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Education By The Numbers

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Any innocent reader who ever wondered what education ought to be about now has his answer direct from Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, who has assured his state that education is really just a numbers game. "I take seriously objectives that we set as a state, and it's a challenge for us," the governor said as he signed into law a new formula for financing two- and four-year colleges in the state. Education should be a continuing experience, not a spending formula.

The governor notes that high on his list of priorities is "to increase degree and certificate attainment from the 40 percent level up to 60 percent by 2025." Slice it and dice it, graph it and project it, label it Higher Education even while lowering its standards, but it all comes down to standardized measurements, much like churning out the parts of a machine. Only the product isn't a well-educated human being open to proposing new ideas and challenging old ones, but just that: a product.

"The move from simply student enrollment measurements to student progression measurements," the Guv claimed, "is a landmark change in the state of Arkansas." Ask not what road this landmark adorns or where that road leads -- just follow it and all will be well. What a pity Socrates didn't have a college degree conferred by the state of Arkansas or he might have amounted to something. Instead he turned out to be a disturber of the peace whom the state put to death. Dangerous thing, a real education. Its counterfeit is much more comfortable. And a lot easier to measure.

Talk about specialization run amuck: This state's Higher Education Coordinating Board is now to adopt separate formulas for financing each of Arkansas' 22 two-year colleges and 10 four-year ones. Among the factors the board will be called on to consider will be progress toward the students' completion of their programs of study, institutional collaboration that encourages them to transfer from one part of this educational juggernaut to another, how best to serve students under-represented in this quota system, and how to graduate students duly certified in science, technology, engineering, math and other fields in which demand is outstripping supply. Check any or all of the above.

In another century, another exile -- Jose Ortega y Gasset -- had a term for all this bureaucratic rigmarole: the barbarism of specialization. It's important for the subject of such social engineering never to let his eyes stray in the direction of the humanities or he might start asking embarrassing questions instead of taking his duly appointed place on the assembly line. Interested in that course about Greek philosophy or modernist art? Fugeddaboudit. It's not as if you're here to indulge your tastes or natural curiosity. Shelve all that, put your shoulder to the wheel and get on with it. Publish or perish, and specialize till you know absolutely everything about absolutely nothing.

It's not simple, inventing more busywork and calling it education. There's more, a lot more, still in the works. To quote Maria Markham, who directs this state's Department of Higher Ed, "We have to have our final draft to our (non)coordinating board by October of 2017, so we can make our first round of funding recommendations based on the new formula." So little time, so much to be appalled by.

As for those branches of specialized education that deserve respect, like the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and the university's Agriculture division, their work speaks for itself. It shows in healed patients, bountiful crops, and the gratitude of all those who have benefited by it. How reduce a child's smile or the relief of moms and dads to measurable data? Impossible. Even if the Hon. Asa Hutchinson claims he can. Life is too short to waste it on such frivolities disguised as education. Better to settle down with a good book instead of having to deal with all this nonsense-on-stilts and calling it education.

What, after all, is an educated man or woman? He's someone who can entertain himself, who can entertain another, and entertain a new idea. There may be dollars and cents involved in trying to devise a spending formula for reaching those goals, but all too little common sense.

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