Evaluating the Humanities

The needs of medical ethics and humanities courses show the necessity of pushing back against inappropriate assessment.
By Howard Brody

How can one measure the value of teaching the humanities? The problem of assessment and accountability is prominent today, of course, in secondary and higher education. It is perhaps even more acute for those who teach the humanities in nontraditional settings, such as medical and other professional schools. The public assumes that we can assess the difference between good, indifferent, and bad physicians— otherwise, why would students and faculty members spend so much time obsessing over licensing exams? If we can measure those differences, shouldn’t it follow that we can determine what, if anything, a curriculum in medical humanities contributes to the education of physicians?

At a time when credentialing authorities are asking previously unimaginable questions—even questions as basic as whether one really needs a course in anatomy or biochemistry to practice medicine—faculty in the humanities can hardly hold themselves aloof from debate. We certainly do need a sensible conversation about evaluating humanities teaching. However, elements of America’s current political culture make it unlikely that the conversation will happen.


A Sensible Conversation

One initial response to the assessment problem is to identify the tension. A call for greater public accountability seems hard to dispute for at least two reasons. First, humanities teachers, like all teachers (and like all of us), do care about finding out whether they are doing a good job. They must have some sense of what it means to teach well. Why can’t we make use of whatever sense we have of our teaching to construct a suitable framework for formal evaluation? The second reason is the obvious one: teaching the humanities generally requires other people’s money. If we plan to continue spending that money to support teaching in the humanities, we must be accountable.

This need for accountability creates a tension, for we know that we can destroy whatever value humanities teaching might have if we use the wrong assessment tool. Humanities faculty believe, quite rightly, that if they were forced to evaluate their teaching with multiple-choice tests instead of essays, the nature of their teaching would be fundamentally changed for the worse. And they know that standardized assessment relies heavily on multiple-choice questions.

The tension is magnified by belief that the humanities have both instrumental and intrinsic value. I doubt any teacher would deny that a course in the humanities will convey certain thinking skills that are applicable to other human activities or that these skills are of value to the student. But teachers also believe quite devoutly that these instrumental uses of the humanities do not exhaust the value of their disciplines. The wrong sorts of evaluation tools focus solely on the instrumental value and ignore the intrinsic value, threatening the future of the humanities in higher education.

The problem is highlighted when we ask what those who call for more accountability, and for more standardized assessment tools, really have in mind. My guess is that this inquiry, if pushed to the limit, would reveal that most people arguing for assessment assume that a truly objective way to measure the value of all teaching, including teaching in the humanities, exists. Those who hold this view assume that the typical sorts of tools we use today—essay examinations, student surveys—are too subjective to be worthwhile. Paradoxically, one of the primary goals of teaching the humanities in today’s world should be to call into serious question this very notion of objectivity that so many want to use to evaluate even the humanities.

One of the major reasons we teach the humanities is to help our students learn to determine when a tension can be satisfactorily resolved and when we should allow it to exist, rejecting premature and superficial resolution. A sensible conversation about evaluating the humanities will address and retain the assessment tension.


Humanities and the Market Society

In What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, Michael J. Sandel argues that, in the past three decades or so, we have allowed our society to change from one with a market economy to a market society. He defines the former as a way of using markets to deal with issues of production and consumption— what we traditionally believed that “economics” was about. A market society, by contrast, is one in which the market has come to be seen as the best way to understand every facet of human social life—where everything we do can be viewed as if it has a price and can be bought and sold.

There are two basic sorts of moral arguments, Sandel continues, that can be lodged against any particular manifestation of a market society. We need to consider these moral arguments because it is not a foregone conclusion, current popular belief to the contrary, that any specific extension of market ways of thinking into a new area of life is good. Nor can we conclude, on the face of it, that any such manifestation is bad. The first type of argument, which is based on inequality, is not relevant here. It is most pertinent to focus on the second, an argument concerning corruption. By corruption Sandel means that treating certain aspects of human life as market commodities degrades and devalues them by applying the wrong standards. This argument becomes a critique of a number of extensions of market thinking, and it seems directly applicable to concerns relating to the evaluation of humanities teaching with what many of us see as the wrong instruments or tools—the use of which will cause us to devalue and ultimately destroy the humanities.

