Friday, September 18, 2020
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Not everything that counts can be counted

Albert Einstein has been quoted as saying, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” The saying is probably more correctly attributed to William Bruce Cameron, whose 1963 text “Informal Sociology: A Casual Introduction to Sociological Thinking,” is the earliest known occurrence.

It would be nice if all of the data which sociologists require could be enumerated because then we could run them through IBM machines and draw charts as the economists do. However, not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.


SEOUL, South Korea (July 1, 2005) — A museum exhibit commemorates the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, which led to a complete revision of our understanding of space and time. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

I bring this up because I just read a New York Times article interviewing more than a hundred current and former Amazon employees. They paint a picture of a workplace that is abusive to employees but somehow not a big deal for current employees, who willingly submit to this abuse and by their silence—even low-level employees sign a non-disclosure agreement—advance it in our world: The lowest performers are removed, sure, but coworkers are encouraged to spy on each other, to send emails after midnight, to follow up with texts demanding to know why they didn’t respond within 15 minutes, and to work while they’re on vacation.

The exposé also underscores the “data-driven” moves among corporate America, some of which have trickled down into the management of our schools, including our best schools. “The joke in the office was that when it came to work/life balance, work came first, life came second, and trying to find the balance came last,” the Times quoted Jason Merkoski, who worked on projects including Kindle and the Fire TV device from 2006 to 2010, as saying.

For me, the key here is that Amazon isn’t some trauma center, where employees, in general, sacrifice their life balance because saving lives is their life. People are not going to die if some Amazon employee doesn’t figure out how to get a book to a customer within 23 minutes, yet that is the kind of culture Jeff Bezos, one of the world’s richest people, promotes at Amazon.

There’s more to the personal life of employees than making Mr Bezos rich, but the activity at Amazon reflects a growing trend in corporate America, where this experiment in primal survival instinct expressed in terms of meaningless and contrived data is useful in justifying the abuse of employees. In our schools, data-driven, results-oriented reporting under No Child Left Behind is being called upon to justify the demeaning of teachers and of the teaching profession. And just like the Amazon employees, teachers have willingly allowed this abuse, thinking they could take it because, after all, they became teachers for the “right” reasons, regardless of what school districts, assistant principals, and politicians may have been telling them.

But there comes a point when the balance will be called into question. When teachers have had enough of this abuse, any possible reform, good or bad, will be rendered counterproductive or wasteful because there won’t be any good teachers left, since they will all, by that time, figure out what corporate America’s abusive culture has been doing to their personal lives. We tend to emphasize things we can measure, simply because it’s easier, but that doesn’t mean we get a good picture of real life from those snapshots of data or brief observations in our classrooms. If Amazon is a crystal ball for where our schools are headed, let’s take a step back and think about what we’re doing with all this data.

It’s wrong to sacrifice our good judgment of the “big picture” for the petty details we get from standardized tests or, at Amazon, sales data and profit for a few individals. Those things don’t even matter, and we shouldn’t devote our lives to them, as employees do at Amazon and as teachers do in data-driven classrooms.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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