Sunday, November 18, 2007

On quantification, and keeping score (not a sports post).

The week before last, the New York City Board of Education released "A" through "F" letter grades for almost all (some were deferred for more evaluation) of the City's public schools. While something like 60% of schools received an "A" or "B", some of what are thought of as very successful or greatly improved schools received lower grades. I've already weighed in on this subject in Brooklyn Heights Blog (see comment thread under this post); however, I felt the need to say something more considered and philosophical about this issue.

Unsurprisingly, Louise Crawford beat me to the punch in OTBKB , with these astute words:

Report cards are reductive things. As [is] ... reliance on quantitative ways of assessing things. Numbers, numbers, numbers.

How high did you score? How much did you sell? How much do you make? How much? How much?

It's the American way.
But why is it the American way? Brighter people than me, like Alexis de Tocqueville, David Reisman and Philip Slater, have addressed this question. I'll recount three commonplace observations that, like most conventional wisdom, are useful if not complete explanations. Perhaps most familiar is the notion that Americans are obsessed with scorekeeping because we don't have a rigid class or caste system that simply assigns social status at birth (though anyone who thinks class is unimportant here should consult Paul Fussell). The fact that we can be both economically and socially mobile makes us keen to measure where we are with respect to our fellows.

The second notion is that Americans are attracted to quantification because we distrust subjectivity. To most Americans, subjectivity means favoritism, whether that be the favoritism in-groups employ to perpetuate their power, or the favoritism out-groups get by using the political process to obtain what in-groups see as unfair advantages. Somehow, reducing things to numbers, or to letter grades supposedly based on quantitative measurements, dispels these suspicions.

The third is that life is just too damned complicated for us to deal with all the complexity of evaluating the choices available to us in any meaningful way, so we look for shortcuts. "Experts" are happy to provide directions that will shorten our decision-making journey. Despite our inclination to distrust others' subjective judgment, we can trust these experts because they dress their conclusions in supposedly "objective", quantitative garb.