The Disappearance of Unmeasured Experience

The institutionalized values school instills are quantified ones. School initiates young people into a world where everything can be measured, including their imaginations, and, indeed, man himself. But personal growth is not a measurable entity. It is growth in disciplined dissidence, which cannot be measured against any rod, or any curriculum, nor compared to someone else’s achievement. In such learning one can emulate others only in imaginative endeavor, and follow in their footsteps rather than mimic their gait. The learning I prize is immeasurable re-creation.


People who have been schooled down to size let unmeasured experience slip out of their hands. To them, what cannot be measured becomes secondary, threatening. They do not have to be robbed of their creativity. Under instruction, they have unlearned to “do” their thing or “be” themselves, and value only what has been made or could be made. Once people have the idea schooled into them that values can be produced and measured, they tend to accept all kinds of rankings. There is a scale for the development of nations, another for the intelligence of babies, and even progress toward peace can be calculated according to body count. In a schooled world the road to happiness is paved with a consumer’s index.

A couple of quotes from Ivan Illich’s provocative Deschooling Society (originally published in 1971). Illich is radical and intense, and I tend to find more merit in his critiques than his solutions. But, the difficulty of implementing his suggested solutions only reinforces his point that “schooling” has penetrated all areas of society. Regarding the quote above, the attempts to quantify the unquantifiable have only increased as data and computing power has become more available to institutions and administrators (with little evidence, in my view, that increased measurement actually results in improved learning – if anything, the opposite is true, as time spent that could be spent in research, learning, teaching is spent providing and checking assessment data). Beyond the lost time and focus, there is, as Illich points out, a tendency to devalue that which can’t be measured. This is an attitude that increasingly pervades society outside of school and the workplace, seeping into our personal lives, even our spiritual lives (a church I once attended asked us all fill out what was essentially a marketing demographic survey). If something can’t be quantified, does it matter? Does it have value?