This is the fourth installment in a series of “Notes from the Dean” that focuses on the School of Arts’ recently adopted mission statement:
“The mission of the School of Arts at Christian Brothers University is to advance the Lasallian synthesis of knowledge and service by teaching students to think, to communicate, to evaluate and to appreciate.”
“Why should I vote? It won’t make a difference.”
In addition to overseeing the operations of the School of Arts at CBU, I teach at least one class every semester. I’m trained as an ethicist, and the courses I teach deal with issues related to technology, the environment, and health care. In the fall, these classes often coincide with a major national election, and there is always a local ballot with a number of important issues to decide. And whenever these events coincide, I almost always get a comment from a student like the one stated above. Here I want to use this space to draw attention to the significance and challenge of teaching students to evaluate, for an evaluation is precisely what my students have made—perhaps without knowing it—whenever they judge their efforts to be wasted in supporting a candidate or ballot amendment in a local or national election.
On the one hand, evaluation is so commonplace in education that it’s easy to trivialize its significance. Professors hand out grades. Students rate professors. Deans write performance reviews. And so it goes. Outside of education, we learn that focus groups prefer the old soft drink over the new one. Analysts make advice on the hottest stocks. Climate change may or may not be important according to the latest surveys. We live in a culture that arguably thrives on opinions. We may worry, however, about how well-formed they are.
When the School of Arts faculty approved evaluation as a goal held in common by its six departments, the faculty signaled that they recognize the importance in all Arts disciplines of teaching students how to make good judgments. To be sure, criteria for good judgments differ across the various fields. What counts for good in art criticism is distinct from what it is in education, and likewise in psychology. Yet in all of these areas, students learn how to separate strong evidence from weak. They learn that conclusions are only as good as the premises that support them. They learn that it’s not whose opinion that matters but how well it’s argued.
Our students get a lot of practice with evaluation. In Religion and Philosophy, seniors have to present a thesis project to the entire departmental faculty. English for Corporate Communication majors must present a portfolio that includes a critical assessment of their experience in an internship. Students in Creative Writing and in Visual Art gain valuable experience in critique led by their peers. And every year, numerous psychology students put their research conclusions to the test of expert scrutiny at regional and national conferences.
Our hope at CBU is that through this process they learn to value their opinions and to acquire the confidence to express them even when the tide of public sentiment seems to be going the opposite way. Not every student at CBU will choose to participate in an election, and none of us are immune to a slick marketing campaign. However, I am proud that the School of Arts has made skill at evaluation a goal for its students. I bet that makes a difference.
Dr. Paul Haught