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Measurism

Its not my term, I plucked it from Stephen L. Carter, a professor at Yale Law, who wrote about it in a book called God’s Name in Vain. This post is piggybacking off a great idea of his, so props to him.

He writes about it here:

This ideology, which we might call measurism, has a single, very simple dictum: That which can be measured is of greater importance than that which cannot.

Standardized Tests

I like standardized tests. I find the cold hard number it spits out and the percentile ranking it assigns as a great way to tell me how cool I am.You get X number on the SAT/GMAT/LSAT/MCAT/Firefighter’s Aptitude Test/Miller’s Analogy Test. The question always seems to be: Where do I stand on the totem pole? ST’s give us a cold hard answer, Yes! this affirms I am smarter than Y percentage of people.

EXCEPT….not really. What does this score really tell you? I would tell you that it tells you that this person can do well on this type of test.  If a school wants to use this score, it up to them I suppose. But, there’s all kinds of craziness about testing nowadays. Some parents whose kids do really well on them will beam about how “bright” or “gifted” their kids are (which is probably not the entire truth), while a few parents of kids who don’t do well will inform us of some inadequacy of the test to measure the “total package”. Teacher’s unions seem to hate the word test, because they categorically deny its ability to measure something important. (I would say we should use it, just not overuse it, a tricky task indeed) Carter writes aptly:

A speedometer, in the absence of an external judgment (such as a speed limit), provides no information about right and wrong.

He continues later:
Most colleges and universities love to claim, in their admission materials, that they consider many indices other than grades and test score-background, extracurricular activities and so forth. But, when it comes time to tell the alumni about the entering class,  most college presidents and deans probably do the same old thing: They stand up and cite the outstanding grades and test scores of those who have recently matriculated. We measure what we can measure, and what we cannot measure we claim to value but in practice, we discard.

In a similar way, I was always obsessed with numbers. I remember during the middle of one season in basketball when I thought that Dominique Wilkins was a better player than Michael Jordan. Why? Because he averaged a few fractions of a point more than MJ  and I figured because of that he was better. Now for those of you who think I am merely ranting about statistical wonkishness, I am not. But you could see how silly my logic was here. My mistake was using what limited information I had, and I unfortunately drew a conclusion that made me seem like I’ve never watched a game of basketball.

We Worship the Totem Pole

My friends called me an idiot, which is fair, yet we do this all the time elsewhere (and I am a  smarter fan of the game now).  We love to open up U.S. News read about the top schools (this phenomena is particularly prevalent in Korea, where  a man saying the word “Harvard” or “Yale”, and “I have a U.S. passport” would probably drown in the eventual swarm of Korean women.) It extends elsewhere, perhaps though not as obvious. My blog name is derived from Thorstein Veblen’s term, “Conspicuous Consumption“. While I won’t go into too much detail, its really just the concept of “keeping up with the Joneses”.  I buy a car, with the hope others see this purchase so they know how awesome I am. A rather clever way of saying, “By purchasing this vehicle/home/frozen margarita machine, I am demonstrating my ability to measure up to or greater than your standards.” If you think I am insane, I ask that you take a look at what drove our financial crisis. This article notes this nicely (about housing):

As other buyers and many bankers became more willing to take absurd risks, even previously prudent consumers felt they had to follow suit.

Hint: People weren’t just taking out massive loans to finance homes because they thought interest rates were advantageous.

What do we Rank and Rate in Others?

But I’ve already spoken about that here and here,  so lets change the emphasis a bit. Take relationships (living with an aunt who seems to think I still need my hand held at crosswalks, makes me think I am probably not the best person to write about this). I was having a conversation with a few friends when one of them discussed their upcoming date with a man she found on eharmony. When we asked her how she was matched to this specific guy, she admitted it was difficult after the website gave her a list of choices. So she ordered the listings by their height and chose the one who was the tallest. Was this the best way to do things? Perhaps. But I am not so sure the guys who were not quite 6’1 were worse just because they aren’t quite up to par in terms of height. Was it her fault? I can’t blame her entirely for making a choice on a limited amount of information, but I think the problem lies in when we decide to place an overemphasis on what we do know. The problem is when we overemphasize the things we can measure, we decrease the emphasis on what we can’t measure or quantify. We all suffer from a desire to rank something; and damn it if we can’t, as Carter implied, we’ll just use what is easy to measure.

For instance, guys might for fun assign a numeric value to a girl,  saying something to the effect of, “Wow, that girl is an 8.5!”. I will take a Zosima stance on this particular behavior and say, “Each one of us is guilty before everybody for everything, and I am more guilty than anybody else.” Might I also interject that this sort of mental calculus is not unique to men or romantic relationships. Now you ask me what an 8.5 is and I will tell you I have some vague idea that isn’t logically quantifiable per se. The point of this exercise is obvious: even though we don’t know what an 8.5 is, we know its better than an 8. The numbers are a convenient measure to say, “I like this one better than the other.”

What About the Stuff we can’t Measure?

