Sunday, October 11, 2009

Our "evidence-based" world

Readers of this blog (if I dare to use the plural there) are familiar with the plan, currently being instituted in my children's school, to immerse the kids in a running stream of little red tickets reading "Stellar job!", culminating in a lottery-like drawing at the end of each week. At a recent school meeting, parents were assured that this behavioral rewards program is "evidence-based."

This phrase -- "evidence-based" -- has been cropping up more and more frequently. You may remember it from the last time your health insurer denied you coverage. In fact, its primary function is to deny -- to scoff at the naive idea that we should direct our resources toward any effort that has not received the blessing of an empirical study in a peer-reviewed journal. It flows from the principle -- or the unexamined assumption -- that the only things that have value are those that can be measured.

Don't get me wrong: evidence is a wonderful tool. But when did evidence become the master instead of the servant? Instead of a flashlight helping us see, it's now the searchlight on the prison tower, marking off the boundaries of what's permissible to consider. Don't go beyond that fence!

And what a small and dreary prison yard. Where is the standardized test that measures intellectual curiosity, creativity, inquiry, initiative, or character? If I advocate that those qualities should be central to education, I suppose I am not being "evidence-based."

Fortunately, those qualities have not disappeared from our schools. But they're now subsisting on the considerable charity of teachers, who, when their hands are not chained, do all they can to inject some humanity into the institution. What a far cry from being at the heart of the enterprise.

..How can I comment?