Weighing, Measuring, Quantifying and Ruining Beauty

“But when the most scholarly of men have taught me that light is a vibration, or have calculated it wavelengths for me, or offered me any other fruits of their labors of reasoning, they will not have rendered me an account of what is important to me about light, of what my eyes have begun to teach me about it, of what makes me different from a blind man–things which are the stuff of miracles, not subject matter for reasoning.”- Louis Aragon “Paris Peasant”

When I read this the other night I had one of my rare “Ahah” moments. Aragon is right, just because we can measure something, or understand what something is, that doesn’t translate into what makes it important. At some point in human history, someone decided everything can be measured and quantified, valued and packaged for sale. This act of quantifying or valuing items has driven mankind to achieve great things, but it has also taken the love of creation away and replaced it with a different external motivation. This motivation has become so insidious that we no longer recognize it for what it is: greed.

I’m not talking about money, but that is how our societies have translated value, I’m talking about why we do anything. It seems to me that hardly anything is done for the act itself anymore. (I know this is a wild generalization, but that is what I do at 5 am.) We teach our children about greed in very subtle ways. We place a value on learning not by valuing learning itself, but by valuing the product of that “learning”: a grade. The grade becomes the valued outcome and learning is soon tossed aside. I’m not suggesting that learning is no longer valued, it is, it just isn’t measured. We have convinced ourselves that learning can be quantified just like light. It can’t.

In my opinion, which is the only opinion that has real value in this little rant, learning and beauty are closely related because neither can really be measured in a true way. We can develop testing instruments, but when it really comes down to it something beautiful is just beautiful. The most beautiful things I have read, seen, and experienced cannot be explained in any true sense. They cannot be quantified.

Somehow mankind has convinced itself that we can quantify learning; we can measure it, weigh it, place a grade on it, and eventually turn it a monetary value. Somewhere along the way we have lost the purpose of learning, or we have changed the purpose of learning from something of value  in itself into a commodity. That commodity is a job.

In America the end goal of all education is a job. There it is, I just wrote it. Why else would you learn anything? If you can’t put a number on it and place a value on it, then it isn’t important. If you don’t need it to become a working citizen in our country, then why learn it?

This mode of thinking might have helped during the industrial revolution, but today people need to understand that learning itself should be valued again. We don’t know enough about the future (and I’m not talking about the Blade Runner/George Jetson world of  the future, but the real world of change) to truly prepare the workers of the future. We should be training students to work outside of the box, to think critically, and to wonder, but instead we keep narrowing the box and making the box smaller and smaller in hopes that someday we will have the highest test scores in the world. What a wonderful goal: #1 in testing.

It reminds me a bit of training a basketball player to be great by making them shoot 10,000 free throws a day. That player may be able to knock down 99% of those free throws, but if they can’t play the game, and play the game creatively, then they will never end up on the free throw line anyway. While the player may be the best at shooting free throws (which is a valuable commodity in a game of basketball) the skill itself doesn’t translate into the real world. In the real world a great basketball player can see the defense, adjust, dribble, fake, and get fouled. Only after being fouled does the practice of shooting free throws matter.

I believe our educational system is shooting free throws. We are adding up our makes and misses, people are judging how many of our free throws are made and placing a value on those shots, and then we find out that China is shooting more free throws than us, so we shoot more so we can be the best free throw shooting nation in the world. What America hasn’t figured out is what made American basketball the best. It wasn’t the free throw shooting. It was the creativity of our game. It was the ability to adjust in mid-air. It was seeing the open man before he was open. We became the best because we played and loved the game for itself, it is the only reason people put 10,000 hours into something, because they love it.

We don’t love learning (basketball) anymore. We love what learning gets us: a job, money, security, a 401k, insurance… but learning itself has been sullied by an emphasis on measurement. We have moved away from valuing the beauty of learning and bought into the idea that learning has to have an end to justify it, it has to be measurable.

A scientist might be able to tell me how the sunrise is formed, but they can’t tell me why it is beautiful. Oh, they can probably make a rubric that would break a beautiful sunrise into pieces to measure its beauty, but who would want to ruin a sunrise by trying to measure it?

Learning is the stuff of miracles; it is light.


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