the following: What will you now not put up with that you would have put up with before taking this course?
* Any teacher worth her or his salt makes assessments and takes account of the teaching long before making course evaluations or assessing results. Assessing goes on during teaching-mid-course, mid-class, and even often mid-sentence. I call these mid-course corrections, a phrase so crucial to aviation, without which activity the flight would not work. Defining goals or learning outcomes in advance is an unnatural way of defending against natural mid-course corrections. It is a defense against the sensitivity that makes great teaching what it is, always and already. It can make me believe that I don't have constantly to be assessing or, as Wittgenstein said about meaningful discourse, constantly having to take back what is said.
* A great teacher-Jesus-once said regarding outcomes assessment: "Judge not that you be not judged!" (Matthew 7.1)
* There is no learning outcome in ideas. Kant in the Critique of Judgment called the goal of thinking ideas a "purposeless purpose [Zweckmässigkeit ohne Zweck]" (55). In this sense every course in arts and ideas is purposeless. Useless, at least in a utilitarian sense. A course in ideas is in a way successful to the extent that expected learning outcomes are iconoclastically deconstructed, i.e., insofar as they are not achieved. As Plato said in the Meno: If you know what you are seeking, you are already there and there is no point to the seeking. If you don't know what you are seeking, you might discover something, but you will never know if it was what you were after (299-301). There is no way to judge it.
* A Korean dance group was touring the United States during the past year. The program announced that in Korea this group is referred to as an "intangible cultural product." Teaching in arts and ideas produces an intangible cultural product.
* Teaching is like the German word Funktionslust. This word means the pleasure of doing as distinct from the pleasure of attaining an effect or outcome.
* Looking for the uses of higher education in identifiable student outcomes is usury. We may need a Protestant Reformation in American colleges and universities. As in earlier history, usury has to do with money. So it is in the contemporary American university. (See Jacques Derrida, "White Mythology," in Margins, the discussion of "usury" at the beginning of the essay, and compare his comment on assessment in Archive Fever, page 36: "If we want to know what that will have meant, we will only know in times to come.")
* Imagine the identification of desired learning outcomes written by the chef or by Alice Waters on the menu of Chez Panisse, or announced by the conductor of the Boston Pops in the program notes before a concert, or articulated by a Zen roshi before a two-week sesshin. Try to imagine these and you will see how silly and inappropriate is the attempt to identify desired learning outcomes in the teaching of arts and ideas in any serious university, i.e., a university that takes its students and its pedagogical work seriously.
* Since every class is different, identification of desired learning outcomes based on a concept of identification that implies an unconscious metaphysics of sameness and presence is a category mistake. (See Martin Heidegger, Identity and Difference.)
* The colleges and universities that advertise student- or teaching-centeredness aren't. Their faculties are increasingly under pressure to prove and to assess, to name rather than to do. Their eye is off the ball. The students (as students) are losers. The students are not honored as scholars.
* In the ancient world an important distinction was made between teaching (didachê) and preaching (kêrygma). The latter is done in a loud voice, as when the herald (kêrux) announces the winner at the Olympic games, whereas the former is whispered. Preaching, is aimed at outsiders who need conversion, whereas teaching is for those already converted, as in catechetical instruction and debate. Preaching, according to old Rabbinic convention, is done while standing, whereas teaching should be done sitting down (see Miller 111-17). So preaching is "standing up for" something and its aim is to convert the student to what the preacher imagines is the true opinion or faith (orthodoxy), while teaching is, so to say, "sitting down into" the matter at hand. Preachers, on this view, can identify desired learning objectives in advance, but teachers cannot. In being asked to identify in advance desired learning objectives and assessing the results thereof, academics are being asked to be preachers, not teachers.
