Can Happiness Be Rated?

pandaFirst, I’ll upend a possible misunderstanding: My point here is not that “so many things in life cannot be measured.” I agree with that statement but not with the abdication surrounding it. It is exquisitely difficult to measure certain things, such as happiness, but I see reason to peer into the difficulty. Through trying and failing to measure happiness, we can learn more about what it is.

Lately I have seen quite a few studies that include a happiness rating: the study I discussed here, a study that Drake Baer discussed just the other day, and a study that Andrew Gelman mentioned briefly. In all three, the respondents were asked to rate their happiness; in none of them was happiness defined.

Some people may equate happiness with pleasure, others with contentment, others with meaning. Some, when asked about their happiness level, will think of the moment; others, of the week; still others, of the longer term. The complexities continue; most of us are happier in some ways than in others, so how do we weigh the different parts? The weights could change even over the course of a day, depending on what comes into focus. Happiness changes in retrospect, too.

In addition, two people with similar “happiness levels” (that is, who would describe their pleasure, contentment, and meaningful pursuits similarly) might choose different happiness ratings. A person with an exuberant personality might choose a higher rating than someone more subdued, or vice versa.

Given the extraordinary complexity of measuring happiness, I distrust any study that measures it crudely and does not try to define it. I doubt that it can be defined or measured exactly; but a little more precision would be both helpful and interesting.

Incidentally, the search for precision can bridge the humanities and the sciences; while they will always have different methodologies (and even different questions), they have a common quest for the right words.

CONTRARIWISE and the Humanities

CONTRARIWISE appears in a video by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture! The video–about the future of the humanities–features interviews with three Hiett Prize winners: Mark Oppenheimer, James E. McWilliams, and myself. A lovely segment is devoted to CONTRARIWISE. There are also some glimpses of the Summer Institute in action. Thanks to the Dallas Institute and the producer, Judy Kelly, and congratulations to all involved!

District Leader Calls for Inhumanities

Rhino Falls, Wisconsin—Citing a global trend toward ruthless school and workplace practices, Superintendent Mark Sequor called on for a steep increase in the inhumanities throughout the K–12 grades. “It’s time we not only caught up with Singapore and China, but showed them who’s who,” he told an assembly of 10,000. “Our kids think they have lots of meaningless tests? They should see the tests the kids in Korea take. Our kids think they have too much homework? Compared to other kids, they’re on permanent vacation.”

To catch up with the rest of the world, says Sequor, the schools need an inhumanities emphasis even more than a STEM emphasis. “STEM might still give you a few stargazers,” he explained; “whereas a course in inhumanities will keep every child on task.”

The inhumanities, Sequor continued, are at the heart of the Race to the Top competition, which awards funding to districts that race into flawed reforms without really thinking them through. “The whole point here is to get ahead, not to succumb to lazy thoughts,” he explained, “and so, by embracing the inhumanities, we’re really going the extra mile—faster than anyone else, I’ll add.”

Telos Elementary, a model school in Rhino City, allows visitors to witness its inhumanities curriculum in action. The day is filled with rapid and strictly timed activities, where students from kindergarten on up must turn and talk, repeat, rotate, move to the next station, repeat, summarize, and get in line. “We can’t let them get dreamy,” said Holly Vide, the school’s inhumanities coach. “We need to have everyone engaged. Also, in the workplace, they’ll be switched from task to task or even fired, so we need to prepare them for that reality.”

By second grade, students are already learning to cheer over their data. “You’ve got to get into their heads that the statistics are what count, so to speak,” Vide said. “The biggest thing in their world should be that graph at the front of the room, showing their rise or fall in scores. This mindset will prepare them well for high school, where they have to spend months preparing for the SAT. They learn to live for the score. That’s called achievement.”

In middle school, students refine their social ostracism skills. “Group work helps everyone spot the non-team-players,” said Sequor. “For this reason, it’s important to have group work in every class. Once you’ve spotted the non-team-players, you can exclude them and get on with your project.” The excluded students will receive low grades for classroom collaboration. “This is an important red flag for colleges and employers,” he said, “and it allows us to boost our credibility. If our team players are doing well, and we’re doing due diligence in classifying our non-team-players, then we’ll keep our good ratings.”

