The following article is reprinted with the author's permission from Perspectives on Policital Science, Vol. 22.1, Winter 1993.
In the long history of the university, back to medieval Europe, and the longer history of its precursors, back to the schools of antiquity, back to Aristotle's Lyceum and to Plato's Academy, if the phrase "student evaluations" had been heard, it would have meant the evaluation, more exactly the judgment, teachers give of their students. Suddenly, as the university was about to begin its second millennium, "evaluations" by students of their teachers were instituted in the United States.
Although they arrived in a stormy time, the late 1960s, these "evaluations" did not take American Academe by storm. Indeed, although campuses are always filled with discussions, although modern colleges are proud of their freedom of speech, and although professors praise the examined life, these "evaluations" were not much discussed. They seem to have been an innovation that needed only to be proposed to be recognized as reasonable. What made 'evaluations' seem reasonable are three opinions: that teachers can learn from them, that they help senior faculty judge junior faculty, and that they help administrators judge all faculty. These seemed nearly self-evident. Perhaps they are.
Certainly, what was left out were the students.
Of teachers, Nietzsche says, "Whoever is a teacher through and through takes all things seriously only in relation to his students."(1) If so, then the first thing a teacher would ask about any innovation is: "What will this teach my students?" Thinking of the long view, such a teacher will also ask: "What will this have taught my students when they have reached my age?" and "What will the students of my students learn from them?" Should such a teacher also teach politics, he will ask: "If such students become the rulers, what will they do?"
Let us glance at a typical student evaluation. It consists of a series of questions that the student is to answer by checking boxes, circling numbers on a scale, or marking phrases on a continuum, with a soft-lead pencil, whose marks can be easily scanned and tabulated by a machine. Clearly, very little, in effort or time, is required to fill out such a form. It does not ask the students for examples, questions, thoughts, or a story. Little even in penmanship is required. Little is also insisted upon. If a student wrote a letter instead, it would not be welcome.
These forms also belittle students. Taken en masse, tabulated en masse, evaluations melt whatever individuality a student manages to express into an invisible, impersonal mass. "You count only as you add to a sum into which you disappear without a trace," they say to each student. That many such things exist in our era does not make these forms diminish any less the dignity of each student responding to them. Kafka would understand.
There is something missing from these forms, like a face without features. Unlike even the most impersonal teaching, such as lecturing to large numbers or writing a book, in a typical evaluation form there is no human being. The name of the author or authors appears nowhere, and the student is not addressed by name, or even as a class. Without introduction or greeting, these forms come at the student, and they depart without a farewell.
The very casualness of their disregard demeans. These questionnaires do not ask the student to respond in a way that would require, or invite, another human being to respond in kind.
They are also shifty. Like a man who won't look you in the eye while he questions you, evaluations ask the student for something personal, a judgment of another human being, but they give nothing personal themselves and promise nothing personal in return. Like a one-way mirror, the author of an evaluation hides and yet wants the student to expose himself or herself. Good manners are not something these forms teach students.
Of course, much in daily life is impolite, demeaning, and devious. Good students learn to evade or endure such things, and even forgive them in their teacher, but only if they are learning something important. Do student evaluations teach something important?
The most obvious thing evaluations teach is that writing is not very important. Sometimes the student is allowed a space for writing, but seldom more than a few sentences, and this is not the important part, just a concession to humanity or a cynical stroking. Writing would be a hindrance to the devisors of these forms; written responses could not be tabulated, and only tabulations can be facilely compared. "I do not want to read something from you. I am not interested in your writing," whisper evaluations to the student. Not surprisingly, these forms are not well written. Nothing subtle, sharp, or distinguished appears. Nothing pungent, colorful, or savory is permitted. "I myself am not interested in writing well," these forms confess to students but without shame: "I got here without writing well. What's the fuss?" Such forms do not teach students to write well. They teach students to contemn all writing. They undermine teachers of writing who hand them out.
My objection is not trivial. Thinking and writing are connected. Although Homer, the skalds, and the Beowulf poet may have been thoughtful without being able to write, few graduates of colleges today will be so without writing. The habits of deliberation, self-knowledge, and scrutiny required of a people in a representative democracy are not to be cultivated without writing. Today, those who cannot read will be captivated by images; those who can read but not write will be swayed by rhetorical snares, drums, and trumpets; even those who do write and read will have a hard time. Only those who can describe, in a letter for example, an important experience in their lives are likely to think for themselves, enjoy liberty, and pass on its blessings to our posterity.
Written in prose, evaluations are not. Their syntax is often broken, their rhythm jerky, and their grammar mistaken. Most include incomplete sentences. Their diction is littered with ambiguities, prejudices, and cliches. Like an adult trying to be "with it," they often adopt the slang that they suppose students use. Do they condescend or are they just low? Are the authors dumbing down or dumb? It is not worth knowing. No one reading one of these forms ever wanted to meet its author. Few reading one would suppose it had an author. Behind them there seems to be no human being, no teacher, no mind. The writer of them does not care for such things; it--no other pronoun than "it" will do--never asked a question it did not think it had the answer to. This self-satisfaction puts it in that rare minority, the unteachable, whom it really would be vain to approach with help.
Bacon tells us: "Reading maketh a full mind, conversation maketh a ready mind, and writing maketh an exact mind." Student evaluations maketh the opposite. No student ever finished a student-evaluation form and said, "Boy, that was worth reading; I'm going to reread it this weekend." No student ever finished an evaluation, sought a friend to converse with, and exulted: "Wow, did you notice how interesting the second question was. How did you answer it?" And no one ever finished a student evaluation so filled with thoughts that he spent the rest of the day writing because he had been provoked to ask: "What do I think?"
