Because the number of proponents of Competency-Based Education (CBE) continues to swell, it is important to consider the impact this trend may have—not just on liberal education, but also on democracy itself. As the business community and political leaders continue to apply pressure on academia to adopt the CBE model (primarily to shorten the time to graduation and thus reduce costs), little thought has been given to the long-term consequences. Training students to think critically and write well are crucial components of a liberal education, but the most important outcome is to produce citizens prepared to play an active, participatory role in sustaining our democracy.
Competency-Based Education focuses by definition on assigning credit for acquisition of a specific set of competencies, acquired either through work or educational experience. Employers drive this process by defining these competencies. This results in graduates that are prepared to enter the workplace but not properly prepared to be critically thinking citizens. Our educational institutions will produce workers needed to operate the corporate machine, a process that has the potential over time to undermine the foundations of our society. As fewer individuals acquire the educational underpinning to function as enlightened citizens, the ultimate outcome could be the transformation of our democracy into an oligarchy ruled by a handful of plutocrats. While this will not happen tomorrow, the trend is ominous and the early warning signs are already apparent.
Michael Horn argues in The liberal arts have a bright future in competency-based learning (2015) that CBE in higher education is growing because institutions need to provide “more affordable programs that prepare students for the workforce, [and that] by no means is competency-based learning inherently synonymous with the demise of the liberal arts.” Horn concludes by stating that growth of CBE does not “foreshadow the disappearance of the liberal arts.”1
The idea that CBE is not a threat to liberal education is a common theme among its proponents. Michelle Weise and Clayton Christensen note in Hire Education (2014) that “vocational training … does not necessarily preclude the liberal arts or notions of effective citizenship, well roundedness, or artistry.”2 One wonders why advocates of CBE continually note that it is not a threat to liberal education.
There is an ever-growing body of literature to support the theory that Competency-Based Education is not a replacement for a traditional liberal arts education. Joshua Kim suggests in Competency-based education, technology, and the liberal arts (2016) that there is more to education than the demonstration of a narrow set of technical competencies. He notes that a liberal arts education instills not only outcomes, but also places value on the process as well. Kim notes that a key aspect of this process is student discussion regarding the challenging questions of life under the guidance of an experienced educator.3
This shortcoming of CBE—its failure to allow students to synthesize knowledge from one course to the next—is a common theme in criticisms of CBE. Andrew Gonczi (1999) takes this position in Competency-based learning: A dubious past – an assured future. Gonczi argues that “critics of the competency approach suggest that the attempt to construct unambiguous outcomes for learning is a futile attempt to make simple what is complex. All education and training, they have argued, needs to allow for the unexpected and mysterious outcomes of the meeting of minds: that one cannot predetermine all the outcomes of an educational process and that seeking to do so will place severe limits on what might be achieved.”4
In my own educational experience, it wasn’t what I learned in a single class that was important. History, geography, economics, philosophy, and political science courses melded together into a single overarching educational experience, augmented by discussions with faculty and other students in and out of the classroom on a wide range of topics. The philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell wrote nearly ninety years ago that modern education “has become too much a training in certain kinds of skill, and too little an enlargement of the mind and heart by an impartial survey of the world.”5 Advocates of CBE obviously haven’t taken Bertrand Russell to heart.
Another criticism of CBE is that because of its focus on narrow competencies, it doesn’t emphasize the ability to think critically in the way that liberal education does. Richard Pring puts it concisely in his article Liberal education and vocational preparation (1993). Pring states that students exposed to a liberal education develop a “cognitive perspective” that leads to standards of “judgment whereby true propositions are distinguished from false.”6 In this era of “alternative facts,” this is an especially important skill to have.
- Chapman argues in Some important limitations of competency-based education with respect to nurse education: An Australian perspective (1999) that the work-related nature of Competency-Based Education advances the interests of the employer over the student. Chapman warns that the narrow nature of such an education undermines the “broad knowledge and perspectives” that foster “a spirit of inquiry, and citizenship.”7
CBE’s lack of citizenship development is perhaps its most critical shortcoming. A seminal work in the body of literature raising concerns about this subject is Johann N. Neem’s Experience matters: Why competency-based education will not replace seat time (2013). Neem notes that the classroom experience is central “to what it means to get a college education.” He further contends that there is an anti-intellectual component to Competency-Based Education as, to a large degree, it eliminates the role of the teacher. Neem argues that general education is far more than mastering competencies, it provides “a foundation for citizenship.”8
Henry Giroux and Peter McLaren argue in Teacher education and the politics of engagement: The case for democratic schooling (1986) that CBE has sidestepped or abandoned the principles underlying education for a democratic citizenry developed by John Dewey. They postulate that there is historical precedent for reviving the values of democratic citizenship and social justice, writing that educators as “transformative intellectuals” can reintroduce the concept of citizenship through ethical and political discourse in the educational process.9
Similalry, Henry Giroux and Stanley Aronowitz contend in Education under siege: The conservative, liberal and radical debate over schooling (1986) that the adoption of an economic rationale for education, coupled with our failure to promote “an ethic of civic responsibility that holds in check those privatized and narrow interests that constantly threaten the public good,” puts our democracy at risk. They contend that this approach to education entirely misses an “understanding of how power, ideology, and politics work on and in schools so as to undermine the basic values of community and democracy.” They concluded by stating that while economic success and individual mobility are in themselves not entirely negative goals, “an undue emphasis on them suggests that economics are more important to our nation and schools than our commitment to democratic principles.”10
Let me be clear, I am not an opponent of vocational training. As a Dean of Academic Programs, I supervise one department that offers both academic and workforce programs. By training I am a labor historian and thus am by nature sympathetic to the situation of, for lack of a better term, the working class. Laboring in a vocational trade is a noble and necessary aspiration. My concern is that the CBE model lacks an emphasis on citizenship development, a crucial element if our democracy is to thrive and prosper. We risk the possibility that fewer individuals will engage in our participatory democracy and thus fewer individuals will take responsibility for the governance of this nation.
