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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Tyranny of Multiple Choice

Over the past decade, I have watched American culture become polarized in a way unprecedented in history. It's almost Biblical in its scope. Jesus described it as a separation of sheep and goats. This ever sharpening division between Americans is not a simple right vs. left, religious vs. non-religious, urban vs. rural schism. Throughout our history, Americans have always maintained a broad culture with room for a wide range of belief sets and opinions. This so-called melting pot has never been about making us all the same, but about blending the vibrant array of "flavors" that our immigrant forebears brought with them to this land.

Think of a good soup or a salad with all those wonderful flavors, blended, and yet distinct. To continue the food metaphor, American culture is a spicy gourmet dish. It is not, however, a dish that other, more insular cultures around the world necessarily understand or appreciate. We like it though and shouldn't that be enough? Why should we worry about whether others appreciate what we have here or not? Weren't those the guys that kicked our grandmas and grandpas out in the first place? Didn't our ancestors leave those places because THEY didn't like the choices those countries and cultures offered?

And this brings me to my point.

Choices!

I notice that old cultures, long-established countries and civilizations have a tendency to eradicate choice. Democracy does not long survive the rise to power and so-called "greatness". It happened with Greece when Alexander came along. It happened to Rome under the Caesars and in France where the Revolution was followed by horror then Napoleon.

The question you have to ask is, "Has America set its feet on the downhill road to despotism?"

Can we stop it?

I think it has something to do with computers!

Stay with me. I'm not going Luddite on you. I love my computer and I think it's one of the most wonderful communication devices and the most transformative tool to come along in Earth's history, standing only behind Christianity and the plow for sheer power to change humanity for the better or worse.

Are computers evil? No. A tool is a tool. A sword can harvest grain or slaughter innocent people by the dozens. It isn't the machine itself, it's how it stores and retrieves data that is the great problem. There's an old saying that goes, "If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." That applies here.

Almost single-handedly the computer has virtually eliminated the very thing we most despised about school when we were kids. There was always one sort of test that teachers gave that we dreaded worse than a trip to the dentist.

The essay test.

I taught school for 5 years. Essay tests are a pain in the butt to grade. Kids hate them. Teachers hate them. We used to give them out of a sense of duty to force kids to really think. They are hard to create and harder still to grade.

Since my teaching days, however, the computer has saved students and teachers from the dreaded essay. Because computers are very good at collecting data, storing it, crunching numbers and spitting out scores, they have seduced our education system away from the essay toward the multiple choice answer. Remember how we loved true/false tests as kids and how relieved we were to find out there wouldn't be any essay questions on the exam. True/false and multiple choice tests were great. You could guess and still get some right. An answer was simple. Right or wrong. A, B, or C. Just a matter of guessing which was the most correct answer.

I helped my granddaughter write a series of essay projects for school a couple of years ago. I was stunned watching her struggle to write. It wasn't that she didn't have the words. It seemed more that her writing was a frustrating attempt to guess the right answer using the same process by which she thought out multiple choice problems. She kept searching fruitlessly for the canned phrase that would "check off" the right box and reward her with a good score. She would string together lovely phrases and high-sounding words, but reading it, you'd find the words were more like interior decorating than like rationed thought. They look nice and make you feel good, if you didn't really think about it too hard.

In reading blogs and forum posts on the Internet, especially by younger folks, I see again and again, this searching for the phrase that's always right; that always wins the argument. You see people filling up these little comment windows on the Internet with streams of phrases they've heard somewhere as though the "comment" window were a little checkbox they can tick off and be done with it. That way they don't have to actually think. It's easier to check off a box than to think. Thinking hurts our brains. So much easier to endorse the "right" answer than to think of it ourselves. If something someone says troubles our preconceptions, then, simply pop a canned phrase into the comment box and all is well with the world.

They used to call this rigid thinking style jingoism because of the tendency of people to recite platitudes rather than think for themselves. Clever phrase makers used to come up with songs and jingles and canned stories to illustrate a point. Repeated often enough, these jingoisms became a kind of shorthand for thinking - thinking without thought if you will. It's a kind of intellectual blindness that allows others to write the platitudes; to create the check boxes for us while we go on about our business and don't have to trouble ourselves with figuring out things for ourselves.