* I have already mentioned some great teachers of ideas whom I imagine would not do well in outcomes assessment in the contemporary university-Jesus, Socrates, the Buddha, al-Ghazzali, Dogen, Maimonides, Moses, and so on. Let me pause over one more image of accountability in higher- (or perhaps deeper-) education. I am thinking of a Greek archetypal image of great teaching: the figure of Silenos. Behind Christ the great teacher, according to Erasmus (Benz 1-31), and behind Socrates, the great teacher according to the Platonic Alcibiades (Plato 1982: 219-45), there is Silenos, tutor to Kings Midas and Solon, to the god Dionysos, as well as many others.
IV. Silenos: Archetypal Image of the Teacher & Teaching
It is not any easier to find Silenos, archetypal image of great teachers and great teaching, than it is to find a painting by Tal Coat of Stevens' disappearing angel or Beckett's nothing. The reason is that Silenos hides. He hides his real identity (a clue for teachers everywhere), being part animal, half some satyr horse, or perhaps half some goat like Pan. He sleeps in a deep cave. He does not publish, nor does he teach. (Beware teachers that like to publish and that like to teach. They may be preachers and not silenic teachers).
Though Silenos hides and has nothing to say, Aelian (Varia historia 3.18) and Virgil (Eclogue 6.14-15) say that he can be snared. Especially he can be trapped into teaching by using garlands of flowers, as do the Naiads. King Midas managed to obtain his teaching by making him drunk, as if the intoxication were already the appearance of some tutor or some tutelage (Pausanius Guide 1.4.5). The nymphs know where he is, as Apollodorus attests (Library 2.83-85). Karl Kerényi thinks that the silenic nature is the "seat of the comic" (195), as if great teaching were somehow ineluctably or deeply comedic.
Difficult as it may be to locate Silenos (i.e., teaching) in life, he nonetheless appears. He is teacher to king and fool, to lawmaker and lawbreaker, to sober hero and to mad maenad. He instructs the gods and goddesses themselves. As the Orphic Hymn (Orphica 53) witnesses, he is honored by all. He is a teachers' teacher. Perhaps it is just because of this fact that he was reticent to show himself, as if this quality goes with great teaching.
Yet Silenos' secret was not well hid. Two things are universally said about him by Pausanius, Ovid, Plutarch, Cicero, Theogonis, Bacchylides, Sophocles, Plato, and others, though at least Plutarch (Moralia 115-B-D) mentions that it would be better were we not to have ever learned these two things about the great teacher's teaching.
The first thing is that he was a drunk, a heavy man, saturnine. He was known to drink-or so goes the tale-for ten days and ten nights without stopping. However, the drunkenness was special in Silenos' case. It is, for example, to be distinguished from that of Dionysos, as Otto notes (177). In order to describe Silenos' particular drunken nature, an Orphic Hymn uses a phrase that was already employed by Aeschylus (Agamemnon 740), Euripides (Bacchae 115), and Plato (Theaetetus 153C). The phrase is galênioôn thiasoisin, i.e., a "deep stillness," like the calmness deep within a stormy sea.
The second thing known about Silenos is that he only had one teaching. He taught that the best thing for all women and men is not to be born! However, since none of us has ever succeeded very well in this lesson, the second best thing is to die as soon as possible! How can this be a great teaching of an archetypal great teacher? What can it possibly mean?
Perhaps the teaching is connecting with the teacher, with the intoxication of Silenos, the intoxication of a deep stillness. When Philo a little later is puzzling over the report in the Hebrew Bible concerning the drunkenness of Lot and Noah, how their intoxications served the purposes of God for the people of Israel, he uses an unusual phrase, nêphalios methê (Plant. 162f; Vit. Mos. 1.187; 2.162). The Greek translates literally as "sober drunkenness." It is a drunkenness, Philo says, by which the self is led to itself deeply, more deeply than ego's perspectives. This may be similar to galênioôn thiasoisin, "deep calm." What is stilled or calmed is ego's desired objectives. In the experience of a deeper intoxication, egoic attitudes, values, opinions, and beliefs are sobered, i.e., in the intoxication of authentic learning, one is sobered. The "I" goes to sleep in the cave. It has so-to-say "died" so that another sense of things can be raised up. The best thing would be that egoic perspectives would not be born at all. The next best is that they die as soon as possible in order that a breadth and depth of otherness may amplify one's views in intoxicating ways. This surely is a not insignificant teaching about teaching. (For sources to material in this section and the next, see Miller 111-53).
