We value only what we can measure

26 Jun

In all the literature I have read, I know of few statements more profound than the following quote from St Exupery’s Little Prince:

The wise fox

My secret is this. It is very simple. It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye

Our modern society has embraced the scientific epistemology with such unrestrained enthusiasm that it has almost completely forgotten that there are more ways of understanding the world than through the five senses or logical deduction. I could write much on this, but Ronald Barnett has already penned such astute words on this topic that I will let him do the honours: (from “Being a university”, p.15)

This is an age of explicitness. Matters have to be susceptible of measurement, of precise descriptions, and of rules, performance against which can be ascertained with objectivity. The assumption at work is that the world is completely available to man’s purview: ‘transparency’ becomes a watchword of this order.

It is assumed that, given enough time–though time is seldom on one’s side–a full inventory of the world could be made. No entities should or need be left unattended. All can come into our descriptions and measurements. The whole world, the whole universe indeed, can be accounted for.

This is both a modern (that is, post-seventeenth-century) way of understanding the world and man’s relationship to it, and it is a particularly Western way of thinking. On both counts, it is also associated with a scientific outlook and the rise of secularism.

In all this, there is a certain arrogance, with its sense that man can be the measure of all things; that nothing can or should escape his gaze. There need not be nor should be any mystery left in the universe.

So what is mysterious? What alludes our measurement instruments? What is commonly discounted as random noise because of its elusiveness? We have some words for some mysteries, but none for most. One of these is love. Another is happiness. Despite the enormous body of scientific literature on these two constructs (especially the latter), their complete absence from any common measure of pedagogical quality speaks volumes on how mysterious they remain, and how undervalued they are in our secular culture.

And while I am on the topic of pedagogy, I will let Barnett conclude with these words from the same chapter as above:

If this holds for the natural world, then it assuredly holds for man’s invented social institutions such as universities. The very idea of mystery is repudiated. It has been expunged from our formal language. Universities are now matter-of-fact places. Missions have explicitly to be set out; learning outcomes have to be stated; assessment rules have to be made fully transparent; likely employment routes have to be specified; the impact of research has to be spelt out even in advance of conducting the research; accounts have to be rendered and risk has to be computed.

Universities are no longer permitted to be places of mystery (note: in the first chapters, Barnett explains that medieval universities were places of mystery), of uncertainty, of the unknown.

The mystery of universities has ended.


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