Evaluations are not designed to elevate the understanding of the student. On the contrary, at work in these forms is a hostility to intellect more malevolent because stealthy. Choice there is, but not if you think better than the boxes, numbers, and phrases. Clarifications, queries, and questions are not permitted. Qualifications, additions, and substitutions are not invited. "Please do not be troublesome," the form intones: "Do not try to be more intelligent than us. Just mark the box, like the other students. You understand. There are so many of you, we have to frame the questions and provide our own answers to choose from. Elsewhere we have provided a place for some of you to write something. You understand, I'm sure." Evaluations remind one of those teachers who, upon hearing a comment more intelligent than they are capable of, turn to the class and say, "Well, class, what do you think of Johnny's comment?"(2)
Of course, elsewhere in college, there may be experiences in writing, in thinking, in learning, just the kind of things it is worth telling a friend about. Yet, it is just such experiences that student evaluations teach the wrong things about.
Consider the questions asked in a typical form. They range from: Did your teacher come to class? proceed through: How well as your teacher prepared? and go all the way to: Is your teacher knowledgeable? I believe the first question is within the capacity of almost all students except for those who have not come to class, and the questionnaires have no way of discovering that. Even if they asked the student: How often did you come to class? there is no way that evaluations, being anonymous, could confirm the veracity of the student's answer.
The second-level question, about the teacher's preparation, is ambiguous. Yes, a complete absence of preparation ought to be visible to the meanest intellect (supposing the intellect has come to class). If the teacher has assigned the Declaration of Independence and during class cannot remember any of the twenty-seven charges against George III, it is fair to say that he did not prepare. And if the teacher regularly comes to class late, reads her mail, and leaves early "to get a call from Washington," it is fair to say that she is not teaching. But beyond the grossly obvious, what student could know about the teacher's preparation?
How long does it take to prepare: a day, a week, a lifetime? Undoubtedly, it is good to prepare, yet every experienced teacher knows of discussions he prepared for seven days, had five different plans for, and it flopped. Free will exists, and students can exercise it. Most such teachers also know of discussions that went so well you start fancying comparisons to the Lincoln-Douglas debates, the Constitutional Convention, and Plato and Aristotle in Raphael's School of Athens--but, truth to tell, the teacher did not feel well prepared, for there were wars in the world, crises in the college, emergencies at home, and insomnia all night. Free will exists; students can exercise it and teachers can, too. Some preparation is the day before, some the months before, some your whole life.
(Evaluations also do not ask students about their own preparations: "How many hours a week did you spend on this course? Did you do all the reading? Attend all the classes? How many drafts did you do of your paper?" There is no encouragement to self-examination in evaluations. Even if the forms asked there would be no way to ascertain the truth about the students" preparations, except of course the old way, through examinations, which do encourage self-examination.)
At the same level are questions such as: "Could you follow her lectures easily?" "Did he follow his syllabus closely?" "Did her tests reflect the material covered in class?" "Were his reading assignments realistic?" (3) I suppose some students are capable of answering these questions, provided they have been to class and provided they answer honestly. However, it is not good for a student to do so. Taken together, these questions suggest that the student's feelings about the class are more important than what he or she learned. Furthermore, each question, by assuming something about teaching, teaches it to students, not directly as a teacher does, but by insinuation; for example, they teach that tests should concern only "material" covered in class, that a syllabus should be followed closely, that lectures should not be hard or readings long. All share one premise: that the student's ease is the test of good teaching.
On the contrary, "good students like hard tests." (4) They like the challenges a good teacher will put to them. Such teachers will certainly ask questions on "material" not "covered" in class. At my college, there was a reading period at the end of each semester and the final always had a question about a book read outside and not covered in class. The best question I ever met on an exam was a complete surprise; it asked me to tell how three of the Victorian novelists we read "would put you into a novel of theirs." (5) The best lectures I ever heard, Paul Tillich's, had little relation to the reading list. Nor do good teachers aim to make their lectures "easy-listening." Good students prefer Mozart to Muzak or, equally important, come to do so through good classes. They do not object when the teacher uses a word they didn't know before or mentions in passing a good book they had not already heard of. The better students will look that word up and read that book later. And the best will seek out such things on their own. If dolphins are judged good students when they introduce new twists and turns, why shouldn't humans be?
Likewise, good teachers deviate from the syllabus. In pursuit of the truth and hoping for a transformation in the soul of his students, Socrates often failed "to follow the syllabus closely." When old Cephalus sensed such a failure, he left class, but the others that night in Piraeus were student enough to stay. Was Socrates "realistic" in what he required of Adeimantus and Glaukon? Hardly. He led them on a merry intellectual chase, visited the fabled cave, saw the fabulous sun itself, and finally bedded their sleepy souls down on the "idea" of a bed in Book X. All this was good for them; they would never forget that night of talk, even when they forgot the details of it (which Socrates, let us note, recalls word for word). In the 2,300 years since then, multitudes of strong souls, reading the Republic, in classes and out, have agreed.
The questions typical of student evaluations teach the student to value mediocrity in teaching and even perhaps to resent good teachers who, to keep to high purposes, will use unusual words, give difficult questions, and digress from the syllabus, or seem to. Above all, such questions also conceive the relation of student and teacher as a contract, thus between equals, instead of a covenant between unequals. Thus, they incline the student, when he learns little, to blame the teacher rather than himself. No one can learn for another person; all learning is one's own, even when it is somehow the result of one's teacher, to whom one is grateful.
The third-level question, about the teacher's knowledge, must be assumed to be entirely beyond any student in a class. If the student is good enough to judge the knowledge of the teacher, the student should be teaching instead. There are such students; they are a joy; really, they are no longer students. When Isaac Barrow recognized Isaac Newton was that good, he got Newton appointed to his chair. The assumption that each and every student of today is that good, hence a fit judge of any and every teacher's knowledge, is unwarranted. With shoes, the wearer is always right about whether the shoes fit. Learning, however, is not like slipping on a pair of sandals, and teaching is not like shoe making. It is, as Pascal says: while a lame man knows he limps, a lame mind does not know it limps, indeed says that it is we who limp. (6) Yet these forms invite the limpers to judge the runners; non-readers, the readers; the inarticulate, the articulate; and non-writers, writers. Naturally, this does not encourage the former to become more like the latter. In truth, the very asking of such questions teaches students things that do not make them better students. It suggests that these mediocre questions are the important questions, that the student already knows what teaching and learning are, and that any student is qualified to judge them. This is flattery. Sincere or insincere, it is not true, and it will not improve the student, who needs to know exactly where he or she stands in order to take a single step forward.
