This quotation is often attributed to Albert Einstein but there’s no real proof he said it. But he should have because it’s so true. I have had several instances in the last few days that have made me think of this quotation and that’s usually an indication I should write about it.
I’ve been watching the 10 part Vietnam Series on PBS by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. I grew up watching the war on the nightly news with Walter Cronkite. It was a burning issue in our house as my brother was of the age that he could get drafted. He was in college and had a student deferment but we didn’t know how long the war would last. What fascinated me in watching the series is listening to the generals explain how they knew whether they were winning or not. In previous wars, you had battles and at the end of the battle, you captured territory and that’s how you knew if you won or not. In Vietnam the territory shape-shifted so that it was not a valid measure; instead, they measured what they could count – dead bodies. So whether or not we won a battle was determined on if we killed more of them than they did of us. It is interesting listening to the American veterans and the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong veterans. There was a grudging respect by the Americans that the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong were strong adversaries who would never give up. So body count was not an accurate measure of winning, but it was all we could count and it distorted the reality of the situation.
I see this tendency to value what can be counted in many areas. I work with physicians who get frustrated with the metrics and paperwork and administrative hoops they have to jump through to provide quality care. I work with insurers who are trying to make sure there are good outcomes for the money that’s being provided. Everyone has honorable intentions to make health care better, but sometimes we count things that don’t matter and miss things that do.
The same in education. I come from a family of educators. People go into teaching because they love kids or they love their subject or hopefully both. The public and the legislatures demand results for their investment and so much emphasis is put on test scores and other metrics. Teachers feel pressured to teach to the test and lose the passion that brought them to teaching in the first place.
All of these examples leave out an important element. When you’re dealing with human beings, not everything can be quantified, not everything can be reduced to a formula or a checklist. Working with human beings requires nuance, finesse, complexity and individuation.