Quality and Quantity
My father is a professor of physical oceanography. He has been retired from university life for 17 years, but I still see him as a physical oceanographer. He is other things of course: my father, grand father to my children, and septuagenarian. However, he remains a scientist concerned with the deeply complex systems that govern the circulation of sea water through the various basins, large and small, on earth. He spent his scientific life studying water circulation in estuaries, specifically Puget Sound, and in the open ocean. Part of his research involved innumerable samples of sea water, taken at various depths, which he measured for both temperature, salinity, and other values. He used some of this data to help him create models that would predict the circulation patterns, temperature ranges, and densities of sea water under various conditions in different ocean and estuary settings. He focused on small units of measurement in order to build an understanding of a system that is fundamental to the creation and continued existence of life on this planet. Quantity, measured precisely, is at the center of this work.
I reflect on his life’s work as I have come to a crossroads in my own. I, an English teacher and the son of a man dedicated to careful measurement, have come to believe that in secondary education, the pursuit of quantity alone destroys the pursuit of quality. I first began to think about this tension when I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance some decades ago. The story of a father and son in that book did not interest me, quite ironic given the way I began this essay, but what that book said about teaching really (and I know I am not the first) put the hook in me. One line in particular from that book has stuck with me over the years. One of Phaedrus’ colleagues in Montana puts this proposition in front of him one day after class: “I hope you are teaching Quality to your students” (Pirsig 160). I walked away from the Pirsig’s story of father and son with little reaction, but I could not ignore the enormity of the meaning of the term “Quality” as he used it.
The educational system (I teach at a college prep school, University Prep, in Seattle, Washington) in which I am a teacher tilts to favor quantity over quality. However, in my 17 years in the teaching profession, I have consistently, with intention and without it, leaned away from quantity in favor of quality. In my pursuit of quality, I have sometimes wondered if I am simply a romantic in a sea of reasonable professionals who rely on quantities rank their students on an easy to understand scale, and I wonder if I am fighting a battle with them of which no one (but me) is aware. I have felt that my desire to leave grading, quantities, out of the teaching process has put me in the minority. When discussing these thoughts with a colleague, Marianne Picha, she had a single question: “And do you teach quality?” I have tried, over the years, to do so. I have let go of grades on papers, and I have focused on the skills needed to make meaning with writing. I have embraced the subjectivity of evaluation and refused to hide behind elaborate point or scoring systems. My assignments are no longer called assignments, they are called opportunities.
But what difference has my embrace of quality made in my classes and to my students? I have, over the years, received encouraging notes and comments from students on how liberating the attention to quality is. Students have told me they have felt free to explore and to risk with writing. I have also, over the years, received from students a couple of wholesale denouncements of both my level of intellect and my abilities as teacher: These students were convinced they were short changed by a teacher who did not grade according to an elaborate and, in their words, objective point system. However, the positive notes and comments have, over the years, come more often than the hate mail. Anecdotal as this evidence may be, I receive it as benediction.
I have found that in the pursuit of quality, the “Gotcha!” element of teaching that can find its way into the teacher’s repertoire as a way to create separation in student scores on the normal curve disappears. A teacher no longer has to think of scenarios and questions that will cause marked separation between student scores. Students can relax and use their writing as a tool for shaping meaning. Once that confidence enters a student’s method for solving rhetorical problems, quality writing ensues.
As the name of my school implies, acceptance at a four year institution upon graduation is the norm. I have come to believe that college acceptance, as an ultimate goal of an educational institution, prevents education from occuring. The college acceptance process, to no one’s surprise, emphasizes quantity over quality. The process is largely based on the relative comparisons of quantities. There are grade point averages, test scores, and due dates that are all crucial to its completion. The opportunities for quality come during the moments in the process reserved for writing. The college essay is the moment that students must qualify themselves, and they struggle with it. Their laser like focus on quantity is disrupted; the students must make meaning about themselves with their essays, and they are often paralyzed by this prospect. On the whole, students often do not see themselves or their views of the world as interesting or anything in their lives as worthy of scrutiny. When they do choose a topic, they usually write as if they were in a plane 30,000 feet above their intended subjects, and all of us on the plane with them can see that there are roads and buildings down there, but it sure is hard to make out what might actually be happening.
