Is Anybody Home?

Something has happened to the way I read scholarly articles.  Unless I can sense a person behind the words, I drift off. No more “objectivity” for me, thank you. Give me the same information, but let me know who is providing it, and why I should trust them.

This is beginning to prove to be a difficulty when I review papers by friends in Mathematics or other STEM fields. Not native speakers of English, they want me to straighten their prose. I do so, but I begin to get bored as soon as I enter the thicket of another “review of the literature” that tells me nothing about who is doing the reviewing or why I should trust them. Who is making the decisions about what path this study is going down? Whose prior experience sparked it, and why? I don’t want to see a problem posed and a solution offered, but want to read about why this problem and why now? I want the human context.

Yes, I’m a namby-pamby Humanist, one of those “losers” who can’t see that all that matters are results. Yet I know that those results were arrived at by specific personalities based on particular judgments, decisions that can’t be reduced to the mechanical–which is why I don’t want to read papers than show only mechanisms.

We worry–or some of us do (I don’t)–that we have soon have our thinking done for us by our machines. That can’t happen, not until we find a way to teach our machines how to judge. That’s a humanist skill developed through a great deal more than processes and their products. It’s non-quantifiable, for it relies on evaluation of much more than simple movement. It’s the root of everything: even a grading rubric or a multiple-choice test is based in judgment. Why this category and not that? At some level, it’s a judgment call. Why this question and not the other? Again, a judgment call–if you trace it back far enough. Our machines, like our assessment, operate post-judgment, assumptions already made.

But what if those assumptions are wrong? What if the people who made them hadn’t really the training in judgment to make the calls asked of them? The English Language Arts component of the Common Core State Standards, for example, is based on such reductive assumptions that the Gettysburg Address can be successfully addressed within it without any reference to the Civil War. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” can be explicated, according to Common Core, without reference to the Civil Rights movement. The judgments that led to this situation are based on a misunderstanding of the value of ‘close reading,’ one of the mainstays of the New Critics of several generations ago. If you concentrate only on ‘close reading,’ the text becomes the thing, context reduced to next to nothing. That, though, begs the question: Why these texts and not others? Someone decided upon them, making judgments. We don’t learn the full importance of any text without exploring its context, and that, in a case like this, requires also looking into the judgment calls that led to its inclusion in the particular curriculum.

The personality of David Coleman, the man behind the curtain that is the Common Core, heavily influenced what the Common Core is. Yet he disappears in its manifestations. It’s like taking Plato out of his Academy, or Aristotle out of the Lyceum–only, I think, Coleman keeps out of it because he is not, himself, a person whose judgments we have come to trust. He is not, in that sense, either a teacher, a scholar, or a leader. He is certainly no Plato or Aristotle. Like so many others, these days, he pretends only to be the objective automaton behind the automatons of our lives. Yet we need to know his biases, his viewpoints, his strengths and his weaknesses if we are going to trust in his judgment at all–for it is judgment he has exercised in development of the Common Core. There is nothing mechanical about the decision processes that led up to it. Yet Coleman is asking us to trust in the machinery he has created and to ignore him, David Coleman, almost completely.

That would be bad judgment on our part.



One thought on “Is Anybody Home?

  1. Pingback: Weekend reads: FDA nominee authorship questions; low economics replication rates - Retraction Watch at Retraction Watch

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