How far evaluations misunderstand teaching and learning can be appreciated by reading one on Socrates. Under the heading personal qualifications, we read: "Ugly. Not a good dresser. Not sure of himself, always asking questions." Under the heading organization, we read: "No seating chart, no regular times, no schedule of topics or readings. In class, he starts on one topic, leaves it for another, just follows students' whims. Classes run on beyond meal times. Takes unannounced field trips. He doesn't tell us what will be on the exams." Under teacher-student relations, we read: "Hard to get a hold of. No regular office hours. Places students in embarrassing situations by asking questions. You never know what he wants. He criticized our music. He likes some students better than others. He wouldn't let us eat in class. He promised us a feed, but instead just kept us up late. He promised us a spectacular field trip, but it was just the same old yacking." Under prepartion, we find: "Obviously does not prepare, will start anywhere, even asks some student to start things. When a student asks a question, he just finds some way to ask it back." how might the course be improved: "Give lectures. Get rid of Socrates. Find someone who knows something and knows how to teach." Under knowledge of subject matter, we read: "Actually admits he knows nothing. Sometimes he seems to, maybe he's published a lot; one thing for sure, he can't teach. I don't know why the philosophy department hired him." And finally, the summary question how effective was your teacher? "I learned nothing from Socrates. I knew more before I started. Most students fell asleep or left. Some who stayed, he played favorites with. Socrates is arrogant. If it were a vote, I think he would lose." (7) Of course, there were a majority of such students in Athens the day Socrates was condemned, and also at least one great student to write about it. Because student evaluations make no distinctions between students--between Plato and the many--they would have voted with the majority in Athens that day and do so every day in American Academe.
At the heart of evaluations is a confusion of opinion and knowledge that teaches students to be indifferent to knowledge. The "lowest-common-denominator" prose in which these forms are written, their preformed answers, and the inarticulate responses that they are satisfied with, all abstract from the differences of intellect, soul, and heart among the students. Where the difference in quality among students makes no difference, every student is being taught that quality makes no difference. Moreover, with no checks in these forms against inaccurate statements, there is no encouragement for students to be scrupulous. Before the jury in an American court files out to judge the accused, the judge instructs them in the law and in their duty. Before students judge their teachers, they receive no such instructions; the forms themselves teach that none are needed. Their easy-smudge, easy-scan mode signals "opinions wanted here." What they teach is: "Opinion is knowledge." Fortunately, the student may be taught elsewhere in college that opinion is not knowledge. The student of chemistry will be taught that the periodic table is a simple, intelligible account of largely invisible elements that wonderfully explains an enormous variety of visible but heterogeneous features of nature. The student of history may learn that a great past event is even harder to say the exact, satisfying truth about than a theft with living witnesses in a court. In the course of writing a thesis, the student of literature may proceed to conclusions that differ very much from her first explanation of the mystery of Hamlet.
Will students feel the contrast between these experiences of knowledge and the opinionated indifference to knowledge inculcated by evaluations? It is safe to say that no teacher who trained reason upon the forms, so as to bring out that contrast, would have much of a chance of succeeding. Merely by allowing the forms, the teacher loses half or more of the authority to teach. Suggestions about the intellectual nullity of the forms might be resented by some students, reported to the administration, and placed in the teacher's file. Thus is the worldly interest, or the academic ambition, of the teacher set against both his intellectual integrity and his teacherly care.
By teaching students things that make them less studious, student evaluations in turn "teach" the teachers to be less teacherly. (8) They teach them to satify, to entertain, to flatter, even to stroke students as much as teach them. Knowledge may count for something somewhere, but in the evaluations it counts for nothing. There, only the composite opinion of the majority of the students speaks. Always to avoid the wrath, always to court their favor, and sometimes to cajole them into a little learning--that is teaching.
All that Tocqueville feared in democratic despotism, that the Federalist warns against as majority tyranny, that teachers as opposed as Machiavelli and Thomas agree to call calumny, that the ancient poets called Rumor, and that mobs of all ages have acted upon violently, teachers in American Academe are quietly subjected to through evaluations. The ugliest scene I have ever witnessed on a campus was an orientation for new faculty. (As a visiting professor, I was invited along with the probationers.) Outside, it was early fall. Inside, in the front of the room were three probationers; seated around a large table facing them were the new probationers; and in the corners, watching everyone, were the deans, who had chosen the speakers, the topics, and the theme. The first young teacher spoke about how available you must be to students, how often students stop by for extra help and call you at home at all hours, and how you must not expect to think about your research during the year. (During her talk, it came out that she was still trying to finish her thesis.) The second probationer spoke about how important student evaluations are, how you can learn from them and how good they really are. (I cannot remember whether he gave any examples or whether they were so rudimentary that I was ashamed for him.) The third young teacher spoke about how important fourth-year reviews are. (It came out that he was approaching his.) The message of this triptych was clear: throughout the course, students test the attentiveness, the appreciativeness, the obligingness, the acquiescence of the teacher; at the end of the course, students evaluate the teachers on these "virtues," and later the watchful deans decide who stays. Little brother is watching you. Little sister will whisper about you. And big brother is all ears. All morning nothing was said about education, about teaching, or about learning. No older teacher gave an account of how she teaches. No veteran told stories about his three most unforgettable students, or his three most forgettable ones. No one painted a portrait of a great teacher.
That it was probationers themselves who had been asked to deliver these dispiriting messages on topics they might have the most anxiety about was both sad and alarming. Maximum hoc regni bonum est, / Quod facta domini cogitur populus sui / Quam ferre tam laudare. Gary Larson would show it as three veteran Herefords explaining to a herd of newcomers just in from South Texas how happy they were to be in Chicago, and over the gate of the corral would read "Stockyards."
