James Wood has an interesting commentary over at the Chronicle of Higher Education about the recent efforts of Lumina Foundation (which is, full disclosure, a Monthly funder) to help define what colleges are supposed to do.

Wood’s piece addresses a fundamental question of American public policy: If America gives institutions incredible freedom to deliver services, perform explorations, and take advantage of public money, what should the country do when these institutions don’t do a very good job? Give them less freedom?

As Wood writes:

[The authors of the Lumina report, The Degree Qualifications Profile] are undertaking a challenging rhetorical feat. They want to lay down a tough national standard while simultaneously assuring the world of higher education that they scrupulously respect everyone’s right to do his own thing. Thus they deny that the Degree Profile [their capitalization] is an attempt to “standardize degrees” or to “define what should be taught or how instructors should teach it.” What, then, is it? Try this for clarity:

“Focusing on conceptual knowledge and essential competencies and their applications, the Degree Profile illustrates how students should be expected to perform at progressively more challenging levels.”

So far the Lumina framework is vague and illusive. There are five “reference points” to help create a structure for what could be national (though importantly not federal) standards: specialized knowledge, broad/integrative knowledge, intellectual skills, applied learning, and civic learning.

As Wood grumbles, “These make a certain rough sense, but I suspect the report’s carelessness with the level of abstraction will pose practical problems to anyone who tries to use this scheme.”

Well, they pose problems to anyone who tries to use the scheme exactingly, but as a vague structure they might prove reasonably useful, at least as a guide for preliminary discussions.

As I pointed out last week, the importance of the Lumina framework may not be the framework itself, but the fact that it could help inspire, finally, a real and meaningful discussion about what sorts of things colleges should produce in the four or so years they educate Americans.

The whole notion of creating a framework to address the ideal outputs of colleges is obviously rather synthetic. It could still prove rather valuable however.

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer