Aristotle and the “Box”

November 14, 2010

A curious thing, this box that I am constantly being asked to think outside of. Coming soon: an analysis of the box using Aristotle’s four causes.

Pursuant to the previous post, the commodification of scores as cultural capital continues unabated, and the real pursuit of learning is further obfuscated. In a recent New York Times article, Susan Dominus (2009 – link below) chronicles the life of Suzanne Rheault whose company, Aristotle Circle, “connects school, testing and admissions experts, who are paid by the hour, with parents eager for authoritative information. So far, she is marketing expertise mostly for people applying to private schools for their children, perhaps because those people are more likely to shell out up to $450 an hour to talk to someone who knows something about what Spence [an elite private school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan] likes to hear in an interview (2).

Ms. Rheault tells the story of one of her experts, an admissions officer, who was treated to a fancy breakfast by an ex-boyfriend’s sister who was desperate for advice. The officer felt she couldn’t say no when asked; but “honestly, I’d have rather had the money,” she told Ms. Rheault.

Why should everyone pussyfoot around with expensive breakfasts and cringing favor-trading? At business school, they teach you to put a price on it. In a world that caters to some of the country’s most successful financiers, it’s amazing it took so long for someone to find a way to set the market value of that former PTA president at Dalton (not an actual example, but a potential one).

In an even more controversial move, Ms. Rheault and her business partner, Suzanne Starnes (also of M.I.T.), have worked with their experts to create — yours for $500 — an E.R.B. prep workbook, with every element of the test in it. They don’t call it intellectual enrichment, or a learning kit, or educational games; right there, on the cover of the workbook, it says it clearly: “Pre-K and Kindergarten Standardized Test Practice.” Whatever you think about “pre-K” and “test practice” appearing in a phrase together, you have to give Ms. Rheault credit: At least she’s calling it like it is.

I am reminded of Eric Fromm’s definition of homo consumens and the pursuit of pursuing whatever gives one social capital and emotional respite:

Homo consumens is the man [sic] whose main goal is not primarily to own things, but to consume more and more, and thus to compensate for his inner vacuity, passivity, loneliness, and anxiety.  In a society characterized by giant enterprises and giant industrial, governmental and labor bureaucracies, the individual, who has no control over his circumstances of work feels impotent, lonely, bored, and anxious.  At the same time, the need for profit of the big consumer industries, through the medium of advertising, transforms him into a voracious man, an eternal suckling who wants to consume more and more and for whom everything becomes an article of consumption – cigarettes, liquor, sex, movies, television, travel, and even education, books, and lectures.  New artificial needs are created and man’s tastes are manipulated. (Fromm , 32)

Article link:

Fromm reference: Fromm, Erich. 1981. On Disobedience and Other Essays. New York: Seabury Press.

Faith has proved an interesting phenomenon in the history of human society. It has variously given people personal solace, brought groups together in fellowship around shared moral beliefs and spiritual rituals, acted as a surrogate for cosmology in pre-scientific times, and also manipulated people into ignorance, hatred, discrimination, war, and servitude. Mixed bag, really, if we are honest. Faith also operates at the level of secular civil society reflected in our beliefs about capitalism, democracy, science, and how we conceive public education – what is taught to whom, how it is taught, and how it is determined whether knowledge has been acquired. This leads us to one of the more dominant of American faith systems namely our belief that if we can attach a number to something then it must be true. Through its birth in the 19th century and aggressive expansion in the 1920s within the context of public schooling (Harold Rugg famously referred to this period as an “orgy of tabulation”), it has become a perennial mainstay of our educational policy and practice. What I find perplexing is that on the one hand most see tests as routinized tasks, part of the ritual of schooling connected to competition for grades, class rank, grade promotion, etc., and not necessarily connected to what we actually know and can do. When I ask my students, for instance, if they have ever crammed for a test only to have not the foggiest recollection of the material two weeks later, the overwhelming answer is in the affirmative. They then usually go on to say that what they really know is usually engender by hands on activity, or out of personal interest, or connection to a family member of some other sort of mentor. However, on the other hand they actively or tacitly support political figures who equate high test scores with what will make us economically competitive, and posit that tests are how we will hold teachers and students accountable to the general public for their performance, their merit. They are also quite deferent to the authority of psychometricians as a somewhat mystical expert culture. So it seems intuitively for most that rote methods are not how we learn and that tests do not necessarily correspond to actual knowledge, but that this not enough cause for us to challenge their actual use in measuring knowledge and, let us be truthful, determining real estate value and making certain publishing companies a lot of money. There is also a seeming suspension of criticality concerning ramifications, such as real pedagogical inefficiency, ineffectiveness, and irrelevance, not to mention the emotional toll the testing regime takes on students and teachers (“won’t somebody please think of the children?” – the sad thing is that we force this sort of pedagogy especially upon populations that are usually underserved by our system of public education in terms of resources and approach.)

