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Editorials: The New Standards: The Case for Intellectual Discipline in the Classroom

by Linda Elder

Everyone is talking about standards.

Parents want higher standards. Or they want to go back to the old standards. Or they complain about the lack of standards. Faculty say the students can’t meet even minimal standards. Subject matter “experts” want more “authentic” standards. Business people want standards that help students become better employees. Lots of other people don’t understand the fuss about standards, but they damn well know that students are not learning enough of what they need to know to function successfully in the multiple complex domains of their lives.

To be sure, it is impossible to envision an intellectually rigorous academic environment devoid of standards. Without them there would be no means of assessing the intellectual performance of students, no criteria by which to judge their work.

At present, the standards routinely used in instruction are subject or course specific. “Perform these math problems correctly.” “Manipulate these variables in this experiment. ” “Read ‘x’ number of books in this particular class.” “Write papers without making grammatical errors.” Now, while specific standards such as these are necessary, they are not sufficient to ensure that students come away with criteria they can effectively use to deal with the many challenging, messy problems students will have to struggle with in their lives.

If we are really concerned with educating our students, we should focus on broad, generalizable standards rather than on narrow task specific ones. Put another way, we should focus on standards that enable students to use their minds in power fuldards that are durable, testable and, if possible, universal, standards that we know will not be gone tomorrow because they proved essential for all our yesterdays. and effective ways, standards that are durable, testable and, if possible, universal, standards that we know will not be gone tomorrow because they proved essential for all our yesterdays.

It is time, in other words, to rethink standards in a fundamental way. To simply modify task-specific ones in subject areas—which is the current rage— is not enough. We must get to the root of the problem that plagues community colleges. We do this only by rediscovering and teaching intellectual standards useful to students wherever they go and whatever they end up doing. As the world becomes increasingly more complex, community college graduates must increasingly rely upon the reasoning skills and abilities which transfer in any direction you care to go because they enable a person to figure out the unpredictable, to solve problems unheard of today.

What are these standards? They are not new. They are not controversial.

What are these standards? They are not new. They are not controversial.
They are not mystical or highfalutin. In fact, once made explicit, they are quite intuitive. They enable us to make a matter clear when others are expressing it in a confused, vague or muddled way. They enable us to be accurate and precise when we are facing the inaccurate, imprecise or distorted. They enable us to check for what is germane to the problem at hand when others are displaying a tendency to wander off into unconnected matters. They enable us to get beneath the surface of an issue or problem when there is some tendency to miss important complexities. They enable us to step outside one point of view into another when most are hopelessly trapped within a narrow perspective. They enable us to check for consistency when others are operating with contradictions and inconsistencies.

Put most simply, I am referring to the intellectual standards of clarity, accuracy, precision, relevance, depth, breadth and logicalness of thought. They are essential in all academic, professional and personal performances that require sound

To put all this into one word, they are intellectual standards found in minds that have learned to be disciplined. Intellectual discipline, and the standards that underlie it, is what is missing lock-stock-and-barrel in this “everything-goes” culture we live in.

How many of our students have ever heard of discipline for the mind? How many are developing these essential habits of thought? For example, how many of them think and communicate clearly? How many regularly determine what information is relevant to a problem? How many check information for accuracy? How many determine complexities in the problems they face? How many figure out when they need to consider another point of view when dealing with an issue? How many routinely ask basic questions such as “Does this make sense? Is this logical?”

Of course, for faculty unfamiliar with or unskilled in the use of these standards, professional development workshops may be essential. Faculty need to model the use of these standards before the students (so students see them in action). They must design assignments that require them (so students develop the habit of using them in generating and assessing their work). What is more, this modeling and practice should occur not at the expense of “content” but as tools for the deep learning of content. Some faculty, unfortunately, are quite puzzled about this process.

Poor thinking is costing us far too much in waste, inefficiency and human suffering. Our world is filled with the products of lousy thinking: politicians who are unclear, news that is inaccurate, TV programs that are superficial. Narrow self-serving thinking parades about as eloquence in the public interest. On a daily basis, the English language is transformed from a powerful and precise tool for thought into a garble of jargon, slang and bastardized speech. Everyday, lust is confused with love, schooling with education, belief with knowledge, arrogance with self-confidence. With knee-jerk consistency we try to solve complex problems using Band-Aid approaches. Instead of courageously seeking fresh ways to see things, we retreat into our own prejudiced perspectives. The point? We are a society without intellectual discipline and standards. No wonder educators have followed suit.

Our students deserve a fighting chance to succeed in a troubled and troubling world. But they will not succeed without hard-headed discipline, without standards they can use everyday in powerful and effective ways. It is common sense, practical standards for the reasoning mind that our educational community has virtually ignored. Because of this, many of our students—have no doubt—cannot think their way out of a paper bag. From time immemorial, sloppy thinkers have unwittingly paid the price of shoddy, confused, inaccurate, illogical, irrelevant, self-serving, stereotypical, irresponsible, shallow thinking. Enough is enough. Let’s bring the standards of intellectual discipline back into the classroom. They are our inheritance from the best thinkers of the past. They are the best gift we can give to the thinkers of the future.

This editorial was published in the Community College Times, V. 9, number 5, March 11, 1997.

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