We live in an era when increased emphasis on standardized testing threatens to narrow the focus of education to questions that have predictable answers. Some of us might not see this as a problem. After all, an essential function of education has always been to make “the known” part of the shared knowledge of successive generations. We don’t, as the old saying goes, want to keep reinventing the wheel.
While we may disagree about what is essential for an individual in our society to know to be considered educated, no one would refute the value of transmitting accumulated knowledge. Civilization only emerged when we developed the capacity to pass on learned information, and is impossible without it. The problem arises when we forget that civilization is also impossible without education regarding “the unknown.”
We’re not referring to spirituality or mysticism, although they also emerged in response to the unknown. For now, we’ll limit our focus to the unknown that pertains to concrete, practical matters. This may seem a paradox, but if we take a moment to consider our lives we realize the unknown must be negotiated by everyone.
For example, how do we know what we are willing to die for? To kill for? These are not abstract philosophical questions when you come of age in a time of war in a country with a military draft, as I and my peers did. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that “if a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.” We know our society has been changed by people like King willing to put their lives on the line for their beliefs. What would have to happen for us to make such a choice? Until the second arrives when we must decide, the answer remains in the realm of the unknown.
The unknown also includes such questions as: What will my life’s work be? How will my life have purpose or meaning? How will I live with heart-breaking loss, disappointment or failure? What am I willing to do to succeed? What does success mean to me? Is this person my life partner? What kind of parent will I be? How will I handle catastrophic illness? Will I sign a do-not-resuscitate order?
The absurdity of standardized tests asking such questions points to their essential characteristic and chief flaw: by design, every question is a leading question meant to direct the student toward a known answer.
We are told they are the most practical way to measure whether or not a student has mastered the skills and knowledge he or she should have by a certain grade level. There are many educators who would argue that these claims are untrue and they make many salient points, too many to detail here. But even conceding (which we are not) that standardized tests are the best way to measure that knowledge which can be objectively measured, they are still completely impractical tools for measuring the quality of education.
That is, unless the goal of education is to make us better at taking standardized tests, a skill of no practical application after we graduate. A more practical goal is that education help people achieve success in life, however they define it. This would benefit the individual and society.
Sociological studies done in recent decades have repeatedly shown that there is no correlation between scores on SAT or other academic achievement tests and success later in life, however that is defined. What they did find, instead, is that success seems to be determined by a cluster of skills, including creativity, emotional intelligence, flexibility, perseverance and the ability to read other people: skills that are not measured with our standardized tests.
Again, the explanation for this is simple: standardized tests can only ask questions that point us toward the already known, that which can be objectively measured and proven by empirical evidence. This may sound perfectly reasonable, and it is. Such tests measure what can be known through reason. If we proceeded with the understanding that this is a severe limitation, there would be no problem. But we ask too much of these tests; we ask them to be an indicator of the quality of education itself.
This results in a narrowing of focus to that which can be objectively measured. It reinforces what Howard Gardner defines as the hierarchy of intelligences which, in our culture, values rational intelligence over emotional intelligence.
If it’s true, as the mountain of evidence suggests, that emotional intelligence is a far more accurate indicator of future success than intellect, then our society’s insistence on the superior value of the rational mind is completely irrational. The only rational conclusion to draw from the evidence is that those who insist on the superiority of intellect are moved by irrational forces, perhaps the most powerful irrational force: fear.
Perhaps, fear of the unknown?
There are certain unknowns where reason and objectivity should be brought to bear. If you’re running out of cash and gas and wonder if you’ll make it to your destination, those math problems you did in grammar school will come in very handy in calculating if your car gets enough miles per gallon to get where you need to go on the gas you can buy.
But for those questions that can’t be answered through reason, and don’t have predetermined answers that can be handed down from one generation to the next, there are methods, strategies, practices and skills that can be handed down to help us ask them of ourselves. All spiritual, philosophical, religious, moral and ethical systems or disciplines; every activity ever touted as “character building,” including athletics, military duty, team work, volunteerism; and all the arts are examples. What these develop are ways of being in the world, of navigating reality and not mere abstractions. They do so by cultivating our innate imagination and creativity.
“What!?” some people might respond, “imagination and creativity are about navigating the real world?” Yes. We’ll talk about how in the next Poetry Friday blog.