11/27/2013 02:43 pm ET Updated Jan 26, 2014

The Death of the Question

In 1968, Roland Barthes penned his famous -- some say infamous -- essay "The Death of the Author." Now something of an "elegant slogan" (as scholar Jane Gallop identifies it), Barthes' polemic called for a shift from the authority of the author to the authority of readers. In this way, the meaning of something (a book, for example) is made by many authors (the readers), not by a single author. The authorized voice, in other words, is not the final word on the subject. Soon afterward, a somewhat condensed version of Barthes' argument appeared on a bumper sticker. Emerging from the late 1960s' counterculture movement, the American-style soundbite declared, "Question authority." Both Barthes' theoretical assertions (written against the backdrop of France's own cultural revolution) and America's punchy declaration emblazoned on a bumper sticker insisted that authoring/authority is not a form of control but malleable elements to be questioned if a democracy is to be viable.

Such participation through questioning is nothing new in the United States. Its history is shaped by oratorical debate in which proposing a well-thought thesis question intervenes in public discourse so as to persuade, provoke, and make change. The rewards and failings in American culture are due in no small part to this lively history. Importantly, academia is often the place where the rigors of this tradition are shaped and disseminated.

The "death of the question" in our education system thus carries significant consequence for the very ideals on which this history takes shape. What I mean by this is that the shift in culture from one that "questions authority" to one that demands data memorization for standardized testing asks the public to yield power rather than challenge it. Those in these transformative crosshairs are none other than the students of America. It is no surprise that university public-relations offices now prefer to identify students as consumers. However, their rhetoric neglects an important aspect of student life: that students are at once consumers and producers. They are a unique bunch in society in that they are simultaneously required to take in information and give it back in freshly conceptualized ways. Treating students as empty vessels who merely absorb in order to be unilaterally assessed underestimates both the student and the culture to which they will offer their talents.

With the topic of student consumption and rigid assessment a current and hot debate in the pages of higher-education journals, it is worth taking stock of what is at stake for the student. On the one hand, Alexandra Logue champions strict models of assessment so that students "learn widely accepted correct information." On the other hand, in an address to those of us who teach at universities and colleges, retired high-school teacher Kenneth Bernstein publicly expressed his concern about "No Child Left Behind." Along with the more recent "Race-to-the-Top" initiatives, Bernstein pointedly highlights the way that these directives enforce learning as consumption only. Learning thus emphasizes memorization of "correct" responses for multiple-choice exams. Hence, the model that Logue offers measures intellectual ability through marketplace sentiment in which student equals consumer. Alternatively, Bernstein argues that measuring intellectual gain requires a student to consume and produce in order to think independently and creatively. "Correct information" is not always "correct" once and for all, because, as Logue argues, it is certainly not always "widely accepted."

With critical thinking taking a backseat to a more functional and efficient method of learning, rigorous conceptualizing and strong writing skills have been sidelined by a process of regurgitating preauthorized answers. Students enter the academy, Bernstein warns, with a deficit in critical thinking, and with the expectation that their job (as it were) is to repeat exactly what their instructor imparts. In short, students entering college do not know how to frame a question, which, in turn, prevents them from constructively and critically questioning authority in order to actively participate in culture.

Universities (mine included) have lined up in good form behind these efficient modes of assessment. "Outcomes," "sustainability," and "value added" are buzzwords that academia embraces when describing education. The idea, of course, is that the best-prepared student is one who gives back without question, or, as Logue views it, repeats "widely accepted correct information." If Bernstein sets out in his letter to flag the critical shortcomings embodied in a new generation of student, his comments are also directed to the culture at large. A vibrant society depends on innovative if discomfiting ideas. Given the United States' rich heritage in which questioning authority is crucial to the process of equality and democracy, is it not important -- indeed urgent -- to question the way learning is authorized and to teach students not to parrot what I and my colleagues believe to be true? If we are to assess students' "outcomes" in the classroom, is it not incumbent on us to develop curricula and pedagogical practices to guide students in ways to pose critically effective questions? Is not a successful classroom "outcome" one in which students question everything that they have just learned?