Saturday, October 25, 2008

Toward What End?

The essential question underlying this post is toward what end are we trying to help the poor? Where are we trying to bring them and are we sure that’s the ideal?

A recent encounter triggered this post:

I visited Northwestern last week and, while at church, I met a tall, awkward, and mostly cheerful Freshman guy. As usual, we went through the where are you from, how do you like NU, etc. Then I asked “What do you study?” and, like 900 others at Northwestern, he replied “Economics.” Hiding my frustration I asked, “Why?’ To which he responded, “I want to go into Finance.” Not satisfied with his response, I probed further: “Why?” His response was what I had both dreaded and expected, “Well, you can make a lot of money.” To his credit, he was honest and I don’t fault him for his relatively unimaginative and deep desire for post-graduation marketability.

Don’t worry, I am not going to rant about how confused he was or about the downward spiral of American society due to rampant materialism. I think this conversation brought up a different, bigger question. The point is that the young man in this story did extremely well at what would probably be considered a near “model high school” in our system. My question is, if this is a model student from a model school, toward what end are we attempting to develop underperforming schools? Are we sure that we have our metrics right for determining the success of a school and a student?

It seems that we hold wealthy and “high-performing” suburban schools as an ideal toward which we ought to be developing the underperforming urban and rural schools in our country. So what if every school in the country had average ACT scores of 26 with 80% of their students going to college? Would students necessarily have a more coherent worldview, sense of purpose, or desire for justice? In my mind, if a student can excel in our educational system, get accepted to a top college, and have such a narrow a vision about the possibilities of their life, something is broken.

When it comes to international development, the most cited statistic is that x number of people live on less than $2 dollars per day. Why is it money that we are so concerned with? Haven’t we learned that money doesn’t necessarily lead to a sense of fullness or happiness? I think the only appropriate goal of those who wish to develop poor communities is “Do people have the capacity to live lives that they have reason to value?” The imposition of our paradigm on the world represents a violent subversion of their identity, it puts them into financial, not human, categories.

Underlying all of this is a general frustration about how we think about helping poor communities. We assume that the institutions of the wealthy are the goal and we “develop” accordingly. What is that we are desiring for poor communities? That they too can become entrenched in a cycle of acquisition and maintenance? Maybe there is a different paradigm that we should all be working toward, wealthy and underprivileged communities alike. What would your alternative education or international development paradigm look like? What are the proper metrics of success?


ari said...

Though I agree with you on a purely ethical level about capacity building and something along the lines of Maslow's (<-- google image search his name) hierarchy of needs as important aspects of happiness/fulfillment, I cannot think that that is all there is to it. Ed Diener (here at UIUC, has proposed that, well, obviously happiness is not necessarily correlated with income. I'm not sure if it was Diener who said it first, but it was proposed that there is a relationship between happiness/ a point. And that point is sustenance. it's a pretty clear correlation until that point. (like a "/" on a graph) ..Basically because it's really hard to be happy if you can't get enough food, water, shelter (the basics), but after that point, it's more about the rest of the needs (self esteem, dignity, freedom, etc.).

I think this is where the $2 a day stat comes in. Money here, optimistically viewed, can be seen as a relative measure of wealth, one that we can relate to as the potential to secure basic needs. I think the stat allows us to sympathize and wonder how it would be possible to live on that $2. I don't know if it's that we're "so concerned with money", but that we can relate to it (and, perhaps more importantly, whoever is telling us that stat wants us to relate to it).

I think that the most frustrating thing about international development is that we developed countries are now feeling compelled to care about int'l development because of a sick sense of guilt. At once we must know that we have created the problem (by stealing resources), and that the problem can only be solved when we stop taking advantage of the less developed countries (stop stealing resources); I don't think we are ready for that yet. (SEE: the diamond trade, pharmaceutical companies in Africa, middle-eastern US-framed democracy, CAFTA-DR, tourism, etc, etc, etc.) I don't think we're ready to seriously consider the happiness of the peoples we've ignored for so long. That's why we use the $2 stat.

On the topic of education:
Montessori and colleges like Evergreen, where students get to pick what they study (from scratch, not from a set group of majors), seem to be doing a good thing. Once we're able to see past the treats being dangled in front of our faces, we can see less obvious and probably more self- and world- fulfilling choices. That freedom of choice, and at the same time vacuum of a clear path, is where personal growth lives.

Dave said...

Ari, great post, thank you for your insightful comments. I would definitely agree that there is an income "threshold" below which happiness is severely unlikely, and thus we should indeed aim to increase per capita gdp in developing countries.

I guess what I was trying to articulate was that we often use stats (like test scores or money) to show underperformance, and then those stats become that primary aim of reform.

I think, in terms of development, I would like to see a more triune metric that touched on economic capacity, political freedom, and social welfare, that's all.

AC said...

I wonder, though, through what medium would this alternate means of measurement be achieved? The obvious response is that statistical measurement is flexible, portable, accessible, and of course, pliable for many uses, including the political arguments that advance major societal changes.

I too would like to see an alternate measure of development, human satisfaction, and livelihood, but perhaps my imagination fails me, as I cannot really think of any means to measure these things that escapes the realm of numbers and maintains similar qualities.

Followup question, then, do we want this new means to maintain those qualities? Or should we start shaping futures with a new paradigm of metric reliance?