Reading this story about Harvard’s ongoing struggles to decide what kind of learning – more precisely, learning about what – a degree should evidence, a bell went off in my head when I got here: “The recommendations also include … retaining foreign language work.”
This phrase is ambiguous, to say the least; what I wonder is, will alums speak a second language? In our business, curriculum discussion of all sorts occasionally stops in the port of alumni behavior (a place of dark alleys, poorly marked streets, and outdated imperfect maps), but quickly shoves off and arrives for a long, comfortable liberty in the resort town of content, where all the menus list things to be offered and none of them discusses what student should [be able to] do after they graduate. When I was in high school, being very unhip and poorly wired in to the social system, I knew that one point of French class was to get a good grade, but didn’t realize it had nothing to do with reading or conversing in actual French; thus misinformed, I learned to speak French and discovered later that almost none of my classmates had done so. If Harvard wants its graduates to use a foreign language, it had better restate the objective in very clear terms, and have some mechanism for knowing whether it’s achieving it. PS: many students getting good grades on course exams is not that mechanism. PPS: Being able to use, understanding the importance of, having experience of, etc. are not the same as use.
Institutions exhibit an enormous bias to state goals and design their operations as supply-side strategies, perhaps because shoveling out this or that good or service is what each one knows how to do and gets paid for. In the arts, for example, measures of performances, exhibitions, and commissions of new works are everywhere, but actually observing what’s happening to members of the audience (and why others aren’t in it) is rare. Try starting a conversation with a museum curator about an exhibition and see if you can keep it from jumping immediately from the visitor’s experience to the art being provided, and staying there.
The same bias affects all sorts of public contexts where suppliers are not protected by the market from having customer behavior forced on their attention. Global warming policy is not about having more windmills, or more gas stations that sell E85 ethanol, or more cars that can use it; it’s about people putting less carbon in the air, and all those supply-side strategies are no more than possibly useful tools to achieve that, even though they look like the whole ball game to (for example) windmill manufacturers.
To clarify the difference: a demand-side strategy for global warming is a carbon charge; a supply-side strategy is a subsidy for ethanol plants. A demand-side strategy for college language skills is an oral exam that must be passed for graduation, in the subject of the student’s major, given entirely in a foreign language of the student’s choice. This is analogous to the swimming test some schools imposed; it required one to actually swim from here to there, and was not substitutable by a written exam in natation theory or history.
My general proposition: supply-side strategies are bad and demand-side strategies are good. My corollary: because suppliers greatly overestimate the value of their particular product (unlike my own perfectly calibrated and objective understanding of the value of public policy education) and tend to be organized and few, we will always have too much of the former unless we develop an instinctive suspicion of them. Walt Kelly said it: “…ever notice, when a thinker tries to help the unemployed, the first one to get a job is the thinker?”