Although I have painted a bleak picture, there is hope. In 2014 the Texas state legislature mandated that the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) develop what are known as the Core Objectives. While all six objectives are important, the relevant one for this essay is related to Social Responsibility. The THECB defines Social Responsibility as “intercultural competence, knowledge of civic responsibility, and the ability to engage effectively in regional, national, and global communities.”11 One definition of civic responsibility is “responsibility of a citizen, comprised of actions and attitudes associated with democratic governance and social participation.”12 While slightly different, a rubric developed by the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) defines civic engagement as “working to make a difference in the civic life of our communities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values, and motivation to make that difference.”13 Students must be able to think critically and be civically engaged if this democracy is going to continue to exist. Our faculty give considerable forethought to development of assignments that maximize student attainment of the Social Responsibility core objective. Typical assignments include research papers, position papers, reflective essays, and discussion page postings.
At the institution at which I work, an Associate of Applied Sciences (AAS) degree must include at least fifteen credit hours of the core curriculum and contain at least one course from three foundational component areas. Two of those foundational component areas must address the Social Responsibility core objective. Thus, an AAS degree will contain at least two courses that teach and assess Social Responsibility.
In conclusion, I must emphasize the current need for our students to be civically minded, civically responsible, and civically engaged. We are living through politically turbulent times and students need to be able to think critically and make judgments on the validity of publically disemminated statements. For example, former GOP strategist Steve Schmidt commented on statements by President Trump’s Press Secretary about the size of the crowd that attended the President’s inauguration in January 2017. Schmidt stated that “purposeful deceit, willful lying by a government spokesman, is a hallmark of a totalitarian or an authoritarian regime. It’s absolutely pernicious in a democracy.”14 Dean Obeidallah, writer for The Daily Beast, stated in 2017 that “our democracy is far more fragile than some might grasp.”15
The stakes are higher than ever. It is crucial that our students be aware of this so that they can do their part in keeping our democracy alive and well.
1. Michael Horn, “The liberal arts have a bright future in competency-based learning.” CompetencyWorks (2015): 1-6.
2. Michelle R. Weise and Clayton M. Christensen, Hire education: Mastery, modularization, and the workforce revolution. Clayton Christensen Institute, 2014.
3. Joshua Kim, “Competency-based education, technology, and the liberal arts.” Inside Higher Ed (2016): 1-3.
4. Andrew Gonczi, “Competency-based learning: A dubious past – an assured future.” In D.G. Boud, Understanding Learning at Work (London: Routledge, 1999), 180-195.
5. Bertrand, Russell, The Conquest of Happiness (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 1930), chapter 15.
6. Richard Pring, “Liberal education and vocational preparation.” In Paul Heywood Hirst, Robin Barrow & Patricia White (eds.), Beyond Liberal Education: Essays in Honour of Paul H. Hirst (London: Routledge, 1993), 49-78.
7. H. Chapman, “Some important limitations of competency-based education with respect to nurse education: An Australian perspective.” Nurse Education Today (1999): 129-135.
8. Johann N. Neem, “Experience matters: Why competency-based education will not replace seat time.” Liberal Education Vol. 99, No. 4 (Fall 2013): 1-6.
9. Henry Giroux and Peter McLaren. “Teacher education and the politics of engagement: The case for democratic schooling.” Harvard Educational Review (1986): 213-239.
10. Henry Giroux and Stanley Aronowitz. Education under siege: The conservative, liberal and radical debate over schooling (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1986).
11. Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Elements of the Texas core curriculum. http://www.thecb.state.tx.us/index.cfm?objectid=427FDE26-AF5D-F1A1- E6FDB62091E2A507 (accessed November 27, 2017).
12. Jennifer Self, “Definition of Civic Responsibility.” Learning to Give.
https://www.learningtogive.org/resources/civic-responsibility (accessed August 21, 2018).
13. Association of American College & Universities, “Civic engagement VALUE rubric.” http://www.aacu.org/civic-engagement-value-rubric (accessed November 27, 2017).
14. Edward-Isaac Dovere and Josh Dawsey, “Could Trump’s ‘alternative facts’ put lives at risk?” Politico, January 22, 2017. http://www.politico.com/story/2017/01/trump- alternative-facts-234011 (accessed January 23, 2017).
15. Dean Obeidallah, “Donald Trump’s most bone chilling tweet.” CNN, February 6, 2017. http://www.cnn.com/2017/02/04/opinions/donald-trumps-most-bone-chilling-tweet- obeidallah (accessed February 6, 2017).