Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Measuring what matters

I was listening to Freakonomics, and I found myself getting vaguely frustrated. It's true that they tease out fascinating truths from some of the data -- I love the stories about rooting out cheating teachers, and fixed sumo bouts, and ways of analyzing risks. But once they get to the whole nature/nurture question, and started repeating Pinker's conclusions (that parental practices have little affect on how kids turn out) I found myself getting frustrated. It's entirely possible that they are right, and that kids manage to find their way in spite of what parents do, rather than because of it. But somehow I doubt it.

I think part of my frustration is the realization that the things that I value most in people are not likely to be measurable in a standardized test. Is there are test to measure whether someone is capable of keeping a promise? Or capable of reading a text for sheer pleasure instead of for a school assignment? Can a sense of religious awe be measured? Or a the ability to read a face? Can compassion, empathy, friendliness, warmth, determination, creativity, or depth be measured? Come to think of it, is there any human capacity at all that really matters that the tests can gauge? Are the things that you love about your mate something that could be scored?

And yet, remarkably, these are all qualities that we can almost immediately recognize and appreciate in people. Like Pirsig's mysterious "Quality" (as described in Zen in the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance), we seem to be able to recognize all kinds of good things without having the foggiest notion how to quantify them.

When you consider the total paucity of tests of worthwhile things, you have to wonder how well we could possibly be at gauging our success at something as important as parenting or education. The studies may show that our ability to manipulate mathematic symbols or string together words is unharmed by broken families or corporal punishment, nor is it helped by reading to our children or being with them constantly in their infancy. But what does that really show? Does a man gain anything, if he gets his 1400 SAT, and loses his soul?


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