Being a more philosophically pragmatic sort of guy, I tend to find practical everyday truth as being in the pudding, so to speak. If you know how to make an omelet, depending on what we determine the constituents of an omelet to be, and the omelet you make me meets the latter criteria, then your truth claim is borne out. If correct ingredients are properly cooked and seasoned I will gladly eat the omelet. Experimental science, finds its truth (lower case “t”), in the result, in what the data reliably reveals about our natural universe. It may lead to complications, further questions, uncertainties, and complexities, but it is deemed to be true within a given parameter concerning probability, and through its continual confirmation. The question at hand is whether these tests reflect nothing more than an ancillary byproduct of applicable knowledge, knowledge in use gained through inquiry and activity or if it is related to something else, like specific preparation for the test itself. It follows that the possibility is one can know something and pass a quantitative test if the test is sufficiently related to the knowledge in question. It is also possible that one might not pass the test because the experience of a pen and paper test is sufficiently divorced from the actual activity in question as to be incongruent. Third and fourth possibilities are that a student passes a test due to the specific type of preparation, e.g., via short term memory acquisition, or that the student fails due to a true lack of knowledge either as defined by the aforementioned memory acquisition or actual applied knowledge. The problem is that the social scientists who propagate the various systems of testing cannot give an adequate quod erat demonstrandum concerning the connections of these tests to actual knowledge in a lived projection, hence the faith system. Although our intuition and experience may tell us one thing about the validity of such measurements we still prop up the practice without the benefit of any evidence concerning the relationship between the methods deployed to pass these tests, the validity of the tests themselves as measures of knowledge, and the connection of each of the former to a demonstrable knowledge. For instance, there is no evidence, isolated from the massive static of other factors like general life experience and organized experimental activity, that those who pass these tests can then go out and apply the material to a extant field of inquiry or problem. There is also no evidence to suggest that those who pass these tests could do so a year later, or a decade later, begging a serious question about the nature of what passes for knowledge. If these two questions, validity in application and longitudinal retention, could be addressed satisfactorily then I might very well quiet down, but until then, I refuse to take it on faith.

This being my first post I will keep it brief, and perhaps start off on the wrong foot, as I am wont to do. I muse on the following quote for two reasons. First, Dewey, much like the bible, Shakespeare, the various American Founders, and other canonical figures, is often quoted out of context in support of any old thing as to lend an air of authority, of gravitas. What I am presenting here is wholly without context for my second reason which is that I seldom get a chuckle when reading Dewey. Bear in mind, it is quite late in the day and I am a pretty much an easy mark for amusement. In Reconstructions in Philosophy (1957) he writes, “distance is an obstacle, a source of trouble. It separates friends and prevents intercourse” (118). Actually a rather good point regarding the pursuit of beneficial communicative acts, but on first read, and through tired eyes, I am such a child. I will try to make future posts more topical and perhaps even relevant to present issues.