In what fields do students learn the most? The traditional liberal arts demonstrate the highest gain in student ability, according to data from the 2007 College Learning Assessment test, with the natural sciences and math scoring slightly higher than the humanities and social sciences. Matthew Yglesias argued in a blog post last month, in the wake of the UVa debacle, that recent attacks on the liberal arts as being of little value are misplaced (reproducing a chart from Academically Adrift by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa (U of Chicago Press, 2011)). As this assessment data suggests, the humanities and social sciences, along with the natural sciences and mathematics, provide real educational value for students.
Yglesias proceeds to suggest that professors in the liberal arts should embrace quantitative assessment, as the data that they provide could assist them in arguing the value, even superiority, of the traditional liberal arts compared to more job-oriented degrees. As assessment demands become more pervasive within university systems, his point is important to consider. Assessment measures may help. Should we expend our energy developing them in an effective manner rather than fighting them? Of course, these assessments also miss many of the important things that go on in humanities and social science courses, so any development of assessment protocols needs to be wary of diminishing important soft skills for the sake of possibly minor bragging rights.