26 January 2014

Measure

This week there is Giambattista Vico. In his On the Study of Methods of Our Time he writes that because of the emphasis on the physical as the only valid evidence of reality, “our young men are unable to engage in the life of the community, to conduct themselves with sufficient wisdom and prudence; nor can they infuse into their speech a familiarity with human psychology or permeate their utterances with passion.” I think that what he is complaining about (in 1708-9) concerns the failure of education to develop what Horace Mann a century later will refer to as moral value. Mann argued that the education in the common school would “protect society against intemperance, avarice, war, slavery, bigotry, woes of want and wickedness of waste.” I will accept the charge here that there might be a bit of hyperbole in Mann’s hopes for the common school, but it is an admirable educational ideal that the liberal education Mann advocated for the schools could realize. But not in this age of accountability and measurement. Because that learning derives in large part from the study of literature, history (not social studies), philosophy, sociology, psychology—what are erroneously called ‘the soft sciences.’ Isaiah Berlin writes that Vico’s ’s claim to immortality rests in the principle that the human being is capable of understanding him/herself because, and in the process of understanding the pastbecause he is able to reconstruct imaginatively (in Aristotle’s phrase) what he did and what he suffered, his hopes wishes, fears, efforts, his acts and his words, both his own and those of his fellow.” These can be found in the literatures and the histories (at least) that comprise the liberal arts, a curriculum in sore decline in today’s schools. 
            Here is an irony: at opening school sessions there is a great deal of talk about civility and how the University environment might support the development of a civil society. Of course, outside the university there is no place a civil society may be found modeled. Not even the churches and synagogues seem free of incivility and immorality. Certainly we find absolutely no civility in government. And while the university officials call for civility on campus they also insist we develop concrete assessment tools that will provide greater levels of exact measurement in our classes for our students, and that we ensure that our curriculum places students in jobs. In his play Helen, Euripides wrote “There is much that falsehood seems to make quite clear.” The technological education that pervades academia provides a clear perspective on a very false world.
            There is a wonderful idea from George Simmel that I found quoted in Adam Phillips’ book Going Sane. Forget the context of how I became engaged in that particular book, and the context of where the quote appears does not affect its relevance here. In his Philosophy of Money Simmel attributes to our money economy the illusion of precision about what people demand in the way of goods or services or from each other. Simmel argues “the money economy enforces the necessity of continuous mathematical operations in our daily transactions . . . evaluating, weighing, calculating, and reducing of qualitative values to quantitative ones.” Money has taught us to measure the value of things down to the exact penny. Simmel oversimplifies, of course: but perhaps now Elizabeth Barret Browning’s question, “How much do I love thee?” is now answerable in the most reduced and clear-cut terms. We might use the exact cost of the gift, or we might construct a rubric and measure the quantity on the Likert Scale from 1-5.
            I do not mean to argue the aim of education here, but instead to decry the absolute quantification of every aspect of my life that includes education: where I go everyday of my life.

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