Table of Contents


byJeffrey Snodgrass

Higher education is a paradox: as educators, we ask students to challenge, question, and think in critical and meaningful ways about the world and ask them—on some level and to varying extents—to stand within the box of tradition. Simply asking them to stand in that box is not enough, but some would. Some privately nurse trepidation over the long-term effects of fostering critical thinking on traditional, higher education. Tradition, think those with concerns about intellectual exploration, must count for something; standards must be protected. A canon is a canon. Thus, two issues, one paradoxical and the other insidious, pose a combined challenge to higher education. We can, however, promote critical thinking and maintain current traditional curricular standards, regardless of the inherent destabilization that critical inquiry creates; assessment provides a theoretical tool for managing that balancing act.

Critical thinking allows students to make sense of information by thinking about it in robust ways. However, when we ask students to challenge accepted beliefs or norms, we are, on some level, asking them to challenge tradition. Moreover, we also concomitantly ask them to observe certain rules or codes of conduct. Academe has its own mores. So students must learn the accepted conventions of studenthood—learn how to be students—and simultaneously learn how to challenge assumptions, ideas, and beliefs. Herein lies the paradoxical nature of higher education.

Some feel uncomfortable with promoting critical thinking, for it brings change and its own sets of challenges. An analogy is in order. According to Homi Bhabbha, "the modern nation is being rewritten by those who live at its margins (qtd. in Brinkler-Gabler 264). This macroscopic and sociological model serves as an analogy for the (per this formulation) microcosmic, two-year college: those with differing intellectual viewpoints bring diverse perspectives to the classroom, changing that institution. Sadly, that diversity is not always welcomed (though we might like to think it is). Insidious fear or trepidation on the part of staunch traditionalists can undermine the rich potential of critical inquiry. For various reasons, the autonomy critical thinking offers students—a class, a college—is perceived by some as a threat, not a treasure.

As educators, we must be sensitive to these dual challenges, a Scylla of paradox and Charybdis of insidious trepidation. Assessment provides a means for navigating this treacherous pass.

Theoretically, all courses should contain outcomes and objectives. Assessment specialists define these terms in various ways and some deem them synonymous. At Prince George’s Community College, an outcome is an articulation of a specific end-goal of a course. A hypothetical outcome might go something like this: Students will be able to identify the three main genres of literature. Objectives, on the other hand, are the means by which outcomes (hopefully) materialize. Objectives tend to vary greatly from instructor to instructor, all of whom teach the same course. A hypothetical objective that fosters critical thinking might be a collaborative assignment that asks students to research and analyze varying social mores undergirded by universal values.

By maintaining traditional, core, accepted, and agreed-upon outcomes, the standards of higher education remain intact. This should please traditionalists. However, objectives—the means by which outcomes materialize—can and arguably should promote critical thinking. Thus, a Goldilockean strategy, one that is "just right," emerges, whereby tradition is yoked to critical thought.

We must work with traditional academic paradigms. We must teach, foster, and promote critical thinking skills. We can do both. By clearly articulating curricular outcomes and developing dynamic objectives, the balancing act becomes possible.

Work Cited
Brinker-Gabler, Gisela. "Exile, Immigrant, Re/Unified: Writing (East) Postunification
     Identity in Germany."  Writing New Identities: Gender, Nation, and Immigration in
     Contemporary Europe
.  Ed. Gisela Brinker-Babler and Sidonie Smith, Minneapolis: 
     U of Minnesota P, 1997. 264-92


The Instructional Area Newsletter, Volume 19, No. 1

Fall 2003