The Numbers Don’t Add Up

It seems like every time I turn around these days, I am asked to complete a quantitative assessment of something. We are just finishing one at Gutenberg College as part of our annual report to our accrediting agency. We were asked to assess not only student success in classes, but also a number of other attributes—from facilities to the adequacy of our lab equipment. I do not like completing quantitative assessments, but that is not the substance of my complaint.

The proponents of quantitative assessment believe that applying this method to virtually any aspect of life results in more objective and certain evaluation than is obtained by other means, such as qualitative judgment. Said another way, quantitative assessment is “scientific.”

Indeed, a standard criticism of quantitative assessment is that it would be even more objective and certain if only the social and political biases of the assessors could be eliminated. I will give away my age here, but a clear example of this occurred during Olympic events during the Cold War. You could depend on the Russian and East German judges to be biased in their scoring. At least, that is  what we in the West thought. (I suspect that the Russians and East Germans had similar thoughts about us).

But this criticism of quantitative assessment is not my criticism. Behind the view that the Russian judge was biased was the belief that if the bias of the Russian judge could be removed, then the quantitative scoring would be objective and certain. It is this premise, that potentially quantitative assessment is more certain and objective than personal judgment, that I take issue with. I reject the whole notion that quantitative assessment is superior to qualitative judgment. Consider the following example.

In medicine, when you are sick you go to a medical doctor who uses his skill to determine what is wrong with you. He developed this skill over years in medical school and honed it with years of experience. These skills cannot be reduced to a quantitative assessment.  If these skills could be replaced by a quantitative assessment, then it should be possible to replace medical doctors with untrained (at least medically) personnel who by following a quantitative method determine a diagnosis for a patient. To be consistent with their premise, the proponents of quantitative assessment should argue that untrained medical personnel, following a quantitative method, can give more objective and more certain diagnoses than medical doctors. That is the basic premise behind quantitative assessment. If the proponents are right, think of how much money we could save on medical costs!

However, if I am right about this, quantitative assessment is a flawed way of assessing any skill. I would argue that becoming educated and gaining knowledge entails becoming proficient at a number of skills including reading, learning a language, and speaking, to name a few. In education, improving skills is the heart of the mission. It appears to me that quantitative assessment is a deeply flawed way of assessing education or virtually any other important aspect  of life.

Now back to my assessments.

The Secret Knowledge

The Occupy Wall Street movement has certainly gotten a lot of attention over the last couple of months. If you will allow me to turn a noun into a verb for just a moment, I would say that perhaps the most “cliché-ed” picture that has come from the encampments is that of a scruffy, blue-jeaned kid, obviously without a job or he wouldn’t be there, holding a sign demanding that society pay for his college education. And equally cliché-ed is the guy in a jacket and tie walking by and saying, “Take a bath and get a job.” But underlying both of those clichés is a misunderstanding both of the value of a college education and what, in fact, such an education should be all about.

Allow me to quote acclaimed playwright and filmmaker David Mamet in his recent book, The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture (p. 16): “Consider college education which, in the Liberal Arts, and in the social sciences, or whatever they may be called today, is effectively a waste of money and time, and useless save as that display of leisure and wealth Veblen called ‘conspicuous consumption’. …Higher Education is selling an illusion: that the child of the well-to-do need not matriculate into the workforce — that mastery of a fungible skill is unnecessary.”

And then there’s the news this last week that China is considering phasing out those college majors that don’t show a strong employment rate after graduation.

With regard to the opening comments about the OWS movement, below the surface is the inference by the suited observer that it is the English, philosophy, and history majors who were living in the tents in Zucotti Park while the computer science, business, and pre-med majors are gainfully employed and productive members of society.

For the last century or more, the liberal arts have gotten a bad rap. And in most colleges and universities that is probably somewhat deserved. No longer are the liberal arts taught with the goal of training the mind in ways that allow it to be quick to catch on and able to be self-motivated in virtually any field. No more are the days when a moral education was valued as something that would be essential in helping to create good and productive citizens.