At lunch, after this orientation, a veteran teacher gave a frank history of the college, how he had seen a growth in money, a growth in prestige, and a decline in conversation. Was this a protest or a confession? It was hard to tell. It certainly fit with the morning and with the history of many a college. What did the young teachers listening think? They asked no questions, at least not then. They were too young to know anything different from the morning's lessons.
To discover that you have a mind changes your life. To watch that happening is wonderful. To encourage it gives a satisfaction unlike any other. Few teachers discover the peculiar happiness of teaching late in life. Time is fate. What you do not discover in your first years of teaching, you are very unlikely to discover later. And what you do not know, you cannot hold to in adversity.
Good teachers think about the long view. They think about truth, about their lifetime pursuit of it, and about what the student will be later after college. Hence, they are willing to disappoint a student today, this term, this year, for the sake of later, and they are duty bound to displease whenever it would be dishonest to do otherwise, which seldom benefits the student, even in the short run, as the dishonest claim.
There was once a young teacher who told his students that there were five concentration camps in Texas. An older teacher undertook to teach him not to tell falsehoods. In public he challenged him to name the five camps. It is safe to say the younger man was not pleased, not then, and not when he lost his position. Years later, however, the young teacher wrote the older teacher to thank him. It had changed his life. (9) That's the long view, the teacher's view, and one of the long rewards. A teacher is deeply pleased by such thanks, does what would deserve it, and does not wait for it.
Might a better evaluation form be devised? I can easily believe that some forms are worse than others. And I do believe a better one than any I have seen could be written, but not that it would be good for students, teachers, or universities. (10) Even an evaluation written in prose, with ample space for prose in return, with intelligent questions--arising from an elevated understanding of teaching and learning and striving to lift students to that level by challenging them and encouraging them to examine themselves--would still teach students that they are fit to judge teachers, suggest that teachers should satisfy students, and tempt students to calumny (about which more later).
What kind of disposition does any student evaluation inculcate in the soul of the student?
I cannot think that the habit of evaluating your teacher can encourage a young person to long for truth, to aspire to achievement, to emulate heroes, to become just, or to do good. To have your opinions trusted utterly, to deliver them anonymously, to have no check on their truth, and no responsibility for their effect on the lives of others is not good for a young person's moral character. To have one's opinions taken for knowledge, accepted without question, inquiry, or conversation is not an experience that encourages self-knowledge. To be treated as superior to your teacher will encourage a student to expect the teacher to learn from him, not he from the teacher. Such a student will be likely to regard truth in the same way: to resent its constancy, to resist its judgment, sometimes to envy its superiority, sometimes to assert his superiority, and yet withal to claim truth as an easy inheritance he need not acquire to spend.
Such a student will tend to think education is something that can be delivered like a purchase at a shop. She or he may go on to deem it something owed, like a present on a birthday--something one says "thank you" for but really thinks people would be stinkers not to provide. She or he may even go on to think of it as merchandise to shoplift in town, knowing the college will always intervene before anything becomes public. Such human beings do not make good learners. They do not have the necessary concentration, resolution, diligence, or persistence. Their desires are pale, their wills weak, and their breaths short. To suffer for learning will be impossible for them. They will, then, fail to learn much, or to learn it well. Nevertheless, the human condition being what it is, they will not be able to escape from the consequences of their poor learning; life will make it evident. It is easy to pass from this stage to the next: to thinking that one's failures are due not primarily to one's own lack of virtue but to one's teachers. "If I don't learn, it must be the teacher, the course, the major, the department, or the college, that is at fault." Such students will become experts at judging teaching. They will always know why they didn't learn. They will go from knowing why this teacher failed them, to why the next one did, and so on. It has been well predicted, of such students, that "later in life they will know just what the failings are in their employers that caused their work to be undervalued, or the failing in their spouse that caused the marriage to end." (11) To be sure, it is always good to have a good teacher, but little learning would take place in life if it depended on good teachers. Good teachers are not abundant.
And great teachers are rare. They are not as easygoing as others. They teach not only subjects--especially hard subjects, ones they know are important--but they teach people how to learn, which in the end means how to learn without them when they are not there. Their assignments are surprising, difficult, and noble, for only such assignments encourage students to discover new things. Such teachers know that the great discoveries, the ones humanity resists at the time and sometimes cannot thank the discoverers enough for later, were hard not only for the many to accept, but hard for those discoverers to make in the first place. Semmelweis was vilified, persecuted, and hounded down after his discovery of antiseptics; that was hard to take, but before that, just for him to think his way through to the discovery was hard. The opinions of his future persecutors were those that he had first to overcome in himself. Such men as Semmelweis do not spend their time in school being sore at their teachers. Of the nature they later try to fathom, they do not complain: "Nature is not a good teacher. She doesn't tell us what is going to be on the exam. She does not hold preparation sessions, won't look over my paper before I turn it in, and won't let us bring the texts to the exam. I don't think she's knowledgeable anyway." "Nature loves to hide," said Heracleitus, and so does a great teacher.
The right disposition for the great student is right for us all, because it is more important for us to learn anything worth learning than that we be taught well. If we insist on the latter, we will not learn. While we are: complaining, faultfinding, cavilling, carping, censuring, or denouncing, and all the while being peevish, petulant, testy, splenetic, cynical, or sore, we seldom learn anything. "Quickly though we note faults in others, it is seldom with a view to correcting our own." (12)
I understand there was civil suit against a college a few years back. A student claimed fraud and damages because by the time of graduation he had obtained none of the lux or veritas or virtus that the shield of the college promised. Thankfully, while dismissing the suit, the judge pointed out that getting those things depends on effort, that the college could only help, and that the student was free to leave at anytime. That learning is a commodity that can be bought for cash is the kind of misunderstanding that student evaluations encourage. No genuine student has such expectations. A student is someone who likes to learn, who appreciates most the teachers from whom he has learned something, and even more those who have helped him learn that he can learn on his own. Finally, a student is someone who may even enjoy to learn on his own more than anything else. Probably he will only do so because he has come to realize, whether there is teaching or not, whether it is good or bad, the only learning there really is is on one's own.