Sandel explains the effects of corruption primarily by giving examples. This one weakness of his argument—the failure to analyze the concept of corruption— may stem from his observation that, about thirty years ago, no one in American society would ever have imagined that many of today’s practices would be allowed. The idea that we, as a society, could sell the naming rights to Mount Rushmore, or allow advertising to be spray-painted on the walls of the Grand Canyon, is today at least conceivable. Such thoughts would have evoked only incredulity in the not-too-distant past. I think this explains Sandel’s inadequate articulation of what “corruption” means, which is clearly indicative of a more general failure— most of us were surprised by the quick growth of the market society. We do not have a well-developed language for arguing about or against things that we never imagined people would seriously propose.

Thanks to Sandel and others, we now have a better framework for understanding why it might be difficult to have a sensible conversation about assessing the value of humanities teaching.

Faculty members commonly complain that today’s students arrive at the university with no real sense of what it might mean to get an education. Instead, students believe that they are plunking down a certain fee with the expectation that they will receive goods and services in return, and that these goods and services are tickets to well-paying jobs. Any part of the university experience that does not appear to produce that job ticket is, therefore, called into question.

Students who think this way did not develop their views in isolation; their ideas reflect the attitude of the larger society, a society that has turned itself into Sandel’s market society. Sandel calls this attitude market triumphalism. He does not acknowledge that it has been criticized previously under other names, including neoliberalism and market fundamentalism. Perhaps the most satisfactory label for this ideology, however, is economism, a term used today primarily by scholars addressing the ethics of international development. The term is useful because it suggests an analogy with the distinction between science and scientism. Economism is not economics; like Sandel’s market society, it represents the intrusion of economic ways of thinking into areas of human existence for which such thinking is ill suited. Economics, at least as it should be practiced, is a science, open to empirical disproof. Economism, to its advocates, resists empirical evidence showing its internal contradictions and deleterious consequences, and hence is better classified as a religion or totalizing ideology.


Evaluation and the Market

One tenet of economism—drawn from the theory of neoclassical economics, from which it largely derives—is that the free market is the best instrument for all social activities. It is a good instrument, in part, because it represents a perfect information system. This theory holds that all exchanges in the free market are perfect exercises of rational, selfinterested calculation because, in that market, the system of prices conveys to all individuals the exact value at any moment of all commodities. Interference with the free market, especially through government planning or regulation, is considered anathema largely because it is believed to distort that perfect information system. The ideology of economism ignores the fact that no “ideally free” market ever has existed or could exist, and that real-life markets have information systems that are distorted to benefit the wealthiest and most powerful players.

The call for objective, standardized evaluation of humanities (or any other) teaching is predicated on the myth of the perfect information system, on the idea that there is something out there that will allow rational, self-interested calculators to purchase exactly what they want at exactly the price that signals how much it is worth to them. If economism, in its rise over the past generation, had not taught us this background belief in how the ideal society would be organized, it is doubtful that we would have decided that what’s most sorely needed in higher education is this kind of evaluation and assessment. The idea that such a perfect information system could exist amounts to a throwback to a form of positivism that humanities scholars ought to question, if not dismiss outright.

The background beliefs that undergird the ideology of economism include the attitude that everything in human life is best treated as a commodity for sale in the marketplace. People choose to buy commodities based on their desires and on their rational calculations of how much any commodity will satisfy those desires. According to economism, it makes no sense to talk about intrinsic values; commodities have nothing but instrumental values. An education can have value as a key to later income, or perhaps as entertainment for those who just happen to get enjoyment from reading great books; it cannot be valuable on its own account.

Martha Nussbaum, in Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, has written eloquently about the important role of the humanities in preparing citizens to live in a democratic society. Such a view is opaque to economism. The marketplace, economism preaches, is the perfect democracy, because each individual can freely choose what to buy and what to sell and can shape his or her life according to those market trades. No special preparation or education is needed to live in a democratic society. The old American ideal was that, to live as a good citizen in a democracy, one must have a commitment to a larger public good apart from one’s individual interests. The marketplace of economism, however, regards any such commitment as a threat to its own vision of true democracy: one cannot be a purely self-interested calculator and still display such public-spiritedness.

