SIN OF THE MONTH • BY ABBY BARDI
Thirty-something years ago, I had a serious illness. When it was over, I decided it would be a good idea to pay more attention to my health. I quit smoking, a habit I had picked up when I was twelve, and started reading books with titles like “Let’s Get Well.” Some of these books recommended high doses of various vitamins, so I began swallowing large handfuls of B Complex, C, and E, as well as taking a daily “megadose” multiple.
At around that same time, I met the man who would become my ex-husband. While there were many good reasons that he would become an ex, there were also good reasons I married him, and one was that he was a lateral thinker. (Another was that he is extremely intelligent, and thus, so are my children.) He saw me taking all these pills and asked what I was doing. I said I was optimizing my health.
He suggested that I should be getting my nutrients from actual foods. I scoffed at this, but he posited that (1) perhaps nature knew more about optimizing health than vitamin manufacturers did, and (2) perhaps there were nutrients in food that were not replicated in the vitamin pills.
It turned out he was right about this: nowadays, health-care practitioners are aware of the importance of “micronutrients” and other trace elements in the human diet. When I was growing up, however, it seemed quite likely that in the future—which we thought would be exciting—we might derive all our daily nutrition from a pill, or at least something like Space Food Sticks, an “energy snack in rod form” developed in the late ‘60s. Originally for astronauts, these tasteless little rods caught on with the public, and I’m sure we all thought that eventually, all our food would be miniaturized, engineered, and efficient, yet as refreshing as Tang.
Though we didn’t realize it at the time, we were totally right about Space Food Sticks: their concept would catch on and sweep, epidemic-like, through American culture. What we did not predict, however, was that it was not the sticks themselves that would catch on, but the Space Food Paradigm: the idea that everything we need can be condensed, compressed, and marketed, an assumption predicated on the idea that everything important can be counted.
“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”
—sign on Albert Einstein’s office door
Space Food thinking is often evident in analyses of the economy. For the past decade, most of us, i.e., people who are not rich, have noticed that the economy has sucked. Wages have been stagnant, the job market has stalled, and the only way most people have maintained the lifestyle to which they’d like to be accustomed was through maxing out their credit cards and borrowing against their home equity.
But for much of that time, according to economic indicators, i.e., things that could be counted, the economy was doing fine. For example, in 2006, Bush’s chair of the Council of Economic Advisors, Edward Lazear, declared that despite “a significant decline in the housing sector,” our economy was growing “at an impressive rate”; this assessment was based on the indicators of “a strong labor market and increased exports.”
Of course in retrospect, we can see that Lazear was looking at the wrong indicators: that housing-sector decline was going to end up knocking down the whole house of economic cards. The problem with his analysis was its lack of trace elements, as it were: he had left out some key micronutrients.
Another example of rampant Space Foodism is the No Child Left Behind Act. As teachers, to whom no one ever listens, have been complaining since its inception, NCLB turns evaluation of schools over to “bean-counters”: it mandates that standardized tests “assess” what goes on in schools, i.e., count it, and then evaluate school performance based solely on this measure. The results of all this testing are supposed to motivate teachers to do a better job of teaching—because as everyone seems to assume, the decline in America’s global standing in education in recent years is solely the fault of teachers.
Of course, those of us who teach know that multiple factors impact student “performance” and “success,” and when teaching and learning are reduced to a limited set of “outcomes,” the scope of the educational experience is severely limited.
Mind you, testing can be very useful. For example, rather than just randomly popping handfuls of vitamins as I used to, I now take Vitamins B12 and D because blood tests have shown that I am low in them. Good to know. Similarly, I’m sure some economic and educational indicators are significant.
My point is that this is not the total picture. To find out whether the economy was in trouble five years ago, you could have asked any number of my friends and relatives, who would have told you they were getting laid off, having trouble finding jobs, or experiencing terrible wage stagnation (that would be me). To find out the answer to George W. Bush’s timeless question, “Is our children learning?” you could have met with some children, parents, and teachers and simply had a conversation.
But no, you may be thinking, we need to make “data-driven decisions.” Having a conversation is loosey-goosey and touchy-feely. Okay, guilty as charged. And certainly, you add, standardized testing can yield important information that can, in fact, be counted. Sure. But let me point out two things: first, the word “data” does not have to refer only to things that can be counted. Second, standardized testing probably does reveal something significant; the problem is, how do we interpret the results?
Take the case of a young lady named Hortense. You’re right, she’s my daughter. When Hortense was in 6th grade, she took a standardized test to see if she should be admitted to a magnet program. Hortense bombed the test—I know because I made the school show it to me. This test did in fact reveal something significant: Hortense did not do well on standardized tests. She did not get into the magnet program and spent two years being sneered at by magnet kids who had once been her friends.
Recently, Hortense, who has three Master’s degrees (that’s right, three), did incredibly well on her doctoral exam at Yale. This exam was oral—not standardized—and the people administering it had to “assess” Hortense’s “learning,” basing their evaluation on what was essentially a conversation. Hortense’s doctoral exam was not a Space Food Stick: it was an entire meal, designed to be eaten slowly and digested thoroughly.
Am I suggesting that educators should have a conversation with every single child in the public schools to determine whether or not they “is” learning? No, of course not, absolutely not, no way, well, okay, yes. It wouldn’t hurt. Should we stop counting things? No, not everything. We should count things that can be counted, while recognizing that things that can’t be counted still count.