I know of a school in Europe it happens to be a seminary where there is no fixed term of study. The sense of calling is high, the demands upon students are remarkably heavy, and students graduate whenever they are ready. This averages out to something like three or four years, but, depending on prior experience and qualification, may be as little as two years or, not infrequently, never at all. I have heard of one student who was still trying after seven years.
I do not understand how a human-centered institution of higher education one not conceived as an assembly-line or information-transfer system could operate without at least some of this flexible, individual-centered character. If, as I indicated above, standardization tends to obliterate everything individual, the principle we need to set against standardization in order to hold the balance is recognition of the individual. Every individual follows a unique path through this world, and the teacher's failure to enter upon that path with the student is a failure to teach. This failure also makes any profound assessment of the student's performance impossible.
Inevitably, though, the objection is voiced that an individual, qualitative assessment of students is not even desirable, since it eventuates in merely subjective and often biased judgments. After all, who has not heard of doctoral students suffering irremediable loss at the hands of willfully antagonistic thesis advisers?
Nothing is more symptomatic of our age than this objection, with its implicit argument for unmitigated standardization. It would eliminate from consideration everything not measurable, which is to say, everything qualitative, which is to say, everything giving individual character to the human being.
Yes, educators can lose their objectivity; they can yield to biases of one sort or another. But in no domain do we solve this by denaturing human relationships so that the opportunity for bias and subjective error does not arise. We can overcome our subjective limitations only by . . . overcoming them, only by seeing more truly, more deeply.
We can, and should, try to build some checks and balances into the arrangement (there is a place for standardization), but to eliminate the decisive role of profound and healing insight because it may fall short is like eliminating the institution of the family because there will inevitably be instances of child abuse. It is to say, in effect, "Let's cease our striving toward higher things, since to be human is to err." And it is to lose sight of the fact that an unduly zealous drive toward "objectivity" and standardization is a drive to erase ourselves. We are, after all, not only objects but also subjects, and our subjectivity is essential to our highest potentials.
A teacher can genuinely assess a student's achievement but only by meeting the student, by traveling along the path with him. This is likely to prove wrenching, and there is great risk: the experience may transform the teacher fully as much as the student. The difficulty in it is the difficulty in confronting another human spirit, and it's all too easy to pull back in fear. Without a doubt, it's simpler to disengage from the individual and resort to the comfortingly definitive testimony of the standardized test.
All this bears on the transfer of credits between institutions. We do not have to impose diversity-killing standardization to enable student movement between institutions. If teachers know what it means to have a grasp of their own subject matter, and if they must eventually determine their students' adequacy before conferring a credit or a degree well, then, they must learn to determine their students' adequacy. Why do they need the reassurance of a certain number of standardized credit hours on a transcript? Is it that, like convicts putting in prison time, students must "pay their dues"?
Certainly a record of "dues" paid may be of some help. But the point is that personal knowledge, as well as standard measures, must be applied so far as possible from the very beginning. This introduces a balancing principle of flexibility, preventing a standardized system from simply crushing individual students.