This is a guest post by Peter Buttenheim.
From grade school through college, I was always happier studying English and history vs. math and science. Despite that bias, I spent a lot of time quantifying things. When I had a paper route, I rolled a great many coins into coin wrappers so I could pay for the papers.
I liked to measure our family car trips on maps (remember them?) and the road-side mile markers. I watched our lawn grow by inches so I could mow it at just the right time. And, like all the other kids, I hoped for positive grades on my report cards.
One special form of quantifying in my world came from my father’s work with Buttenheim Publishing Company — later Corporation. BPC published “trade magazines” i.e. magazines that consisted mostly of ads.
Our flagship publication was called Contractors & Engineers, and it contained full-page ads for power shovels, earth haulers, motor graders, road pavers, and power rollers from such exotic firms as: Lorain, Euclid, Alice-Chalmers, Barber-Green, and Buffalo-Springfield. (FULL DISCLOSURE — Yes, the famous rock group, Buffalo-Springfield, took their name from that power roller company!)
By the time I got into high school, I knew that the more full-page ads for this amazing equipment appeared in each monthly issue of C&E, the more profit there would be for BPC. In other words, one could almost measure our family’s “bread and butter” by the thickness of all the BPC publications. One Dun & Bradstreet mogul called this: “Quantifying the track record of the product.” To me, that phrase was a very de-humanizing and belittling way of looking at people’s doing business.
Immediately after college, and newly married in the fall of 1964, I began my career in teaching. Yes, I still preferred English and history — those were the courses I was hired to teach after all — but my fascination with quantifying was about to be tested sorely in the years to come.
It was 1965, and the twin issues of civil rights and the Vietnam War were front and center. The leaders in both of these issues were expert at quoting poll numbers, surveys, town halls, and spread sheets to make their points. Yet, to my young teaching colleagues and me, these quantifiable aspects of policy making often missed the point about people, their issues, and, yes, even their suffering. My search for non-quantifiable measures of American life began then.
As the years rolled by, things like focus groups, computers, consultants, and lobbyists were added to the quantifiable aspects of American life. I had a hard time with all of them as, once again, I felt as if all their measuring missed the point about who people were, where and how they lived, and with what issues they were dealing.
At the same time, I became dis-enchanted with the traditional grading process asked of me regarding my students. I found that numerical grading missed the point of much of the student/teacher interaction that mattered to my students and me. I became an advocate of long, hand-written comments addressed to the students in the second person NOT the third, and, in that process, I discovered another example of non-quantifiable measures for life.
When I moved into school administration and later fundraising, this tension between the measurable and the non-measurable grew. Questions arose. Did it matter more if a school’s enrollment went up or if that school was working at its utmost for the students it had? Were all those dollars raised in annual giving the most important measure, or were the feelings of alumni donors for their alma matter the most vital measure?
Finally, in the last few decades, it seems to me that far too many aspects of American life have been overcome by what I would call “The U.S. News Approach.” It all began with those dreadful college and university rankings, but it has certainly not stopped there. We now have annual rankings for everything from donuts to hospitals, dry cleaning establishments to auto dealerships, and pizza establishments to law schools. In short, we Americans have quantified everything, and the process has left us worse off as a society.
Here at Kendal, I would hope that the administration takes non-quantitative values into account in making major decisions. For example, we have seen only the numeric results of the big Resident Survey last summer. I’m concerned that the residents were not afforded the opportunity to see the written comments that we stakeholders made on the survey. I know I spent a lot of time writing down my thoughts, and I was eager to know the views of my fellow residents. That was not to be, and I can only hope that at least the administration took our views seriously.
If communities want to move from the quantifiable to the non-quantifiable, then I think community members will want to avoid top-down, command-and-control governance. I think communities must be small. Community members should come together to discuss issues without spread sheets and rankings. Each member of a community should be a valued stakeholder where her/his issues, ethics, morals, and lifestyle matter.
The road to the inestimable world (my very favorite word!) from our current overly-estimable world will not always be smooth. We have a lot of mental baggage to leave on the side of that road. Yet, to me, that journey will be worth everything in the end.
An unquantifiable THANK you to Peter and to George for many important things
to be aware of and reflect upon.
Yes, this friend speaks my mind and to my condition! Thank you Peter and George.
Loved it, Peter! Thanks.