It has been said that in the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. There is some truth to that. When a culture stops thinking for itself and cedes its conscience to folks who write out our belief system in the form of multiple choice test answers, then we lose the ability to think beyond the range of choices offered.

Someone once described the proposed health care system as having "fewer, but better choices". Who says these choices are better? More regulation, fewer companies, short term solutions, bottom line thinking. All these things, I believe, are an artifact of the availability of the tremendous data analysis power of the computer.

Computers operate with a binary language at the heart of their process - either/or, on/off, black/white. It's a powerful tool and its very power has set us all up for polarization .

Computers are fast, easy to use and save you tons of work. Who doesn't want to save time? Who doesn't wish to simplify their work. You've got 30 tests to grade. Which fits into the computer better? Multiple choice, of course. So more and more our kids are given multiple choice questions. Over time they lose the ability to think outside the boxes we give them. Why do you think we have to retrain our workforce in thinking outside the box? All their lives we've been teaching our kids that life is all about the box. Tick the right one and you are rewarded. What is outside the box anyway that's worth having? That's the implied message. On a multiple choice test, you cannot choose any answer except the ones the teacher has provided. So, if the teacher doesn't supply an answer, right or wrong, then such an answer is not worth thinking about. For instance:

1. Global warming is caused by:
____ A. Man ____ B. Man's Industry ____ C. Man's Trash
____ D. Greedy Capitalist Pigs ___E. All of the Above

The test taker CANNOT think outside the parameters given. If he or she thinks, "What about fluctuations in the amount of radiation we receive from the sun?" There's no place for that answer. It's not worth anything because it won't give you a good grade to even think of such things so that thought gradually becomes unthinkable. Such a thought is not rewarded and behavior that is not rewarded is extinguished as they used to tell me in behavioral psych class.

Whether they be over-worked teachers, CEO's or presidents of countries, teachers face a huge temptation to reduce our teaching, our financial planning and our culture to a limited set of "approved" choices so everything will fit within the parameters our computers require in order to perform all that miraculous number crunching they are so good at. The computers then reward us for fitting ourselves to meet their needs by spitting out all those lovely pie charts and bar graphs that convince us that we actually understand what is going on around us, when we really don't have a clue.

Because we are narrowing our world to make our data streams more efficient, Super-Mart can tell you how much money they made between 2 pm and 5 pm last Tuesday. Many companies have fallen into the trap of adjusting their company's practices in order to keep the daily or quarterly totals as high as possible while abandoning behaviors that might adversely affect the so-called "bottom line" - behaviors like long term strategic planning. Then one day they wake up to discover their companies are obsolete, having lost their way because they were so busy looking down at their feet, that they lost sight of where they were going. I'd be willing to bet that a lot of the companies that have recently collapsed all had some pretty good numbers up until they started going bad all at once.

Don't get me wrong, I love my computer. I just think it's time we make our computers serve us and not the other way around. The current trend toward socialism makes sense to people. We've been revising our very ways of thinking for decades to accommodate the multiple choice world of spreadsheets and databases. Why not revise our way of life for the convenience of that ultimate tool for putting everything and everyone safely into a little box where they won't cause trouble - government? Socialism is basically a model of society as computer - the bureaucrats ultimate wet dream.

Do we really want to live our lives, giving up all those 'unapproved' choices in order to serve the state? In doing so, we need to realize that we are giving up the very soul of this country - the power to create something new from nothing more than a thought. In America we've come up with things no one has ever thought of before because we know how to think unapproved thoughts. Even the Internet, though computer based, is uniquely American in its unprecedented power to multiply choices, spread unapproved information freely, organize people or help them define themselves as unique individuals. There are those who find that frightening and you can bet we'll see efforts to choke off all that promiscuous sharing of information as they do in China. The state-that-will-be-served will never tolerate it for long.

And I thought that in America, the state was supposed to served us, not the other way 'round. Silly me. Probably took too many essay tests when I was a kid.

Just one man's opinion.....

Tom King

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