Education and cognitive domination

A brief excerpt in Today’s Professor newsletter from a book edited by Chad Hanson.

In the past 20 years, scholars and practitioners have committed to measuring the cognitive outcomes of education. In this chapter, the author assesses the movement that focuses on cognition, to the exclusion of other outcomes. An identity-based framework is offered as an alternative.

Howard Bowen (1977) once wrote, “The impact of higher education is likely to be determined more by the kind of people college graduates become than by what they know when they leave college” (p. 270). It is easy to see the truth in such a statement. Even so, in the past two decades many of us turned our attention to documenting one aspect of change in college: cognitive development. As professionals, we became committed to measuring the skills and knowledge that people learn in courses and degree programs. For a range of reasons that include culture, politics, and accreditation, we made learning outcomes, rather than identity development, the centerpiece of our effort to understand how colleges affect students.

In what follows, I offer an analysis of the historical shift that made the assessment of learning outcomes a priority. I consider the social forces that moved our attention away from identity development and toward short-term cognitive outcomes. In the process, I hope to demonstrate why the authors in this volume offer a much-needed alternative to the common psychometrics that we use to measure the outcomes of the college experience.

Juxtaposed with a discussion of two ontologies for science: representational and performative. The distinction is made in the introduction to The Cybernetic Brain by Andrew Pickering.

A good place to start is with Bruno Latour’s (1993) schematic but insightful story of modernity. His argument is that modernity is coextensive with a certain dualism of people and things; that key features of the modern West can be traced back to dichotomous patterns of thought which are now institutionalized in our schools and universities. The natural sciences speak of a world of things (such as chemical elements and quarks) from which people are absent, while the social sciences speak of a distinctly human realm in which objects, if not entirely absent, are at least marginalized (one speaks of the “meaning” of “quarks” rather than quarks in themselves). Our key institutions for the production and transmission of knowledge thus stage for us a dualist ontology: they teach us how to think of the world that way, and also provide us with the resources for acting as if the world were that way.

Against this backdrop, cybernetics inevitably appears odd and nonmodern , to use Latour’s word. At the most obvious level, synthetic brains—machines like the tortoise and the homeostat—threaten the modern boundary between mind and matter, creating a breach in which engineering, say, can spill over into psychology, and vice versa. Cybernetics thus stages for us a nonmodern ontology in which people and things are not so different after all…

The force of these remarks should be clearer if we turn to cybernetics. Though I will qualify this remark below, I can say for the moment that the hallmark of cybernetics was a refusal of the detour through knowledge—or, to put it another way, a conviction that in important instances such a detour would be mistaken, unnecessary, or impossible in principle. The stance of cybernetics was a concern with performance as performance , not as a pale shadow of representation.