Assessment Opinion

If You Can’t Measure Joy and Wonder, What Good Are They?

By Diane Ravitch — June 10, 2008 2 min read
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Dear Deborah,

On Sunday morning, as I was pondering my reply to your last blog about “making sense of our differences,” I picked up The New York Times and read a shocking story. It seems that in Tanzania, albinos are being hunted down and killed by people who believe that their skin and body parts have magical powers.

This story reminded me of how fortunate we are to live in a nation where we constantly struggle to teach acceptance, tolerance, and mutuality and to judge people as individuals, not by the color of their skin or their accent or their disability. When you and I were children, racial discrimination was commonplace; people with disabilities were hidden away; divorce was shameful; anti-Semitism was socially acceptable. Most such prejudices have gone underground, but even that is a huge step forward. It is no longer socially acceptable to be a bigot. The fact that the Democratic party has just selected an African-American man as its standard-bearer for the fall elections is astonishing. This would have been unthinkable 40 years ago, 30 years ago, maybe even 10 years ago. Maybe even four years ago.

I share your nostalgia for the ebbing of the “sense of wonder and awe that we can share across our differences.” I, too, worry that the current mania to test, test, test has changed the nature of schooling in ways that make schooling abhorrent to many children. Tests may be a necessary part of life; we know they are a source of anxiety. Turning them into a weekly routine or even a daily routine is a surefire formula for crushing the “sense of wonder and awe” that can make childhood a time of exploration and fun.

But here is the rub. The clock will not be turned back. No matter how frequently or how beautifully you describe the joys of childhood, those who are making education policy will not be deterred or persuaded. Their agenda is competitiveness. They are in the throes of data-driven decision-making, which has become a sort of mantra that takes the place of actual thinking. How can you measure the joys of childhood? How can you measure wonder and awe? Go where the numbers tell you to go, they say; but what if the numbers are measuring trivial things? Do what the numbers tell you to do, they say; but people—not numbers—devise policy alternatives.

What I am suggesting is that your longing for a more humane approach to educating children has a huge constituency among teachers, but none among policymakers. What I am suggesting is that we should talk not about a past that has been lost, perhaps irretrievably, but how to change and mitigate the policies that are now destroying joy, wonder, and any hope of a better education.

So, for example, the small-school movement—of which you are a pioneer—was lauded just last week in The Wall Street Journal as the very best way to train our future workforce. (Subscription required to read full article.) Is this what you had in mind? I doubt it.


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.