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Why Johnny Can’t Read or Win Wars

(Photo: Paul Downey / Flickr)

A specter haunts the halls of America’s schools and the corridors of the Pentagon. The specter is meaningless metrics, characterized by endless quantification with little regard to essential qualities. As a military officer and as a professor, I’ve witnessed this mania for measurement and quantification. How do you know Johnny is winning the war – show me the numbers. How do you know Johnny is learning – show me the numbers. And if it can’t be quantified, if your effort can’t be turned into some standard metric of performance, obviously your work is unimportant and therefore disposable.

Numbers are often neither definitive nor unequivocal, yet we continue to elevate them and profess our belief in them. The cautionary words of the economist Jacob Viner echo here: “When you can measure it, when you can express it in numbers, your knowledge is still of a meager and unsatisfactory kind.”

Consider here the Vietnam War. In 1973, in the wake of America’s defeat, the social scientist Daniel Yankelovich pilloried the US military’s obsession with quantification. As Yankelovich noted, “The first step is to measure whatever can be easily measured. This is O.K. as far as it goes. The second step is to disregard that which can’t be measured or give it an arbitrary quantitative value. This is artificial and misleading. The third step is to presume that what can’t be measured easily isn’t very important. This is blindness. The fourth step is to say that what can’t easily be measured doesn’t really exist. This is suicide.”

Consider Yankelovich’s first and second steps: the easy, artificial, and misleading metrics that characterized the Pentagon’s approach to Vietnam. The Army obsessed about enemy body count, the Air Force about enemy truck count (the number of trucks destroyed in air raids). Other metrics included the number of ARVN (South Vietnamese Army) troops trained, the number of villages allegedly pacified, and so on. These metrics became measures of success, or at least of “progress.”

But what truly mattered were not these largely meaningless measures, but the enemy’s will to continue the fight, the price our country was willing to pay to “pacify” Vietnam, and the moral damage the war was doing to our troops and to our country. Such intangibles defied easy measurement. And that which the military couldn’t easily measure it ignored or dismissed. Consistent with Yankelovich’s third and fourth steps, the US military combined blindness with suicide.

By focusing on quantifiable yet arbitrary and therefore misleading metrics, the US military tricked itself (and much of America) into thinking the Vietnam War was being won. Even worse, the military’s assessment calculus reinforced a racist tendency to treat the Vietnamese as inferiors – even as raw numbers. An amoral calculus bred overconfidence while making war crimes more likely. By focusing on metrics of destruction, the US military almost destroyed itself as moral rot from within, together with societal resistance, ate away at the very heart of America’s citizen-soldier ideal.

Energetic application of metrics to war has similarly brought us little success in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Despite denials by the Bush administration, Iraq witnessed a revival of the body count even as the countryside spun out of control. Similarly, progress in Afghanistan is tied to benchmarks that the Obama administration claims are slowly being met (even if progress is qualified with weasel words like “fragile” and “reversible”). Meanwhile, despite official government numbers to the contrary, the Afghan National Army (ANA) exists more in American minds than on the ground. Despite all efforts to fertilize it with American guns and money and training, the ANA still lacks cohesion, motivation, and combat effectiveness. Despite the numbers, its future does not look promising; neither for that matter does Afghanistan’s.

Quantifying to Distraction in Education

Much like our recent wars, our nation’s educational efforts are largely deficient or failing. Yet the proposed solution relies on more meaningless metrics, to include student scores on standardized tests, even when those tests mainly measure student conformity and rote memorization skills along with teachers’ willingness to teach to the test. Now President Obama, in his latest State of the Union Address, speaks of “College Scorecards,” issued by the government, to help students and parents get more bang for the educational buck. Once again, the almighty dollar is America’s ultimate metric.

Submerged by this and similar metrics is any sense of a higher purpose to education. Education, like war, defies reduction to numbers and ratios. So why do we insist on doing so? Here one must recall the secretary of defense during Vietnam: Robert McNamara and his corporate Whiz Kids. They promised to make the old war department run like a business. The country lost, but defense corporations won. Now let’s recall today’s secretary of education: the corporatist Arne Duncan. He’s worked to hold educators “accountable” and to boost student results in a metrics-based “Race to the Top.” So far, students and teachers are being left behind as corporate educational providers race to the top.

Bashing teachers’ unions and firing so-called “weak” teachers are often the true goals of educational metrics. That, and defunding public education while privatizing it. Metrics further tend to reduce education to a mechanical operation of downloading information into student skulls. And if education is simply downloading information, why not get rid of teachers and schools altogether? Just use “distance learning,” privatize the process as well, and measure the “success” using standardized instruments developed by – you guessed it – corporations.

A corporate-influenced, increasingly corporate-owned, educational system uses corporatist metrics to transform student-citizens into pliable consumers and tractable employees. That may be the future definition of “success,” and perhaps it already is, in a nation in which corporations are citizens with free-speech rights as far-reaching as their corporate coffers.

What’s missing is the old-fashioned sense of education as a public good, as essential to democracy. And not only essential to democracy: essential to living a moral and virtuous life, one in which empowered citizens can distinguish permanent from ephemeral, right from wrong.

Instead, today’s ultimate metric of educational success is not empowerment but rather employment. Education is reduced to training and success is measured by a post-college paycheck. Call it another form of body count: the number of (student) bodies who graduate with jobs. Never mind the ideals or morals of those students. Never mind their virtue. Those qualities can’t be readily measured, so we’ll ignore or dismiss them. The result: more national blindness and suicide.

The US military’s pursuit of metrics compromised our troops’ morals and betrayed our nation’s values. Today, the corporatist model of education, with all its fancy metrics, is supplanting the idea of education as a calling, as a public good, and as a creative path to the future. Once again, our nation is losing. We’ve already lost our citizen-soldier military, replaced by an “all-volunteer” (professional) military supplemented by private mercenary outfits like Blackwater/Xe/Academi. Now we’re losing public education and citizen-students, to be replaced by privatized educational providers and students as passive consumer-employees.

That said, though ordinary Americans lost in our wars, there was a clear winner: the military-industrial complex. Johnny’s name may be on that Vietnam memorial in Washington, DC, but you won’t find Lockheed or Boeing or Grumman’s name on that wall. They didn’t die. They thrived.

In education today, Johnny isn’t able to think critically – and that’s precisely the point of a corporate-business model that is sucking the life out of education as a horizon-expanding experience. And many legislators (and more than a few educators) have embraced the new model, often in the name of money, expediency, profitability and “relevance.”

Small wonder our nation continues to sanction unending war and the assassination of American citizens without due process. We no longer see war and murder as moral issues. We no longer see it because we’re not educated to see it. We’re only given the numbers.

It’s high time we infused education with ethical purpose and moral virtue. Today more than ever, we need students who can see past the cant, the obfuscation, and the outright lies that pass for “common sense” in this nation. We need students who are willing to look behind the curtain, rather than being content just to dance in Oz and believe in the Wizard.

How will we know when we succeed, you ask? What’ll be the metric of success? We’ll know when citizens get fed up with feel-good metrics, get mad as hell at our never-ending wars, and demand from politicians and their corporate sponsors not numbers that deceive but substance that informs.