Sunday, June 10, 2007

Idolologies: Quantity

Idols are everywhere in the United States at this moment: without and within, overt and covert, condemned and praised. They are part of the human world, east of Eden. As John Calvin said, the human mind is "a perpetual forge of idols." Ideologies can be idols as well; call them idolologies. (It's not euphonious, but captures the problem, in a suitably ugly word.) Let me name one that is nearly ubiquitous in postmodern Western (and especially US culture): the idol of quantification and computerization. Or, more poetically, call it : the reign of Quantity (which was, I believe, a book title some years ago).

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).


Kevin Winters said...

Is "reason" not an idol?

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

Kevin, you are getting old. In the beginning was the Logos.

hobie said...

I am reminded of the work of Jerry Maguire: The Things We Think and Do Not Say. (And didn’t he get fired for writing this?)

Of course, ‘Mudge, you are correct that all reality is not quantifiable. I share your worldview, if in fact there is room for both of us. However, for every dark side, there is a darker side: qualitative research is much less decisive and much more ominous. Instead of number crunching, we get unprovable word-and-story crunching, very fertile ground for postmodern analysis (there’s your daily oxymoron). While I see value in qualitative research, and I’m on record on this blog that there is a place for story in the understanding of reality, I am not prepared to say that it substitutes for quantitative research as a way to prove stuff. That is not the function of qualitative study.

Now, your rant on school achievement happened to step into my ballpark. You appear to verge on a Nietzchean fit (yes, I do read your stuff) that student work should be quantified. My response to you on this: what you say may be true, but not if you say it like that.

I have to straddle the fence on this one (and unfortunately, the fence is uncomfortably high). First, education’s Age of Accountability, foisted upon us by a Republican administration (after being proposed by the previous Democratic one), mandates that schools teach children and that they prove that they are teaching children. Like it or not, proof in the Western world is a numeric act. And this reduces schools to a very behaviorist mindset. One of the biggest concerns we in schools have is that all of our quality is being reduced to government-mandated test scores. And apparently few researchers are willing or able to state how statistics of this sort can indeed lie, cheat and steal in regard to the education of children. But even the most hardened psychometricians will say this: The quality of a child’s mind cannot be stated on the basis of a single number.

Having said this, it should be understood that while numbers are not everything, they are something. And the data that has been collected and analyzed about schools does, indeed, tell detailed and reliable stories within their limits. As much as we as evangelical Christians may find this hard to understand, some “spiritual” acts can be quantified. Writing can be quantified. Attitudes can be quantified. And while the quality of a child’s mind may be in question, the fact is that we can learn much about aggregated children’s minds through studying numbers. Disposing of numbers is as bad as, or worst than, trusting them for the whole story.

“Teaching and learning is an art, not a science.” Why is this an either/or proposition? Is there a dichotomy here? Is not teaching an art that is confirmed and enhanced by science? Should we deny that research exists that informs us about good and bad practices for teaching and learning? And should this research not inform our practice? Maybe you need to moderate your stance just a tad.

We accept Scripture as the foundation of truth. While quantity is not the last word, it is still information. Is this not a biblical way to understand science?

We live in a broken world. Science (quantitative analysis) and story (qualitative analysis) are both invitations to “see through a glass darkly.” We must continue our struggle to seek the truth, but we must humbly recognize that it is and will continue to be a struggle until Jesus comes.

Jeff S. said...

When a baby is born, what is the first question people ask besides their name? Height and weight. When a bomb explodes we ask how many died. When a football game starts with a coin toss, we are provided statistics of how often the team wins simply by virtue of a coin flip. When my teachers ask me to write a paper, I can't help but ask how many words are required!

Yes, we are obsessed with quantitative language. But I'm not sure how else we would determine such things as how a student has learned. Even if we lived in a world without numbers, the teacher would still resort to using language such as "good" or "really good" or "this needs work" etc. Are quantities inherent in qualities when it comes to evaluating someone's abilities? I can't help but imagine a scale by which I rank abilities. Does "A is better than B" imply some sort of scale upon which A and B falls? We might disagree about the unit of measurement, but it seems the relation holds.

Yet, it scares me to someday (hopefully) be a teacher and have to assign someone a numerical grade for an essay! How do you do that?

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...


Number are apt in some cases, even necessary: word limits, weight of baggage, and so on. I do not given numbers to essays, but grades. Even these are limits. They were only invented a few hundred years ago. The comments I make are most important. If you are the Jeff S., I think, you know that I do that!

Kevin Winters said...

Groothuis, you are seriously anachronistic. John was a Galilean fisherman, not a proto-theologian versed in Greek thought. I thought authorial intent was important in interpreting scripture, yet you're making a fisherman into a Greek philosopher! I've dropped the name before, but here's a reference from Biblical scholar F.F. Bruce:

"No doubt the English term 'Word' is an inadequate rendering of the Greek logos, but it would be difficult to find one less inadequate... But if logos is not completely meaningless to an ordinary reader, it probably suggest something like 'reason', and that is more misleading than 'Word'. A 'word' is a means of communication, the expression of what is in one's mind...

"The term logos was familiar in some Greek philosophical schools, where it denoted the principle of reason or order immanent in the universe, the principle which imposes form on the material world and constitutes the rational soul in man. It is not in Greek philosophical usage, however, that the background of John's thought and language should be sought. Yet, because of that usage, logos constituted a bridge-word by which people brought up in Greek philosophy, like Justin Martyr in the second century, found their way into Johannine Christianity.

"The true background of John's thought and language is found not in Greek philosophy but in Hebrew revelation. The 'word of God' in the Old Testament denotes God in action, especially in creation, revelation and deliverance."
The Gospel of John: Introduction, Exposition, and Notes, 29.

Simply dropping John 1:1 is both too simplistic and anachronistic in its application.

Jeff S. said...

Yep, the comments are always the most inciteful. And yes, this is Jeff S. Safe Travels!!