Today we face a challenge to the organization of higher education that will transform the enterprise, however it is resolved. That challenge goes under the name “learning outcomes,” or sometimes “accountability.” It is a challenge brought largely by those outside higher education, and it is based on criticisms of the performance of college and university instructors in the face of heightened public expectations. One resolution to the challenge may be the adoption of standardized testing for learning outcomes; another may be to bring greater professionalism to the role of college teaching.
In this essay, I will argue that the learning-outcomes movement, although well-intentioned and appealing in some ways, could easily be injurious to the ideals of higher education. Taking steps to professionalize college teaching can, by contrast, improve the quality of the teaching corps, while leaving intact three essential features of higher level teaching and learning: (1) the centrality of discipline-based knowledge systems; (2) the plurality of approaches that contribute to the formation of well-educated adults; and (3) the transformative potential of the college teacher as model of reason joined to creative engagement with course materials. If educators take the initiative to enforce standards of professionalism, the faculty itself, rather than external regulators, will be in charge of accountability in higher education. It will not be easy to bring greater professionalism to college teaching, because graduate education has, understandably, focused on research rather than teaching. But the future of higher education may ride on the willingness of educators to make the effort.