While student evaluations cloud the intellect of the student, they also corrupt the character. (And while they corrupt, they also cloud.)
All such evaluations are anonymous. Either students need not sign their names, or, if they do, they are assured of confidentiality. There is then no personal responsibility for errors. More important, there are no personal consequences for a negligent, false, or even malicious misrepresentation. There is then no "student responsibility" in student evaluations. It is as if the student were being assured: "We trust you. We do not ask for evidence, or reasons, or authority. We do not ask about your experience or your character. We do not ask your name. We just trust you. Your opinions are your opinions. You are who you are. In you we trust." Most human beings trust very few other human beings that much. The wise do not trust themselves that much. Probably God only is worthy of it. Yet colleges in America have decided that students--each student, any student, all student--are worthy of such trust. The intellectual ignorance in that "trust" is as colossal as the moral irresponsibility. It fits with the current attitude toward plagrarism. (13)
The line between negligence and subornation is very thin here. Even when they do not fear being found out, most human beings, even ones who do not conduct themselves very well, feel a little uneasy talking about other persons behind their backs. It feels sneaky at the time; it gives only a temporary relief; and you may feel guilty later. They themselves may have been abused this way once and recall the shame or indignation it caused them. They may be restrained by such memories to not do unto others what they did not like being done to them. Also, whatever their illusions and passions, students do suspect they are inferior to their teachers. They must feel then, however dimly, that there is something unnatural about badmouthing them.
To have student evaluations of teachers, all these inhibitions must be overcome. The mere fact of these forms, the fact that the college has instituted them, that they are uniform, that they are printed, that they look official, that they are guarded, that they take class time, and above all that the faculty acquiesce to them, all this does much to overcome such inhibitions. "Legitimacy" is a potent thing, for evil as for good.
At many colleges, the support given evaluations goes beyond mere approval. It is not merely okay to evaluate your teachers but good citizenship, public spirited, responsible. At least one college goes further by making it the student's duty to fill out such evaluations, a duty whose failure to perform is punishable, for no student may register for the next term without turning in the evaluations. This shows how great are the inhibitions that have to be overcome and how far colleges are willing to go.
A lot of innocent evil results. That is, otherwise morally ordinary students are led by the legitimization of such evaluation to think that it's okay to offer anonymous criticism of persons behind their backs to third parties with adverse consequences. Many students will feel: "Well, I'm just giving my opinions. It's really what I think. What can be wrong with that?" What is wrong would become apparent very quickly if students were asked whether their grades should be the average grade other students, judging anonymously, gave them. Such a question is so elementary it makes one wonder how innocent human nature in students is. If you would not, upon refection, want to be treated as you are about to treat others, is it innocent to go ahead? "Innocence" here hangs upon "refection," and refection is not what evaluations teach students. In any case, it is not good for persons mistaking opinion for knowledge, uttering opinions anonymously to third parties, with consequences, to think what they are doing is innocent. That is exactly what legitimizing calumny by instituting student evaluations teaches students to think. Of course, persons who think they are innocent are less likely to be so.
It is easy to see what motives may sometimes work their pleasure through such evaluations. Under cover of anonymity, all sorts of complaints can be vented, grudges satisfied, envies expressed, scores settled, and fears indulged. I look younger than I am, so I have sometimes been present at conversations where students discuss their teachers, not knowing I'm one, too. Standing at a copy machine in a college library, I once heard one student say to another, "You know that guy, Roth. Boy, am I going to get him on the evaluations. While he was out of the room, I checked his grade book. Do you know what he had down for me?" True, in this case, the student must have known what he was doing was somehow unjust; "Am I going to get him" implies that. Or does it? Perhaps if I had intervened, he would have given some general justification: "All grades are unjust. This is a required course," and so forth. Or perhaps a specific justification: "Roth graded me unjustly. So I'll grade him justly for that. Vengeance may be wild, but it's just." The student was certainly indignant, and if he dismissed my objections with, "Well, I'm just giving my opinions. It's really what I think. What can be wrong with that?" he would have had the innovation of evaluations on his side and the college that instituted them.
One would like to think such bad motives are the exception and that most students are just "saying what they think" however erroneous it be. However, the only correlation that has ever been established between students responding and their evaluation of their teachers is between expected grade and present evaluation; the lower the grade the students expected, the lower they rated the teacher. (14) Should this surprise us? If defendants in court were asked their opinion of the judge and jury before they heard the verdict, they would give similar results; the more the guilty thought their guilt evident to others, the less highly they would rate judge and jury. Judged lacking and suspecting it might be true, human nature tends, at least at first, to deny it, and if given the shield of anonymity, will also criticize the judge. Preemptive vengeance exists and student evaluations give it a free shot.
Thus, it must occasionally happen that an individual teacher suffers from the evil so easily practiced through evaluations. Given an atmosphere where students are more stroked than taught; where a host of advisors, counselors, resource-persons, and mini-deans coach students; where, for example, the college pays upperclassmen to "brainstorm, order, revise and polish your writing assignment with you" (15); where more steps are required of a teacher to charge a student with plagiarism than of a student to convict a teacher of anything; where professors don't take attendance, require little writing, and give the same exams every year; where new teachers are pressured to change grades by chairpersons; and so forth, there must sometimes appear a teacher concerned for the good of the student. Should such a teacher express this concern in teaching, it is easy to predict what guardians of the college's "honor" would do: their compassion for surprised students, their credulity to all complaints, their encouragement of discontent, their solicitation of protest, their countenance of disrespect. Then would follow whispers amplified with each re-whisper, the lynching of the teacher's reputation in the evaluations, and then the aftermath: the acquiescence of the better professors, lest they jeopardize their reputation or their raise, for a cause already lost; the removal of the teacher; the ousting of any independent student reporter; the ensuing campaign of disinformation, harassment, and threat; the impotence of the better students; the passitivity of the faculty; the changing of student grades; and, later, rumors of gifts after graduation.
