In my classes, I’ve sometimes called a student’s grade “that stupid number.” This periodic outburst has been borne out of frustration that some students obviously cared more about the numerical grade than about learning. When I would hand back papers, essays, stories, or poems that I had read multiple times, marked thoroughly and diligently, and scored as conscientiously as I could, I would see some of them look only at the final score and try to hand it back to me; others, usually fewer, would do what I hope they will all do: genuinely read my comments, and even ask for clarification on them. Incensed that my efforts at teaching could mean so little, so much less than the number that I am required to dole out, I sometimes have a minor conniption and call grades what they are: a stupid number.
But I can’t blame the students. They live in a world where numbers matter far too much. The advertised paths to success in life are achieved through numbers: GPAs and test scores lead to scholarship dollars to ranked universities and then to earning potential. All numbers. And social success is now measured by numbers of “friends” or “followers,” or by how many “hits” we can accrue on what we post. (As evidence of this, I get periodic requests on Facebook to “like” things that I’ve never even heard of.) This absurd desire to quantify success has led many people, of all ages, to believe – to genuinely believe – that these numbers matter . . . more than anything else.
In a collective fury not to be left out of the numerical craziness, too many adults buy right in, showing children how to live the data-driven life. Some diligently follow the latest polls and voting results, while they neglect to think critically about what the campaigning candidates are actually saying, claiming through some false wisdom that they only want to support candidates that can win. Closer to home, too many of us care so little for our own privacy that we allow corporations to keep and sell their own tallies of everything we do or see online. A few even buy gadgets and apps to monitor their physical activity and improve their health. Some people even choose spouses or life partners (or lovers on-the-side) based on a website’s algorithms and multiple choice questions! I’m afraid that, one day, people will be having their video-game high scores chiseled into their tombstones, rather than Bible verses or kind sayings.
About this trend, I am apoplectic.
The word apoplectic sounds like either a disease or a really complicated type of poem. Its root noun, apoplexy, really is a medical term: “unconsciousness or incapacity resulting from a cerebral hemorrhage or stroke.” Basically, if you have apoplexy then you blew a gasket in your skull, literally. However, the adjective form of the word, apoplectic, means that you are “overcome with anger; extremely indignant.” So, if you are apoplectic, then you blew a gasket figuratively.
Well, I am apoplectic about the new, digital-era/Information-Age fascination with numbers and data. I am angrily exhausted with the numbers being an end in themselves. I am dead tired of numbers being regarded as qualitative, rather than simply quantitative. That err in judgment is a problem.
Take politics, for example. Last November, The New Yorker ran “Politics and the New Machine,” which focused on the history of polling and the flaws in relying on it. Providing examples of the problems with polling over a century of American politics, the writer, Jill Lepore, explains:
Election pollsters sample only a minuscule portion of the electorate, not uncommonly something on the order of a couple of thousand people out of the more than two hundred million Americans who are eligible to vote. [ . . . ] A typical response rate is now in the single digits.
If this is to be believed, then saying that a candidate is “ahead in the polls” means almost nothing in the grand scheme of national politics. Furthermore, in an Internet Age when fewer people have land-line telephones and when it is illegal to do robocalls to cell phones, pollsters still need to sample both the left-leaning tech-savvy people and the right-leaning land-line types. They are trying “to figure out just the right mix. So far, it isn’t working,” writes Lepore. Yet, we keep paying attention to these numbers . . . when what we should be doing is listening to and thinking about what the candidates say and do— then voting for who we believe in.
In education, the inherent problem with the numbers is equally apparent. While the socially important numbers are a means to an end – a high ACT score or GPA can open doors that might be otherwise closed – they are not a measure of the quality of the person thus described. A person with an ACT score higher than mine is not consequently a better person than I am, nor should it even be assumed that he is better educated. I’ve spent more than a decade around students who have high ACT scores and who have taken and passed AP exams, and I’ve been baffled at how many couldn’t answer basic questions about Western culture and current events— because they focused on “achievement,” not learning. The modern AP craze is not based on learning, but on numbers: a passing score yields college credit hours, which saves the family money. When a number is a façade, not an indicator, the assumptions about that number’s validity become false.
These ideas of mine, about how life ought to be lived, are also the root of my apoplectic attitude about the current trend of having students to do “service hours.” Through the process of quantifying something as wonderful as service to others, we have taught younger generations this: if you are physically present for a certain amount of time while something meaningful is being done, then your obligation to society has been met. And that’s just not so. I don’t care if a person performs a required task for a hundred-thousand-million hours, if the spirit of serving others isn’t in his heart, then all he is doing is going through the motions, which is as empty as simply closing his eyes during a prayer. I get why some schools require “service hours” – because many students won’t do anything that isn’t required – but trying to teach the merits of service in that way only makes service into another burdensome assignment with a quantifiable end-result. “I got my hours,” says the student, to himself and to his parents.
In early March, The New York Times featured a CEO named Joshua Reeves in their Corner Office interview, and I particularly liked his answer to the question, “How do you hire?” He said this:
In school, it’s very clear what success looks like. There’s a framework called grades, and that measures success. In life, there is no rubric or metric. A lot of individuals wrestle with that transition. If people don’t spend the time to be introspective and figure out what they actually care about, then society will give you the only remaining rubric, which is how much money you have. And that does not equal happiness, as people can attest to time and time again.
Shortly thereafter, in answering about his advice to new college graduates, Reeves said:
One of my most straightforward ones is that everyone’s always thinking about what job is best. They want the answer. I try in many ways to just communicate that there is no framework anymore, and it’s about actually trying things, discovering.
And, my good friends, “trying things” and “discovering” can’t be quantified.
The idea of a leading a good life is qualitative, not quantitative. Nowhere in the Holy Bible, nor anywhere in Church doctrine or catechesis, does it tell me how many times exactly I have to pray or to confess or to attend Mass. There is no cut-off score for getting into Heaven. And my wife, who loves me, has never put a numerical qualifier on her satisfaction with our marriage: no salary dollar-amount, no number of times that I wash the dishes. And I can say with great certainty that my faith and my marriage are two of the best things in my life.
Goodness isn’t measurable— but it is recognizable. You won’t find goodness counting your footsteps or your calories. You can take pride in your GPA, but that abbreviation doesn’t stand for Goodness Point Average. And, to be frank, there is no goodness in taking pride in counting your money; we call that greed. Count anything you want, live by the numbers, but you won’t find the answer you’re looking for. (The novelist Douglas Adams even made the penultimate literary joke by having the answer at the end of his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to be “42,” leaving the baffled travelers to wander away, even more confused.)
If you ask me, a good life resides in unquantifiable things: faith, love, kindness, charity, hope, service, learning, wisdom. Each day, when I go to meet my classes, my goal is leave those young people better off than I found them, more knowledgeable, hopefully a little wiser. For me, teaching is about service to others and hope for the future. No matter how many people see me as a mere number-giver, and no matter how apoplectic I ever get about those people, they can never take away from me what I know to be true: education is about the improvement of the individual, which should then contribute to the improvement of society. True education has not been, nor will it ever be, about those stupid numbers.