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Is Paris worth a mass?

Summer 2007


When in 1589 King Henri III died at the hand of an assassin, Henry of Navarre became, by French law, King of France. But because he was reared a Protestant, Henry’s claim to the throne was violently resisted by Catholic factions. It was not until 1593, after an elaborate public profession of his Catholic faith, that Henry became King of France. His explanation of this apparent conversion remains one of history’s most instructive disclaimers: Paris vaut bien une messe. Paris is well worth a mass.

But what is religion worth? What is the Church worth? Eternal life or eternal damnation? The identity of a nation? Henry’s story unsettles those who yearn for the uncompromising truth, the rigid stance. The man who would be king set aside with an ironic shrug matters of heaven and hell; his reign nonetheless brought unprecedented social and political success for his nation. France was fortunate that Henry of Navarre seemed not excessively troubled by what Catholics or Protestants thought most holy.

Debates within the academy, whether about curricular or administrative issues, tend to provoke divisions as entrenched and rhetoric as fiery as Catholic-Protestant clashes in the 16th century. At the center of today’s most unforgiving battle lies the question of accountability, together with its twin agents, outcomes and assessments. For some, outcomes and assessments offer the new sacramental system for higher education. To develop a strong model and to implement that model without deviation will ensure that universities describe lucidly what they do, measuring or assessing the result. A zeal for institutional and curricular coherence drives these disciples of reform. For those who hold the contrarian position, outcomes and assessments resemble, in one especially plump account by Laurie Fendrich in The Chronicle of Higher Education, a “force-march [for] professors to a Maoist countryside where they are made to dig onions until they are exhausted....” What is now being implemented nationwide in the name of accountability amounts to “a wholesale abandonment of the very idea of higher education.” Education is a holistic proposition; its value cannot be conveyed in numbers or units of measure. The bureaucrats, many faculty members believe, have killed education, laying “it out on a dissecting table as if it were a dead cat.” Only second-rate teachers can be duped into thinking that “outcomes assessment has something to offer.” Sadly, this civil war within the academy alienates the very constituencies we most look to for support.

Outcomes and assessments address two simple, reasonable questions posed by stakeholders from all sectors of modern society. First, what do you want your students to learn? These are the outcomes. Second, how will you know if they have learned it? Those are the assessments. Legislators and taxpayers, expecting simple answers for simple questions, express frustration when they hear evasive jargon from advocates of assessment and undisguised scorn from faculty. At the same time, responding to the inflexible demands of the accreditation process, universities rush to establish Offices of Institutional Effectiveness to identify the processes and gather the data to answer these two questions. What we have not thought about carefully, I would submit, is contained in two equally simple and reasonable questions. What part of learning do outcomes define? What part of learning do assessments measure?

Thirty-seven years in this profession teaches me that some learning is essential and immediate, conducive to assessment. At what level and to what degree are students proficient in mathematics? Can they express their thoughts in clear prose and comprehensible speech? Have they developed a general sense of the world, conveyed in whatever the university defines as its CORE courses? Do they have specialized knowledge of a particular discipline, what the university defines as a student’s “major?” Each professor, in planning his or her course, should define which general or specialized grasp of the whole a student is expected to acquire, and then employ a series of agreed-upon instruments or outputs to determine (assess) what has in fact been learned.

This is neither complex nor exhausting, hardly a force-march to the onion fields or a dead cat awaiting dissection. To be sure, these outcomes are necessarily reductive, the most obvious and expected results for all students. They do not answer the question: What does this all mean for my life? Nor do these outcomes define all that a teacher holds dear and conveys in a course of study.

One exciting example shows both the necessity and the limits of assessments. This spring the first cohort of students in Early College High School, a collaborative between TAMIU, Laredo Independent School District, the State of Texas, The Texas A&M University System, and the Gates and Dell Foundations, sat for the much-feared Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. Ninety-two percent of those tested received passing scores on the mathematics, 96 percent on the writing, portions of the test. These results are indeed impressive and unambiguous. The overwhelming majority of these students have mastered essential math and verbal skills, ensuring a strong foundation for more complex study. But no one should suggest that this test discloses all we can now see or all we eventually hope to know of these students. The assessment reveals nothing of the students’ attitude toward their work. It does not tell us what sort of people they are or might become, nor does it reveal the role each teacher has played in her student’s success. And this crucial assessment does not suggest which of the skills now learned will in a decade remain a part of a student’s life.

We might, one day many years after graduation, assess the relevance and reach of the University experience for each graduate, conducting a survey to ask which parts— intellectual, co-curricular, personal—of their college life do they now find important, very important, or irrelevant.

It is these latter-day reflections that most interest faculty, having themselves invested a lifetime in the study and teaching of a discipline. Assessments of immediate gains seem to many an irksome waste of present time.

We in the University have perhaps ensnared ourselves in our own magnificent, soaring rhetoric. We publish mission statements which speak of “the great ends of education,” abstractions around which we organize our efforts. Faculty members, administrators, and staff who give their lives in the university believe they are building a better world, a brighter future. These dreams are stated and restated, in catalogues and in institutional pronouncements, in inevitably predictable language; we hear them as clichés, repetitive affirmations too obvious to bear repeating.

Yet the purpose of these statements, themselves defiantly unquantifiable, mark off the physical and ideological lands we inhabit. Can we assess a dream or measure a better world? And if we could, can we show that our teaching, our courses, the University experience itself somehow brought on those ultimate and most glorious outcomes?

Harvey Mansfield, Harvard Professor of Political Science and author of 14 books which include studies and translations of Machiavelli and de Tocqueville, in an interview conducted by Bruce Cole, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, suggested that the purpose of an education is to create “a beautiful soul.” We don’t even agree as to whether or not souls exist, and yet I would suspect that most professors, students, and citizens would share Professor Mansfield’s lofty hope.

For Henry of Navarre, becoming a Catholic was the necessary first step to becoming King of France. His famous remark reveals the most important point: both the Protestant and the Catholic Henry received the crown. So, too, are both sides of the assessment debate essential components of a healthy University. Assessments guide, frame, improve our work. They shadow and inform our first steps—planned, measured, numbered—toward the widest and most satisfying outcomes.

But how far can outcomes and assessments guide our way? Must we finally, like Dante leaving Virgil, part from these companions which have ordered our journey, our visions? Freud famously observed that life is love and work. An intriguing summation of the human experience, to be sure.

But can we assess the validity of this assertion? We might scrutinize our love, identifying, numerating, measuring outcomes. We might attempt the same for our work. Alas, the assertion itself, like a beautiful soul, lies beyond our measure.

Ray M. Keck III

Professor of Spanish
Texas A&M International University