Gutenberg President Dr. David Crabtree, has written an essay entitled “Do the Liberal Arts Still Matter?”  In it, he offers a survey of the history of modern education and makes the point that, although a good liberal arts training is hard to find, it remains a critical component of education that is needed for society to be balanced and healthy. Higher education need not be simply vocational training. Indeed, I would guess that the vast majority of those who read these words and are at least ten years removed from college are not even employed in the area in which they majored. If our colleges and universities are geared to provide vocational training, they are doing a lousy job.

But an excellent liberal arts education, one which engages both the heart and the mind, is a thing of wonder and beauty when embraced by a dedicated student. The ability to analyze and to think clearly and to do one’s own research and to “play well with others” in discussions and interactions are all learned skills which hold one in good stead not only in life but indeed in the workplace as well. 

I can speak first-hand of two of my kids who attended Gutenberg and embraced the liberal arts education there. Both have found themselves on a path to independent small business entrepreneurship, one as a full-time and very busy photographer and the other as a bookstore owner. I had to laugh when asking my son a question, as he was showing a startling business acumen that belied his youthfulness. I asked him from whence he had acquired his very sharp business sense—his ability to make good and profitable decisions, to organize and to account for monies coming and going, and to do all the things that a small business person is required to do. I hoped that his answer would be that he got it from me. But alas, his answer was that he got it from his Gutenberg liberal arts education. It was there that he learned to think well, critically, and incisively. And that provided the very best foundation of all for him to have gainful employment as an independent small business owner. Plus he’s turned out to be a darn nice guy, living well and working well all at the same time.

The Love and Hate of Social Media

Gutenberg College visual on facebooktwitter

Although I have worked with computers and the internet since their early days, I have had little involvement with social media–until now. But Gutenberg College needs to find ways to reach interested students, so we have been thrust kicking and screaming into the world of “like” buttons and tweets. (Look at the row of buttons at the bottom of this post on our blog.) We are a strange enough little school that we sincerely want to discover ways to find those students who can appreciate what we offer. But for me, this necessary embrace of social media is becoming a strictly love/hate relationship.


The idea of social media marketing is tremendously appealing, because (in theory) it is based on a profound respect for human freedom. Don’t manipulate others and don’t sell yourself; just let the people who find you interesting tell their friends, who may tell their friends, and so on. As people like Seth Godin have pointed out, in the old days everybody watched the same three networks, and advertisers paid to thrust their ads in your unwilling face while you were trying to watch I Love Lucy. In this new world, however, the best advocates are those who like something and are willing to talk about it. If there is one thing that has united the teaching staff at Gutenberg College, it is a dislike of hype. A system where your friends spread the word for you sounds just about perfect to me.


So what’s the problem? Well, I’m new enough to this that I can’t speak with any expertise, but there are times when the new “lack of hype” seems like the old hype in new clothing. For example, let’s talk about freedom. Yes, anyone is free to click the “like” button or tell their friends about you. Since, however, those “likes” are so valuable, the temptation is very strong to manipulate people into clicking that button. (Today’s marketers count “likes” on Facebook the way yesterday’s advertisers used the Nielsen rating to count households watching TV.) I myself have felt the appeal when hearing a story about how some video went viral and turned someone into an overnight success. All it takes is one time! And so the pressure is on to paint yourself a little better than you are, to fudge here and distort there, and to put subtle pressure on your audience to join your advertising team–in short, to fall back into the old hype that we supposedly left behind.


I am in fact in favor of the changes that Gutenberg is making to its website and its way of reaching people on the internet. I still like very much the idea that someone who is perfect for our program may stumble across us by accident, perhaps by reading some comment a friend makes on his blog. I’m on board. But as Christians, we ought to value ruthless honesty and self-sacrificing love. May it never be that we become “like” button whores.

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