Humans create machines for measurement: scales, rulers, and so on. But every empirical measurement obscures or ignores something. The height of a person does not gauge her mental elevation. The weight of a person does not speak to his intellectual gravity. But then came computers. Information becomes data. Data can be quantified. Quantification becomes the mark of reality: the measurable, the outcome, the payoff. Numbers can be crunched with staggering sophistication. Numbers are "objective," supposedly. You cannot argue with the numbers, supposedly. Numbers speak--and everyone must listen and obey. They are the oracles of our day. Idols need oracles.
Are you well educated? What is your GPA? It is a number. Are you intelligent? What is your IQ? It is a number. Are you well-published? How many journal articles are listed on your resume? Are you a good teacher? Let's look at the numbers on your student evaluations. (Come and see the secretary if you want their written comments, which cannot be calibrated; they are ephemera).
The better part of wisdom is knowing that is subject to quantification and what is not. The wise measurement of reality requires finding the proper norms. Each domain of life requires appropriate standards, as Aristotle told us long ago. The Bible tells us that humans judge by appearances, but God sees the heart, such as the heart of young David, who would become a great warrior, the King of Israel, and the psalmist unequaled. Jesus warned us not to judge merely by appearances, but to make a proper judgment (John 7:24). Let me give one example.
Teaching is a creative, demanding, and mysterious vocation. Learning is the same. I am not teaching unless you are learning. (Thanks to Neal Postman for this.) How, then, do we gauge teaching and learning? How do we chart "effectiveness"? We can worship at the altar of Quantity. Give "objective tests" (multiple choice and true/false) where students can guess the answer, get it right, and get a good grade. They do not have to produce an essay of intellectual and literary quality. They simply recognize isolated facts. Students may be better at "taking tests" than they are at learning. The two are not synonymous. Teachers can be "rated" by the numbers that come up on their student evaluations. Numbers that numb, even as they excite and intice. This is our fetish. "Do the math." "Let's do the numbers."
But teaching and learning is an art, not a science (social or otherwise). As Artist Lauri Fendrich has recently written in The Chronicle of Higher Education, "the greatest secret of education" is "one that no one, anywhere, anytime, can every chart: Only when there exists a mutual need of the student for the teacher and the teacher for the student can any teaching or learning take place" ("A Pedagogical Straightjacket," The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 8, 2007, p. B8.)
Moreover, the Christian teacher desires to elicit intellectual and moral virtues from her students. This cannot be reduced to a method, a timetable, an outcome. We must be prisoners of hope. A task of this magnitude and seriousness requires prayer, improvisation, hard study, learning through one's teaching failures, and (most importantly) love for one's students. (1 Corinthians 13; Titus 2:7-8) Love cannot be measured empirically. Wisdom for life is not subject to a numerical indicators: "Well, my WQ (wisdom quotient) was 89.3 before taking Groothuis's class; now I've tested at 95.7. Dude!"
The reign of Quantity is in the air and in our pores. This ideology/idolology has become our second nature and has chocked out much of how life ought to be discerned. Let us look intently for the idol's flawlessly-crafted fascade, sniff for its smell, and refuse its allures-in education and everywhere else. "Little children, keep yourselves from idols" (1 John 5:21).