Stephen Carter writes:

We might say that we value honesty-or love……or God. None of the concepts, we will loudly insist, can be measured; and all of this, we will add, is what we value most.

I can assure you that these ranking systems are indexed very little on one’s character. I will argue this condition lends itself to overemphasizing, again, what is easier to measure: looks, charm and perhaps status. Phrases like “She’s hot”, “He’s a baller” etc. don’t lend themselves to deliberate thinking about one’s capacity to be trusting, selfless or loving. This is a mistake that I certainly make over and over again; I take what I can initially and make a judgment call about someone based on the visually quick and aesthetically pleasing. My eHarmony filter doesn’t have a tab for ranking one’s character damn it! I’ll take it because it is so easy and so superficially pleasing. Like the colleges before, we all might say we emphasize certain things, but when push comes to shove, we know what really drives our desires. I blame this in part with a culture (that I am certainly not above) that has lost another meaningful characteristic: patience. Its easy to conclude someone is visually attractive or will become a substantial provider. Taking the time to draw out a person’s character seems to be more and more time wasted in this fast-paced world of ours. It could also be a reason why we might be quicker to end relationships when something “better” comes along. I blog as concisely as possible (I swear I do!) knowing full well most of you probably get bored after the first few words.

Grace is the New Starting Point

Its funny because as a Christian, this is a clear demonstration that I  “misunderestimate” the concept of grace. Men are called in the book of Ephesians to “love their wives, as Christ loved the Church”. While I am not a biblical scholar, the love that Christ had for his church was surely not a conditional one based on a standard of measurements that any one of us would hold valuable. Many of early disciples came from lowly (fishermen) or unsavory (tax collectors) positions. Yet he loved them unconditionally and without prerequisite; his love was not based on the initial “sexiness” of those he saw as the foundation of the church. I think that we have been drawing too many lines in the sand though, lines that we can quantify or measure but that we overemphasize and lines that eventually fade away literally with age.

Later in Ephesians, Paul exhorts husbands to “love their wives as their own bodies, he who loves his wife loves himself”. Jumping a little deeper into the fray of relationships, perhaps the bigger problem here is that many of us don’t really love ourselves. I think our own emphasis on measuring up others is just a deeper reflection of one’s own insecurities about themselves. I won’t speak for anyone else here; but I know I am afraid of what the mirror in the morning will tell me, I worry about whether I’ve done well enough at school, I wonder whether I will have made enough money and I wonder what others think of me in all of this. These lines in the sand we’ve been drawing for others remind us painfully about all the lines we fail to meet.

Assuming an omniscient and perfect God, this would be problematic, if we were called to fulfill his standards of excellence.  Thus there should be an awareness of the human inability to meet excellence. Sure,  we might set up our own standards of excellence, but amidst perfection this becomes meaningless. But if understand the nature of grace; how God doesn’t call us to live in excellence because Christ was the not only symbol but fulfillment of excellence that we so desire in ourselves. This human condition of insecurity is wiped clean; our knowing we don’t have to pretend to be anything we aren’t. There’s a flipside as well, we understand we can look at others in a different light as well. Amidst our own failings, we learn to place less of an emphasis on the “obvious failings” of others. Understanding the gift of grace, helps us realize when someone truly says the love you, they are demonstrating a capacity of grace that you probably didn’t deserve. Or you might think I am insane and are saying, “BDK, you’ve got to be kidding me. I am supposed to marry just anyone then. This is dumb, what kind of love is that?” I hope you don’t read this is an exercise in trying to find the “perfect” companion, I would argue that is impossible. But maybe instead of going back to the place where we drew all these lines in the sand, we can start at a new location called grace. Perfection is above our pay grade, but changing the framework is certainly not beyond our means.

1 Samuel 16:7

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  1. Dominique Wilkins
    March 28, 2010 at 8:53 am

    I found your logic impeccable. MJ had nothing on my airness! Your friends are idiots.

  2. Dan
    March 29, 2010 at 12:01 pm

    I liked this article. I think i’ll rate this an 8.5 😉 jk

  3. Kevin
    March 29, 2010 at 5:51 pm

    Great Blog, Buddy. This week’s sermon directly related to Carter’s Measurism and the pastor referenced a passage I found extremely relevant, namely: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28)

    Our natural affinity for totum poles is, in large part, born out of our desire to be considered among the “elect”. Unfortunately for those of us who favor meritocracy, Christians are called to see that our election is not predicated on selected strengths but rather in our humanity; which is God’s eyes, is intrinsically good. Moreover, as you rightfully point out, this value is further validated by the sacrifical love of Christ.

    Hope Korea is treating you well – eat some Kim-chee for me!

  4. March 30, 2010 at 9:25 am

    BDK,

    Great piece. Here’s a David Brooks article discussing how our society has tried to maximize things we count (like economic progress) instead of more important but more nebulous things (social cohesion): http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/30/opinion/30brooks.html?adxnnl=1&adxnnlx=1269922505-M55p6TObuPjdbv6OT8Zmmw. It fits nicely into your argument.

    Neil

  1. April 13, 2010 at 8:14 am

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