The point is not so much how unjust these things would be to the teacher, or how bad they might be: to endure humiliation, ridicule, slander; to be tried by rumor; to find unsigned notes on your door, your car messed up; to enter a room where everyone is glaring hatred; or to see people cross the street as you approach, scowl as if you had just been caught poisoning the water supply, or smile knowingly at you, as if your fly were permanently unbuttoned (as a friend described it). (16) These can be very beneficial experiences; every thinker will anticipate them, every patriot of academic integrity can expect them, and perhaps every human might ultimately benefit from them. The persons for whom such experiences are unquestionably bad are students. To badmouth a teacher and be encouraged by others to continue, and to do it, to ridicule, revile, and enjoy a sense of comradeship in doing so, does not promote the spirit of study.
Sometimes such a thing must happen, and one would like to believe there are many such genuine teachers, (17) but the greatest harm this opportunity for evil has visited upon American Academe is general, frequent, and pervasive. To avoid a poor composite score, many a teacher, especially many a probationer, will be tempted to lower standards. Fearing preemptive vengeance, many will consider beating students to the punch, with preemptive surrender. Most who do will do so gradually, so as not to stick out among others, some so as not to stick out to their own consciences. What will a teacher who has surrendered feel afterwards? The best will feel pangs of self-accusation and look for situations in which not to surrender again. Others, with layers of excuses never quite covering their guilt, will live on, no more than half good to any student. Those insensitive of surrender, who never surrendered anything in the first place, will feel nothing, see nothing, and teach nothing, as before. Have any teachers in American Academe surrendered since evaluations were introduced? Few confess it, I acknowledge. Still, one of the things academics often say about the last twenty-five years and other academics never contradict is that there has been enormous grade inflation. I rest my case. Students have suffered enormously from that inflation--the majority by being deceived, and the best by studying in an atmosphere where their best was not asked for.
Of course, there are good students. They will be reluctant to participate in student evaluations. The very best will simply not want to subtract time from their studies. The better they are, the more they will not regard themselves as qualified to judge their teachers and the more they will feel bound to their teachers by emulation, affection, and gratitude. In addition, the spirited and honorable among the students will disdain such evaluations as sneaky. If they had an objection, complaint, or suggestion, they would express it immediately, in class or right after. The conscientious among the better sort would also not want to participate in such evaluations, but for a slightly different reason. Their principle would not allow them to write anything about another person anonymously. If they had a complaint or suggestion, they would make it to their teacher, in person, at some time when it might do the most good. They will refrain from calumny because, were they the teacher, they would not want to be so calumniated.
However, all these good students--the contemplative uninterested, the spirited disdainer, and the conscientious objector to calumny--may be checked by a consideration of the good, which it is also a duty to support. Good students can easily see, as easily as poor ones, that where such evaluations are instituted, they have some effect. Consequently, if they think their teacher is good, they are faced with a dilemna. To refuse to participate in calumny is right, yet not to will subtract the support their approval will contribute to the tabulations that decide or affect the fate of their teacher. Reputation is rumor, opinion is a nothing, and popularity not worth a stick--no good person will seek them--yet perhaps no good person should ignore them. There's the rub; here doing right may add to evil and doing wrong may do good. We cannot lament the fact that young people meet with such moral choices; they exist in life, yet it cannot be a matter of pride that colleges deliberately put students in such situations, especially the best ones. It is the kind of thing a certain kind of tyrant enjoys doing. It is meant to break not the body but the soul.
Like most people, students talk a lot about others. It is very important that they learn to talk not only responsibly, so that they would not mind others doing to them as they do to others, but also critically with intelligence, and even benevolently, seeking the good for all, especially the good of learning. "Speak with your teacher first" used to be the rule on campus. With this maxim ruling, most complaints evaporate of their own effervescence, for the good reason that all human beings have a hard time complaining as fully, heatedly, and unjustly to the person they are complaining about as they do to another. Perhaps more important, whatever might be rational in a complaint will, thus stripped of static, be more likely to gain rational attention, and thus more likely to lead to improvement. The old procedure was for the student to speak first to the teacher and if not satisfied, to speak again to him and if still not satisfied, to speak to another teacher or to a dean, gradually increasing the circle conversing. Instead evaluations teach students to "speak to your teacher last." "Evade your teacher; don't speak to him; speak to others about him; and save up your complaints for evaluations" is their enticement. This does not secure improvements, is not designed to, and it does not encourage learning.
Nevertheless, the existence of such forms does teach students something. The anonymity with which the student is allowed to "answer" the forms" questions assumes that teachers are very likely to be unjust to students. It assumes that all teachers are guilty before any one of them has been proven to be. This is prejudice in action. By being a class vilification of all teachers, it is also a backbiting of each. And, in a way, a "front-biting," because the student knows the teacher will probably be shown the results. This is slander in action, just as much as scrawls on bathroom walls.
The conditions under which students are asked to fill out evaluations make all this plain. Commonly, the teacher is required to pass the forms out and to leave the room, for his presence might have "a chilling effect" upon students. Commonly, after the forms are done, not the teacher but a designated student is asked to bring the forms to an administration building, lest the teacher cheat. Commonly, the teacher only receives a copy of the results after he or she has turned in grades, lest the teacher grade unjustly. A certified copy is kept by the administration. After all, the teacher might commit forgery or destroy evidence. All parts of this common practice are known to all parties. The suspicion of teachers is spread wide.
What all this teaches students is that teachers are untrustworthy. The college does not trust them; the administration does not trust them; and even their fellow teachers do not trust them. Indeed, teachers as a group do not trust themselves, for it is not a fellow teacher who administers the evaluations, gathers them, and carries them to administrators; students do. Moreover, the teacher himself, by acquiescing to evaluations, showing up to distribute them, leaving, letting students gather them, and so forth, shows he affirms these suspicions--both the general suspicion of all teachers and, thus, the particular suspicion of himself or herself as well.
