A former student of mine, now grown-up and teaching, tells me that her school’s accountability policy involves determining standards to prove that one is “differentiating,” or “presenting the same information in different ways to meet the needs of learners who aren’t good at reading and listening.” I’ve just marked a paper premised on the fact that Matthew and Galatians are books of the Hebrew Bible (representing the religion of the Jews), while Genesis is part of the Old Testament (i.e. the bible of the Christians). My heart sinks. I should have differentiated! But on second thought no. One of our course texts was Nietzsche’s Antichrist, and it’s pretty much impossible for anyone to read that with care and continue thinking that Jesus is the god of the Jews. Not my fault; not this time anyway.
I’ve been thinking a bit more about why the new drive to accountability bothers me so much. The clearest (or most honest) statement I can make is that I believe the people who are judging us are not qualified to do so. My area is ethical philosophy. I think and write about the nature of goodness or responsibility – of accountability if you like. This means that the accountability people are on my turf; lacking training in the history of ethical philosophy — in the history of thought about the nature of response, responsibility, accounts, and accounting for things — they are nevertheless the ones making the ethical judgments. Not, granted, that they insist on making the decisions all by themselves. They haven’t gone that far yet. But what they do insist on is almost as bad, namely, that I provide an account of myself that can be understood by people who have read neither my work, nor the thinkers I work on, nor necessarily any thinker I regard as worthwhile. I am expected to lay out my standards and then to judge myself on them in the space of a few pages. Such an endeavour necessarily omits everything important. Because here’s the thing. The worth of my teaching and research (which deals, in its entirely, with the subject of “worth”) is complex. If it weren’t complex I’d be out of a job, and rightly so.
So it’s actually a Catch-22. If I could defend, say, my Religious Ethics class in two pages, then the class wouldn’t be defensible.