Sandel correctly points out the corruptive nature of economism in a market society, arguing that, in situations like the teaching of humanities, it will debase a vital human activity by applying the wrong standards. He calls for increased moral dialogue in society about the uses and misuses of market thinking. As a society, we have come to believe that we can avoid all such deep moral inquiry into the value of various activities by appealing to market freedom— what’s valuable for you is what you choose to purchase, and what’s valuable for me is what I choose. This won’t work, says Sandel. Until we can decide as a group how much and in what way something is valuable, we can never tell whether a market standard of measure is appropriate or corrupting.

It’s quite natural for a philosopher to call for deeper moral inquiry as a way to resolve our current problems. Sandel, however, stops short. A searching analysis of economism as a contemporary social ideology (and of its historical and religious roots) would reveal that economism subverts and distorts any effort to have the sort of moral conversation that Sandel advocates. By virtue of its nature, economism aims to be an all-encompassing ideology, establishing what counts as a meaningful language for discussing even something once as far from the marketplace as public policy. Economism then dismisses as irrational any discussion that is not conducted in terms of individual self-interest and market commodities.


Beyond Economism

The humanities today, as well as higher education generally, have two tasks. The broader task is to call into question the ideology of economism, showing that what advocates of this belief system claim is simple common-sense rationality is actually a deeply problematic and flawed set of assumptions. The narrower task is to navigate within a world where economism exercises a near-stranglehold on the politics of higher education, pushing back where possible and ensuring that we do not inadvertently adopt strategies that reinforce economism.

Christopher Newfield, in Unmaking the Public University, nicely characterizes the fine line between realistic accommodation and selling out. On the one hand, it will not do to refuse reasonable calls for accountability. If we believe that our teaching is good for students, and that we do it well, we should accept the need to demonstrate its value. On the other hand, too-ready acquiescence in various standardized ways of evaluating teaching will corrupt our efforts (in Sandel’s sense of the term).

To illustrate how teachers of the humanities in one nontraditional setting are trying to walk this fine line, consider an effort in medical humanities called PRIME, the Project to Rebalance and Integrate Medical Education (www.primemedicine .org). Teachers of ethics, humanities, and professionalism in medical schools and residencies undertook this project to establish productive dialogue with three organizations involved in the accreditation and evaluation of future physicians: the Association of American Medical Colleges (which designs and administers the Medical College Admissions Test), the Liaison Committee on Medical Education (which accredits medical schools), and the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (which accredits residency programs). All three organizations have recently called for expanding and strengthening the teaching of ethics and humanities, but all have also called for enhanced assessment and accountability for such teaching. I suggest that the task of PRIME in the future will be twofold. First, humanities teachers should develop assessment tools that respect and accommodate the special features and intrinsic value of ethics and humanities, ideally through collaborations with social scientists skilled in qualitative methods. Second, teachers should be prepared to push back against the accrediting agencies when those bodies appear ready to adopt inappropriate assessment instruments merely so they can say that evaluation is taking place.

To address the larger challenge, teachers of ethics and humanities in medical settings have to be more articulate in addressing how the dysfunctional US health-care system has been shaped by the ideology of economism, and what this external environment does to efforts to teach ethics and professionalism to students and residents. Material for such teaching is sadly not hard to find in most academic medical centers. Pressured to support their costs through enhanced patient-care revenues, medical centers increasingly resemble for-profit health systems, in many cases curtailing or abandoning their historic missions to care for underserved, vulnerable populations. When the institution itself violates the professional values it attempts to teach its students, relegating awareness of this irony to the “hidden curriculum” undermines efforts to teach ethics, humanities, and professionalism. Making an open discussion of the tension a part of the formal curriculum, by contrast, facilitates students’ understanding of ethical values in the real world.

The political discourse that dominated the presidential campaign of 2012 illustrates both the task facing the humanities and how difficult that task will be. Advocates for economism put forward its central tenets—that government deficits should always be reduced by cutting spending and never by raising taxes, that government regulation of business is always bad, that increasing the income gap between the wealthy and everyone else creates jobs—as selfevident truths that it would be irrational to dispute. In such an environment, it seems completely logical that higher education should be called upon to justify itself in commodity terms through some form of objective, standardized evaluation. To challenge such purportedly self-evident assumptions has always been, and continues to be, a central role for the humanities in society. 



Howard Brody is director of the Institute for the Medical Humanities and John P. McGovern Centennial Chair in Family Medicine at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston and the author of The Golden Calf: Economism and American Policy. His e-mail address is habrody@utmb.edu.

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