Once students enter high school, they are expected to do everything, he said. “Every high school student, in order to have a fighting chance in life, must have top grades, top test scores, leadership credentials, an array of extracurriculars, athletic prizes, community service hours, and at least ten things that go above and beyond what everyone else is doing. Can you be a person of integrity and character and do all of this?” he asked with a rhetorical flourish. “Of course not. That’s part of the point. Integrity and character are relics of medievalism. I think it was the medieval writer Flannery O’Connor who said something about how integrity lies in what one cannot do. We live in a ‘can-do’ era. A ‘can’t-do’ attitude is simply out of bounds.”

According to some critics, it’s the “can’t-do attitude” that makes room for thiings like reading, pondering, or playing an instrument. “No one who does anything substantial or interesting can do everything,” said Brian Emerson, a professor of English and an opponent of the inhumanities movement. “There must be areas of ‘no’ and failure.”

“That’s a quaint idea,” responded Sequor, “but it amounts to a bunch of fluff. Substantial and interesting things? Those are subjective terms. We have to take a hard look at the era and go where it goes.”

The era was not available for comment, but one of its representatives repeated its recent press statement that “following is leading.” We would have mulled over the words, but a whistle blew, and everyone scurried on to the next task.

 

Note: I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.

The Misuse of “Data” (the Word)

The misuse of the word “data” in education has been bothering me for a long time. People call all sorts of things “data” that aren’t data, with the intent, I suppose, of sounding scientific. At schools around the country, teachers working on “inquiry teams” examine “student data”–that is, their essays and other work. Why not just call them essays? My complaint goes beyond the trivial. When you call things “data” that aren’t data, you distort both the things themselves and the methodology used to examine them. So let’s keep “data” where it belongs.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the mass noun “data” as “Related items of (chiefly numerical) information considered collectively, typically obtained by scientific work and used for reference, analysis, or calculation.”

So, for instance, student test scores, ages, family income, ethnic background, and home languages could be considered data. The first three are numerical to begin with; the latter two can be sorted and counted.

Survey results are “data” but must be treated with caution, as seemingly like elements might not be similar at all. Seventy-two percent of students might indicate that they are “happy” with their school, but “happy” could mean many different things.

Certain things are not data but are routinely called data. These include lessons, conferences, student work, lesson plans, lesson observations, reflection pieces, and more. These must be rescued from the “data” denomination and called by their real names.

Why? Because when you are reading student essays, you may well be looking for general tendencies, but you are also treating each one on its own. You could calculate how many essays had clear thesis statements, but that wouldn’t give you a clue about what the thesis statements actually were. Even among clear ones, some have more substance and promise than others. You could count how many paragraphs began with topic sentences, but a paragraph need not always begin with a topic sentence. Much depends on what the student is trying to do. An essay has an interplay of ideas, details, and organizing principles; it cannot be broken into bits that then add up to the whole.

Why do some educators and many policymakers want to call everything data? I presume it’s because it makes the work sound more scientific. There are two problems with this. First, slapping scientific terms on things doesn’t make them scientific; it’s an insult to science and mathematics. Second, education is not and should not be entirely scientific. It draws amply on the humanities and builds and sustains culture.

Humanities are not fuzzy, flimsy, or fluffy. They have their own logic and standards; they are just as exacting as the sciences but in different ways. Discerning the remarkable in Robert Frost’s sonnet “Design” (thanks to Michele Kerr for reminding me of the poem) takes a good ear, an understanding of sonnets, and even some knowledge of plants and philosophy. But it takes more than that. You have to be well attuned to poetry’s shifts and structures. You may grasp something of the poem at a naive level, but as you read on and on, and come back to it over time, you grasp more. Yes, there is some systematic methodology in poetic analysis, but systematic methodology alone won’t get you far. You need to build yourself a realm and dwell in it.

That’s part of what education does: it builds realms. It is exacting, exhilarating work, and only some of it is data.