What's next, hall passes?

A decent mechanic would never presume to know everything about your car’s engine by checking the oil. A decent doctor would never draw a conclusion about your general health by taking your blood pressure.

But somehow, the Commision on the Future of Higher Education is deciding whether mandating standardized tests at the university level will prove that students are learning and ensure that they will be able to do America proud after college.

Presuming to quantify students’ learning with a standardized test is an insult to the spirit of academia. Especially at a university as intellectually diverse and outstanding as Carnegie Mellon, what could standardized testing possibly reveal? That computer science majors are clueless when it comes to the Stanislavski method? That creative writers can’t engineer software? What a shock.

President Bush trying to reform higher education is like Bill Clinton writing a sexual ethics policy, or William Howard Taft publishing a diet book. Even if it’s good advice, consider the source.

Although public institutions like the University of Pittsburgh will be most vulnerable to such tests, private colleges are not untouchable. They receive public funding and would be susceptible to the same leverage as public institutions, such as accreditation by groups authorized by the federal government.

The commission’s chairman has claimed that such tests would provide a “standard format” by which higher education could be held accountable and would also allow for colleges and universities to be compared more easily. Margaret Spellings, Bush’s secretary of education, thinks that prospective students need this extra information in order to choose a university. Considering the extensive research most students conduct when searching for the right college — consulting the College Board and Princeton Review, visiting campuses, scheduling interviews — it seems the Bush administration is the only uninformed party.

Robert Zemsky, a member of the federal commission and professor at the University of Pennsylvania, was quoted in The New York Times as saying that “higher education is about to learn ... that they can’t play the ‘trust me’ game anymore.”

That’s an awfully hypocritical claim from an administration that has asked for its constituents’ unequivocal trust on issues such as shoddy foreign intelligence, state-sanctioned torture, and unlawful wire-tapping.

The Bush administration has always taken a sickeningly commercial attitude toward education. Like No Child Left Behind, the imposition of mandatory standardized tests on colleges and universities would only underscore the administration’s emphasis on superficial results, not the rich uniqueness of the process.

College students are not commodities, and we should not tolerate being treated as such. The learning that takes place in college is not like the general instruction of high school. It’s far too specialized to be filled into a lettered bubble with a number-two pencil.