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Evaluation neurosis

One of the striking facts about the direction of education in the U.S. is the move towards regimented tests and curricula and away from open-ended, student-driven teaching. From the perspective of China and other Asian countries, this transformation appears absurd: just as they are adopting the techniques that appeared to explain the U.S.’s great creativity, we are moving away from them. If regimented, top-down pedagogy is opposed to creative thinking, why would America abandon this source of its distinctive edge in the global market? How could this choice make such powerful sense?

The explanation I’m pondering right now is that our growing fetish for evaluation is a symptom of an underlying anxiety about a decline in the unity of aims and culture. On this view, what matters about the move to evaluation is not changing outcomes; rather, it’s arriving at a consensus about what success is in the first place. In other words, there is a great deal more at stake here than the present state of America’s greatness. Underneath our obsession with improving performance is the fear that we have lost the ability to even pursue greatness anymore.

What defined the perceived greatness of the U.S. during and immediately after the Cold War was not simply the understanding that capitalism had “defeated” communism. Americans understood the fall of the USSR to profoundly corroborate the quality of capitalism, but this was not the whole story. Capitalism has not been some unchanging, timeless entity. Part of what has enabled America to reach the point of being a world superpower is its ability to re-interpret the idea of capitalism under different conditions. In the Great Depression, Keynesianism rose to prominence. During WWII, the government came to dominate the economy in the defense of capitalism. Post-WWII, scientific research became the core engine of the new economy, slowly transforming a blue-collar commodity economy into a white-collar service economy.

The story behind the corroboration of capitalism, against the failure of communism, lies the in the ability of the U.S. to define its own standards for excellence and pursue them with collective coherence. But was this coherence an internal virtue of American culture? Or did it depend essentially on the world Americans faced? The USSR offered a monolithic nemesis to capitalism, a convenient alternative to Nazi Germany after WWII. The power of this grand opponent in U.S. politics is evident everywhere: from McCarthyism, to the CIA, to origins of the UN and the declaration of universal human rights. I submit that the qualities of America’s opponents contributed as much to our ability to define and pursue greatness as our own internal resources.

But our ability to define ourselves by antithesis has dissolved — setting aside the only partially successful attempt to initiate a “clash of civilizations” with Islam. What is left is the stickier problem of defining what it means to be a great nation in the face of mind-bending plurality. There is no longer any overpowering ideological force that ties together the many interests of the U.S. The neo-conservative doctrine of promoting democracy across the world is a weak echo of the domino theory, one that struggles to carry the weight of recent military interventions (Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Bosnia, and so on). For all that global big business has consolidated its power on the U.S. government, the public has never been less convinced of its government’s performance (at least in the history of Gallup polls back to 1974). The ideas that carry political force in America are fragmenting, muddling about like ice flows in a sluggish river.

All this forms the context for the debate over evaluation. Neurotically, we are trying to recover what has been lost by grasping at measuring something we no longer understand. Nothing is wrong with evaluation in principle — it’s a necessary part of life, and intrinsic to any kind of excellence. But the push for evaluation — whether for school testing, government transparency, economic indicators, performance management — is more than a simple effort to improve our ability in a pre-defined task. We have lost sight of what it is we’re trying to do, and this undermines the very sense of taking action to measure our abilities.

What would turn the neurosis of evaluation into a productive project would be abandoning the idea that we can fix our problems simply by measuring them better. The push for evaluation is productive only insofar as it provokes an open debate over what we want as a society. More facts on their own will not resolve our deeper confusion, nor will any amount of fighting over what’s objective versus subjective. The challenge is that our public discourse is dominated by technology fetish: to the extent that our collective goals come up in discussion, it is only through an incidental fight over some technocratic proposal. The difficulty — what would count as a truly valuable contribution from American intellectuals — is a platform for everyone to reconsider how the world fits together. Most importantly, this platform would need to support a common ground for re-organizing old ideas from all political traditions; not for “bipartisanship” or other presentist concerns, but for a deeper reconsideration of the heritage of WWII and the Cold War. We all need help thinking anew what we are doing.

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