Yet on most campuses, there is one group that is highly trusted as individuals and as a group, in situations where there is temptation, much to be gained, and much lost both individually and as a group. Of course, I am speaking of students at an institution where an honor code entrusts them with judging such things as cheating, plagiarism, and so forth. Such codes trust students far more than student evaluations trust teachers. What the innovation of student evaluations meant was that American Academe decided to trust not only the intellectual judgment of students more than that of faculty but their moral character as well. In the sixties, it was said: "Trust no one over thirty." The innovation of student evaluations says: "Trust no teacher at all." Every time an evaluation is given to a student, it teaches: "Do not trust your own college's teachers, especially your own teachers, the ones whose classes you are taking." Of course, students do trust their teachers. They have come to know them by studying under them. And in an elective system, they express their trust every time they elect a second course with them. Nevertheless, the evaluations and the acquiescence of their own teachers to them remind every student, however trusting and however grateful, "there's them and there's us." This works against the common good of all students and teachers.
What is astonishing is who teaches students to mistrust their teachers--the colleges and universities of the United States of America. However, they could not have done so, they could not have instituted evaluations, without something more astonishing--the faculty itself first agreeing: "There is us, there is them, and they are better." To the degree that anonymous student evaluations are substituted for faculty judgments of fellow faculty, the faculty is confessing its incompetence in matters of teaching and learning. The rapidity with which faculties adopted evaluations in the late 1960s was a remarkable self-judgment. It is the kind of judgment about which one can really say, "If you say so, it must be true."
The old ways through which senior faculty judged the teaching of probationers--reading their writings for class and publication, sometimes visiting their classes, keeping their ears open when their own students spoke, and above all getting to know the probationers, even indicating a willingness to serve as mentors to them--were superior to evaluations. (18) Like all arrangements that depend on human beings, the old ways were fallible, but they did not corrupt students, and, in recognizing the superiority of teacher to student, they supported the corporate authority of the faculty. These ways had been handed down from times with more teachers of reputation--when teaching was more honored by colleges, and when, judged by the achievements of their graduates, colleges were far more successful in teaching.
The faculties that voted in evaluations without much discussion had lost touch with the experiences of their worthy forebearers, in many cases their own teachers. None of the three opinions that made evaluations seem "self-evident" amount to much. Three feelings were far more important. Some feared that criticizing evaluations would suggest one wasn't liked by students, some looked forward to praise, and others feared the judgments of fellow faculty more than their students. The first feeling is weakness, the second only a lesser degree of it. The third, a "lesser evil" calculation, was, if true, a devastating judgment on the state of Academe. All three ignored the good of the students. (19)
It is time to reflect on the political meaning of evaluations. They are at once the consequcnce of a long philosophic revolution, the instrument within Academe that revolutionized it, and that may well revolutionize America.
Clearly, it is impossible to separate the moral and the intellectual effects of the innovation of student evaluations. In their conception, in their administration, in what they teach students, and how they affect teachers, knavery and folly make a pair.
Typically, such evaluations culminate in a comprehensive question, the composite score of which does the most to determine the teacher's fate. At many a college, the question reads: "How effective was your teacher?" Yet "effective" is not a synonym for good. Iago was certainly an "effective" teacher. And to have asked in 1940, "Who is the most effective man in Europe?" would have been to elicit the answer "Heil Hitler." The identification of effectiveness with goodness is the tyrant's apology, the Quisling's excuse, and the weakling's plea.
It is also the principle of the social sciences, whose ambition is to construct a "value-free" science of valuable things. It is no accident that evaluations have the same form as the multiple-choice tests favored by the social sciences and the polls that they employ in so much of their research. The world view of these promising or pretended sciences is based on the alleged distinction between objective facts, easy-to-know, and subjective values, impossible to know but easy to ascertain when regarded as expressions of opinion, satisfaction, or will. This distinction is a soft, academic formulation of the more fundamental and revolutionary distinction in Machiavelli between truth and effectual truth, more truly between truth and power.
In the fifteenth chapter of The Prince, Machiavelli passes off a momentous substitution:
But since it is my intention to write a useful thing for him who understands, it seemed to me more profitable to go behind to the effectual truth of the thing, than to the imagination thereof. (20)
This substitution of "effectual" for "true" loosed upon the world many "Princes," greased the skids that degraded first philosophy into mathematical physics (a science absorbed with efficient, at the expense of final and formal causality), and by cutting the philosophy out of political philosophy, engendered social science, rape of science and tool of princes. Yet Machiavelli was still a philosopher; he wrote "for him who understands." Effectual truth is still a part of truth, and virtu still a cousin of virtue. In order to found social science, what was needed was Nietzsche's experimental substitution of "values" for truth. Yet Nietzsche, too, was a philosopher, so he had to be gotten around.
By seizing upon values, but setting aside Nietzsche's great longing and his suffering, Max Weber founded social science. However, Weber's attempt to have a science of valuable things without asking, "What is valuable?" was not an advance in human knowledge. It cannot promote self-knowledge. "What's ought but 'tis as valued?" is the question asked by those who do not care for knowledge. Not to inquire they are proud. Such humans cannot know themselves. Nietzsche knew what moral fission he set off with the word value. The word evaluation, whose center is "value," is but one of the chain reactions.
Daily in American Academe the conviction gains ground that all Academe's once valuable parts are best ordered by the fundamental denial that there is a standard of truth by which they can be reasonably judged. On the wings of this light conviction, administrators rise,teachers sink, and students drift. No longing of the soul can be stirred by it. (21) Day by day, complacency replaces desire; flattery, truth; "evaluation," judgment. The difference between these is profound. Evaluations are the judgments of those who deny that judgment is possible. Unlike genuine judgments, they cannot be questioned. When the administrators become the rulers of all or all the rulers become administrators, the new Academe will be perfect.
