Assessment Opinion

The Danger of Mindlessness

By Deborah Meier — May 17, 2012 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

Sixty year ago, as a student at the University of Chicago, I met a wonderful man named Chick (Ernest) Callenbach. He moved westward and I moved eastward, and we gradually lost touch. Last month he died, and left behind some words that touched me deeply: (See May 6, 2012, on TomDispatch.com)

To all brothers and sisters who hold the dream in their hearts of a future world in which humans and all other beings live in harmony and mutual support—a world of sustainability, stability, and confidence."

A few days later someone sent me a piece by Paul Goodman, called “The Empty Society,” from 1966! As a fan of Goodman and Callenbach (although not in agreement half the time!), I was touched by how prescient Goodman’s words were about schools and the role of corporate greed in its decline. His final words in that lecture (which can be heard on the CBCradio website, “Ideas with Paul Kennedy”) reminded me of Chick’s final words:

The chief danger at present is our mindlessness, induced by empty institutions ... We have all the talking points but less and less content ... We have lost our common sense for which we were once noted. We have lost it by becoming personnel of a mechanical system ... by getting out of contact with real jobs and real people."

Which in turn reminded me of—of all sources—words from a Catholic doctrine called subsidiarity. In an article in Commonweal titled “The Flip Side of Subsidiarity,” writer David Golemboski quotes Pope John Paul II’s definition: “Needs are best understood and satisfied by people who are closest to them.” Agreed.

Yet, there’s a “flip side” to this concept, notes Golemboski: “When matters are of such magnitude or complexity that they can’t be addressed locally—whenever ... necessary for the remedy of harm or the promotion of common good.”

The article is in defense of “Obamacare,” which he argues can’t be solved individually or locally. But subsidiarity neatly poses the conflict for many Americans over what to do about schooling. It depends on where one sees the greater danger: in the centralization of more power vs. the risks of local power. It depends on how one assesses the role of corporate greed vs. local parochialism, elite intelligence vs. local bumbling, etc. And what you mean by schooling!

I clearly am more fearful, as were Callenbach and Goodman, of the centralized power of the state in collaboration with the power of corporate money. In general.

It’s nice when a Jewish “girl” from New York City reaches the same conclusion as Pope John Paul II, not to mention libertarians, as well. I wish the Catholic Church would take this idea one step further—that women may know some things about themselves that an all-male institutional bureaucracy may not, or that a centralized religious institution may be risky also. But I’ll take allies wherever I can—at times. And on schooling, the state knows virtually nothing.

The “State” has never listened closely to the words of children as they struggle, for example, to decide the one right answer to a multiple-choice test question. I spent hours and hours trying to make sense of wrong answers that puzzled me, checked by children who I knew could read. It started with my own son. Then I interviewed dozens of children in a variety of contexts. I gave them a test passage to read and asked them singly and in groups to decide on the best answers. I tried reading the passage and questions aloud—to see how much that would help. I was staggered to discover how often they gave perfectly logical explanations for arriving at the wrong answer, and less sensible answers to the right ones. Reading was not their problem. They were often so convincing that I had to check it out to see if I were right. I was.

I wrote this up in a brochure published by City College (“Reading Failure and the Tests: An Occasional Paper of the Workshop Center for Open Education,” City College of New York, February 1973) and included some examples in Chapters 6-8 of In Schools We Trust (Beacon, 2002). I concluded that it was, given the rules of the game, entirely reasonable that even a “good test” could produce such oddities. These weren’t just a question of “bad” questions (although there were some of those, which publishers will remove once alerted), but built into the rules of psychometrics! It helps explain why Jay Rosner discovered something equally “interesting”—that even seemingly harmless questions produced stark racial differences, sometimes in favor of African-Americans and sometimes in favor of whites. Questions which “favor” test-ees of color sit in the pool of legitimate questions at Princeton, N.J. (home of ETS), but they virtually never make it into the tests.

We have three very serious flaws to deal with. One is that the skill involved in doing well on reading and math tests do not constitute something worthy of the name “academic achievement.” Such a claim dumbs down “academia” in ways that do serious damage. And the second is that even simple-minded questions of “can she or can’t she read, and how well” can’t be answered “psychometrically.” The third strike is that belief in them takes time away from using our schools to develop intellectually honest habits of mind, genuine respect for evidence, the capacity to take apart or defend a good argument, etc., in a variety of domains (including math and literature).

Three strikes and you ought to be out. But while the evidence accumulates about the foolishness of resting 12 years of schooling on a failed theory, the authors of this foolishness are now preparing to do the same for our universities. To quote Callenbach and Goodman seems eminently appropriate—so go back to the beginning of this piece and read their quotes again, and look for more by Callenbach and Goodman.


P.S. The literature on standardized testing is extensive. Here are a few I like. Banesh Hoffman, The Tyranny of Testing, Collier, 1964. An oldie, but good. Hoffman was a renowned physicist. Ronald Newell and Van Mark J. Ryzin, with a foreword by Deborah Meier, Assessing What Really Matters in Schools. Not really on testing; I pulled it out because I think the missing question is: “What matters?” Phillip Harris et al. The Myths of Standardized Tests, Rowman & Littlefield, 2011. “The best on the subject,” it says in my blurb.

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.