It is this lesson that Alcibiades thought that his teacher, Socrates, had learned. He compared Socrates to Silenos by referring to a Greek toy. In the ancient world there were little statuettes of Silenos, fat little figures that came apart in the middle. When one opened them, there were empty. Nothing there. This is the same nothing that I was referring to at the beginning. The fun of the toy was that the empty center was filled with many little figurines representing all of the gods and goddesses. Silenic emptiness was full of divinity. No wonder Silenos was intoxicated.
The archetypal image of the great teacher is that she or he be empty of preachings and preachments, ego's or society's cherished attitudes, standpoints, and beliefs. In this emptying there is a resonance, like the sound box of Wallace Stevens' blue guitar. What resonates are other melodies and harmonies, ideas and values that transcend any particular teacher or teaching.
Conclusion: The Education of a Chrysanthemum
Tao Yuan Ming seemed to know the Silenic emptiness, indicating that the lesson of nothingness is by no means limited to the Occident, to Silenos and those other silenic teachers, Socrates and Jesus. Tao Yuan Ming lived in the 14th centruy in China. He was a poet, and he loved children, chrysanthemums, and wine. He was drunk constantly, and like Pu Tai and all those other fat and laughing Buddhas to follow, he was a great teacher. He modeled his life on that of P'eng Tsu, the great grandson of Chuan Hsu, who had ninety wives and was eight-hundred years old when he went over the hills to the West (Payne 129-31). Tao Yuan Ming says of P'eng Tsu: "Ceaseless drunkenness brings forgetfulness" (Payne 135), i.e., forgetfulness of ego.
In the "Elegy for Myself," the poet writes: "All I regret is that I didn't drink like a prodigal" (Payne 142). In the poem, "Drunk and Sober," there are these lines:
A guest resides in me,
Our interests are not altogether the same,
One is always drunk,
The other, awake;
We laugh at one another,
And do not understand one another's worlds" (Payne 138).
When the part of the self that is awake is put to sleep in a cave, then out of the emptied cave can come a more intoxicating perspective.
In his poem "Chrysanthemums," Tao Yuan Ming writes:
The wine is poured,
And the cup is empty,
And everyone is silent
At the setting of the sun (Payne 143).
A full cup can't be filled. In the famous Zen story, the master served tea to the student, but he kept pouring when the cup was filled and overflowing. The student said, "But my cup is already full!" And the master bowed and said: "Yes, I can't fill a full tea cup." He sent him away, presumably to empty his cup, to die as soon as possible. This is the importance of the nothingness for true value in education.
Tao Yuan Ming wrote a poem called "The Return."
I empty the cup and lean on the window,
And joyfully contemplate my favorite branches (Payne 144).
If the cup is emptied, then out of the new openness one can see the chrysanthemums. It is seeing the chrysanthemums that is the intoxication of education, the value of education. It is to the flowers and the flowerings that we teachers must be finally accountable. It is to the intoxication that the value attaches, not to my intoxication, but to that of the flower and the blooming.
Teaching sobers ego's perspectives, for student and professor alike. As the Christian mystic, Angelus Silesius said: "The rose is without why. It blooms because it blooms" (Scheffler 54). No whys, or becauses. No assessment. How could one assess the beauty of a chrysanthemum? The intoxication of the bloom is outcome enough. That's what counts. The intoxication is where the value is. In this we die to outcomes assessment, to the desired learning objectives of students, administrations, boards of regents or trustees, parents, and especially ourselves. Finally, we are accountable to no one and to nothing, except to the subject matter and its intoxications.
This is Silenos' wisdom. Die as soon as possible, that is, give up ego's ideology, its desired learning objectives, and give it up as soon as possible so that education can take place. Or a chrysanthemum!
[The image of "Still Life" by Tal Coat from Wallace Stevens' collection of paintings and prints is reproduced by permission of The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.]
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