Monday, July 13, 2015

"Treat people as if they were what they ought to be, and you help them to become what they are capable of becoming." - Goethe

Stephen Jay Gould, in 1981, wrote a book entitled, The Mismeasure of Man. From Wikipedia:
The book is both a history and critique of the statistical methods and cultural motivations underlying biological determinism, the belief that "the social and economic differences between human groups—primarily races, classes, and sexes—arise from inherited, inborn distinctions and that society, in this sense, is an accurate reflection of biology."
No matter how good the science refuting biological determinism, it seems like this debate between determinism and potential cannot actually be answered by science; or rather, that the social, cultural, and psychological beliefs by which we measure the science itself will (and should) always take precedence.

I cannot see the true potential of another human being through scientific measures alone. It would be like constructing an evaluation of the sound characteristics of a piece of music without regard for the context and emotion of the culture within which it was created, through which it is heard, and by which it impacts the listeners. A beautiful piece of music for me may be entirely different than it is for you.

Our desire to be rational and scientific presents pragmatic limitations when applied to people. Whether one is religious, spiritual, humanistic, or scientific, it's hard to argue with the degree to which the individual spirit often seems capable of overcoming any external assessment we might make. We also know that our expectations and beliefs about others can dramatically impact their abilities and performance (e.g., the Pygmalion Effect).

I don't believe that recognizing individual potential absolves us from carefully understanding, and working to address, very specific ways by which biology and environment shape human potential. It's just an unwillingness to believe that biology and environment are the only factors, and to be seduced or blinded by data.

Which is what's happening, in spades, in education.

Data used to help fulfill the potential of individuals is profoundly valuable. Individuals being taught to use data to assess their own performance and progress is critical. But data used as carrot and stick (or worse yet, as hammer), or with the belief that it tells you all you need to know, is a sorry excuse for the human work of helping other individuals. The further removed data is from its source, the less likely it is that it is actually telling you something valuable.

Why are we so increasingly trapped in a purely scientific view of students (and teachers and each other)? In part, because it's a shortcut to the real work of being with and supporting other human beings, of seeing their potential, treating them accordingly, and helping them "to become what they are capable of becoming." And in part because the scientific narrative suits those in positions of power and profit, providing the justifications for activities and products that purport to address their limited and shallow conclusions.

And, if we're being honest, it is in part because biology does impact destiny. Being short makes it hard to play basketball. Being symmetrically attractive does increase the attention paid to you. Being predominantly good at physical tasks was an advantage when life was lived mostly outdoors, and survival was harder--but now, is often a disadvantage (think of the student confined to a chair most of the day). Being good at cognitive tasks has become a huge advantage in the computing era.

But culture trumps biology, or at least it can, if that's a value we support. We do have schools with a core belief in the potential of every student, that work to help each student succeed no matter what. The good work of these schools is because of their cultures and their beliefs, not because they are scientifically run.

Gould's The Mismeasure of Man refuted biological determinism through the exposure of thinking fallacies (thereby using logic to refute "science"). My argument could be seen in the same way: sociology, perhaps, to refute "science."

But for me, it's more than that. It's a deep, core belief in the inherent worth and value of every person. That's a belief we have to decide if we hold.

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