15 November 2006

Johnnies Break Ranks

A friend drew my attention to the principled stance that St. John's, apparently alone among U.S. Colleges, takes against the U.S. News and World Report rankings. To me the statement seems basically correct, although much more could be said. Here is an excerpt:

St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland and Santa Fe, New Mexico, has chosen not to participate in any collegiate rankings surveys. We have asked U.S. News and World Report not to include the College, and we have not sent current information for use in the survey. St. John's College is opposed in principle to rankings. We want to explain to you some of our reasons:

Rankings do a disservice to students and their parents as they search for the best college. Making a decision about where to spend those four years is a serious and difficult one: we think that you need to know more about a college than the numbers used to come up with the survey results can provide. Rankings are almost always about popularity, prestige, and perceived quality of education, but they say virtually nothing about what happens after a student enrolls, that is, nothing about the educational experience itself.

Rankings attempt to quantify the value of an education. Although the collection and publication of information about such things as location, class size and programs offered is useful to students and their parents, the statistics used in the rankings do not offer that kind of information. How can the interaction between faculty and students be quantified? What kind of numbers tell you about the interests students discover as they explore new ideas and participate in scholastic and extra-curricular programs? Do statistics reflect the skills in thinking, writing and analysis that students develop during the course of a well-designed and cohesive program of study?

Over the years, St. John's College has been ranked everywhere from the third tier, to the second, to the first, to the "Top 25" among national liberal arts colleges. Yet we haven't changed. Our mission and our methods have been virtually constant for almost 60 years. We would rather be ourselves and have our college speak for itself, than be a part of this fluctuating outside analysis.

One needn't have scored well on the SAT or GRE to recognize that the following analogy holds:
U.S. News & WorldReport : colleges :: BrianLeiter : philosophy graduate schools
If we reject the application of the one, and perhaps blame administrators when 'the rankings' distort pedagogical decisions, so we should reject the other in a domain in which we have responsibility and are perfectly free to do so. The Leiter approach is simply the seeping up, now into a decision about graduate study, of a way of thinking about education and scholarship that we should be aiming to discourage. How odd, though, that we freely brought this upon ourselves.


Anonymous said...

Reed College has refused to provide information to US News since 1995, though they apparently have not asked not to be ranked.