The intellectual abdication implicit in this creed is colossal. It is not, I think, excused by the abdicator's indifference to intellect. Nor are its effects invisible. In American Academe, more and more students, studying with more and more teachers, learn less and less. The cause is intellectual and moral; it was a choice. In American Academe, the happy Positivist played whiffler to the puzzled Relativist, who in turn gave way to the grim and resolute Nihilist. Now, the insipid Last Teacher is ruled by the Brave New Administrator. This teacher does not like his master; he is not happy, but he does not protest. He cannot; he has no intellectual ground to stand on from which he might counterattack, no intellectual Alamo to make a noble resistance in, and no country of the mind to take refuge in.
The innovation of student evaluations of teachers has had a political-academic consequence. While degrading the class of teachers, threatening all the probationers, and sometimes punishing the aspiring teacher, student evaluations do not bring power to students. The great political beneficiaries of these forms are the administrators. When the administrators at Queens College started to institute student evaluations, the faculty resisted with arguments, evidence, and reasons, all to no avail. As the innovation was about to begin, one prudent teacher spoke for the faculty, much as follows: "You are right. How could we have not seen what a good idea evaluations are? Yes, let us have them, in every course, in every term, from every student of every teacher. What a good idea! Indeed, it is such a good idea, what reason have we to limit its scope? It should be university wide. Just as there are to be anonymous evaluations of teachers by students, so there should be anonymous evaluations of the administrators by the faculty. And likewise, of course, just as the continuance, the promotion, and the salary of the teachers will depend on the composite student evaluations, so the continuance, promotion, and salary of the administrators will depend upon the faculty evaluations. Surely no one can object to this. What a good idea." The result of this speech was that not another word was heard from the administrators about student evaluations.
The political truth in this exchange is so evident that it is incredible, with the number of political scientists in American Academe, that no one noticed the revolution that evaluations constituted. (22) Academe is filled with professors who wonder how cultivated Germans could have acquiesced to Hitler and his "final solution" for their fellow Germans who were Jewish. Admitting a difference between threats to life and threats to liberty, one might ask how the American professoriate could surrender its corporate liberty so easily. Did the old acquiescers not care about the young teachers? One may hope that when in some future time children ask their parents, "In those days, how many teachers did you take in?" that there will have been many rescuers and few squealers--and, of course, plenty of teachers, ones worthy of persecution. (23)
In modern institutions, totalitarian or liberal, whoever has files on others without being "filed" by them rules. Thus, whoever has files on teachers will rule them; student evaluations provide a steady flow to such files; and offical "Self-Studies" provide a regular food, especially where the lower committee solicits anonymous criticism of fellow faculty, which the higher committee may then call truth, which in turn justifies the selective changes the administration has long been premeditating. Thus, today in American Academe, the non-teachers rule the teachers. It used to be that college presidents and deans could give a good speech on education, that they often taught courses or if they did not, they were missed in the classroom. Not any more. The typical administrator of today is not missed in the classroom, and does not miss it. It should not surprise us then that these nonteachers rule through subornation of calumny in those who most naturally might feel respect, or admiration, or gratitude toward their teachers. What is astonishing is that the teachers permit this interference with learning and acquiesce to this degrading despotism. On most campuses, a single vote of the faculty could sweep it away.
That seems easy. However, it would require an esprit de corps that has not existed in Academe for more than a generation; salary and fringe desires, the foundation of a labor union, are not enough; only a shared experience of teaching and learning will do, and that disappeared with the fragmentation of the curriculum, through unlimited specialization and diversity, before the 1960s. Faculty conversations governed by the seeming deference "that's your field" and the real claim "This is my field" profit no one. The number of reading groups on a campus is the best sign of the state of the faculty's esprit de corps.
If that spirit does not return, if that vote does not occur, the American Academe that has been revolutionized by anonymous student evaluations of teachers may in turn revolutionize America.
When anonymous student evaluations of teachers are made the model of justice at large, all our old protections, built up over a thousand years, will be swept away. Our Sixth Amendment, which allows no witness to testify against us without confronting us in person, in the same room, will be "interpreted" away. No American court now allows a witness against the defendant to escape cross-examination by the defendant or his representative, but since this certainly might have what Academe now calls "a chilling effect," it will be righteously denounced and swiftly eliminated. Our courts require witnesses to swear, or affirm, the truth of their statements and suffer penalties for perjury. "But that puts witnesses at risk," it will be observed, and we will lose this ancient guard of our liberty. Our courts restrict opinions from witnesses, are chary of inferences, and prefer firsthand testimony about facts. "Free speech" will be the cry against these restrictions. No American court admits hearsay evidence, except under special, unusual, and limited circumstances. (24) "What about free speech?" will be the cunning plea and "Isn't it a free country?" the cunning complaint against these standards. Standards for expert witnesses exist such that no student, only a fellow teacher, would be deemed an expert on teaching in an American court. (25) "How arrogant," it will be exclaimed, "for anyone to claim to be better than another," and all the standards on expert testimony will vanish. Again, our courts insist on good manners, cooperation, and respect, and they cite offenders for "contempt of court." "Out of date, fussy, uptight" will be the cry disparaging this practice. Judges now become judges through long training and experience, and they serve "on good behavior" and can, in most states and the whole federal system, only be removed by impeachment and trial. But why should that be? If they are to be so "tenured," why not let defendants have a say in the matter. Let us have anonymous "evaluations" of judges. Indeed, why not have all judges "evaluated" by a cross-section of the citizenry that appears in the docket and removable by majorities after each trial?
In our time, the most notable institutions to pass laws encouraging and coercing calumny, including children against their parents, are the Soviet and the Chinese Commnunist regimes. That these tyrannies are abhorrent, that all tyrannies from the Caesars of old to the latest Idi Amins and Pol Pots have employed secret informers, and that precisely the most earnest, benevolent, and gentle teachers of humanity, Socrates and Christ, were destroyed by calumny--these are among the considerations that ought to persuade teachers in American Academe to abolish anonymous evaluations and convince free citizens in American to beware if they do not.
The current practices of Academe pose a question to the American people: Will Academe teach its new principles to America, or will America once again assert the rule of its principles everywhere in the Union? Either Academe will spread the rule of calumny everywhere in America, or America will restore the rule of reason to Academe.