Thursday, January 10, 2013

Writing to the Demographic, Teaching to the Test

My contention is that measurement, the very core of the scientific approach, becomes problematical when applied too rigidly to those areas of life where measurement fails to capture the most essential elements. Two such regions among others include the arts and education. How can we capture, in a quantitative net, exactly what a genuinely educated person is? How do we know that this painting here—or that television show—is art? The judgement, in either case, has everything to do with the individuals doing the judging. At best there is a kind of public consensus, more felt than measurable (e.g. as in counting critics or teachers pro and con). Far from all individuals will share the elite consensus, no matter what the individual's status is. In effect, as one ages, one finds oneself disagreeing with some elites while agreeing with others heretofore disdained.

Measurement physicalizes because it averages. It fails to capture individual uniqueness. Testing has its uses—in areas, perhaps, like guiding curriculum reform. As a measurement of a teacher’s performance, it sucks. The ability of a teacher should be judged by another individual—not by a group, and least of all a group of students. That’s a hard requirement. We want to mechanize,  routinize everything, template everything, impose a math-based cookie cutter applied to what we view as a uniform dough. Life is much more demanding than that.

In the entertainment “industry,” measuring by ratings, correlating content to viewership, the content itself classified into categories (sex, violence, relationships, urban culture, paranormal, etc.), each category appropriately weighted, produces the chaos of pop culture, where nothing of a higher sort emerges and the half-life of a series is often one quarter of a season—before it is jerked.

Underneath all this, of course, is Moloch Measuring: the measurement of money—be it investments in a show and calculating its return … or investment of public dollars in education by calculating expenditure per pupil. One could easily produce a neat TV series from this. Call it The Invasion of the Soul Snatchers. Combine art and education by defining the show’s locale as a grade school, a high school, and a University. Projected ratings should be good if sex, violence, relationships, urban culture, and paranormal are properly weighted in the resulting mix.

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