What are these students afraid of? They are afraid of qualifying themselves, their experiences, and their surroundings. When dealing with numbers, quantities, we can examine facts in isolation. When we quantify, we organize and group. We don’t always think about the experience of the things we are grouping. In my father’s work, the temperature and salinity of water measured at depth are like that. It is empirical data that has a time and a place, but it does not have life. This distance from a subject or set of data engenders a feeling of safety. The fear of judging quality in a visceral way is very frightening to some. When we begin to qualify an experience, things can feel much messier. The act of qualifying forces one to be empathetic, to be outside of ourselves, and to consider the essence of ourselves and other beings or systems. For my father to make sense of a complex set of data points, he had to develop and empathy with the whole system. That was the only way to make meaning from the data he collected.
When we choose to qualify, we begin to see that there is little difference between one thing and another. We find the essence of all things in each thing. We
understand why Thorton Wilder wrote Our Town about the mundane, why Hesse’s Siddhartha ends up living by the river with the complete confidence that the river will bring everything back to him, and why Victor Frankel reminds us that the more we aim at success, the more likely we are to miss our target. If we take the time to find quality in ourselves and in that which we encounter, we find opportunities for clarity of thought, of writing, and of action.
Seniors at my school struggle with the college essay, but they really need to understand that all a college needs to know about them could be contained in a close examination of how they get to our private, college prep school in the morning. A thoughtful essay on what allows or denies them the walk, bike ride, bus ride, or car ride to and from school would provide ample material for all of them to qualify themselves with accuracy and sincerity. Certainly quantities can help us all make sense of the world, but if we want to really understand our places in that world, we must qualify our experiences.
In the third quarter of the senior year at University Prep, the senior class writes a long, argumentative essay that we call the Senior Thesis. This project is an excellent opportunity for the pursuit of quality: Students have more control over this task than with just about any other they encounter in school. They choose the topic and manage the schedule largely on their own. However, many students choose to pursue and focus solely on the quantities that come with the project: the 17 to 20 pages, the 5,000 words, the 15 or so sources, and the numbers of note cards involved. They often choose subjects in which they have no interest but are subjects they think will allow them to easily fulfill the quantities associated with the paper. Of all the work they do in our high school program, this single writing opportunity is the one over which they have the most control from start to finish, and it does not incite a desire for quality in many of our students. I have always been sad about this, and I have often felt that the best senior theses would be the ones that were not required by the institution for graduation. Indeed, not many papers would be submitted if that were the standard, but the ones that were could be the kind of courageous work that our mission statement, “University Prep is committed to developing each student’s potential to become an intellectually courageous, socially responsible citizen of the world,” hopes for. Intellectual courage reveals itself at the moment when a student interprets his or her data. Quality enters the process at the point when the data collected needs to be framed and made meaningful.
Can we teach in schools where we back off the quantified assessments of progress and instead provide opportunities for students to explore quality in any and all of the diverse places it might be found? I imagine the answer to my last question is often “No” because we have constructed a need, as a culture and as beings, for some way in which to quantify our worth. Quantities give us a way of orienting ourselves on the horizontal and in the vertical of our life experiences. In the case of schools, quantities are linked to measures of success and ultimately with money. I work in a private school where underneath all the rhetoric and non-profit lingo is a consumer who has chosen a product and paid for it. We need that consumer to choose us. In the public schools, measurable academic improvement, no matter how arbitrary the scale, keeps the building open. However, within all systems where meaning is made, no matter how rigid, quality can find a foothold.
Do I see an irreconcilable difference between school and quality? No, and it is clear to me that what needs to happen in schools is that the tension between quality and quantity should be a part of the daily discourse of schools. If the tension were embraced, it could be used to achieve balance. Teachers, administrators, and students who make decisions knowing that such a tension exists will make more thoughtful decisions. They will make better decisions. The may even make intellectually courageous decisions.
My father, for all his careful measurements and calculations, is also a teacher and a writer. He had to turn that data into something that others might easily use. He had to bring quality to it. He taught classes to undergraduate and graduate students, and he and my mother (a marine botanist and a biology and oceanography teacher) wrote 9 editions of An Introduction to the World’s Oceans together. All of those endeavors require quality. Quality balanced my parent’s careful measurement and made it of use to a huge audience.
Too much training in school kills curiosity while opportunities for education nurture the intellectual courage that schools hope to instill. An emphasis on quality promotes education while an emphasis on quantity promotes training. When educators and students do not acknowledge this potential tension as a regular part of their academic discourse, education cannot stand the pressure that training puts on it and quantity will triumph over quality.
Schools will lean toward quantity because it is easier to keep track of points and percentages on a ledger than it is to qualify a student’s contribution and performance. Quality will always suffer when student achievement is reduced to only test scores standards rubrics that leave out one essential element in the pictures they paint- the students themselves.
Pirsig, Robert. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. New York: Bantam, 1981.