Michael Jordan, Quantifiable Data, The Pursuit of Excellence, and Public Education in America

I came of age (as the hackneyed phrase goes) in the nineties, a magical time when the Chicago Bulls ruled the world and Michael Jordan was the king of the universe. As a young kid, I didn’t really care about sports: I wasn’t very good at them and I didn’t really grow up in America, so my exposure and interest were limited on two fronts. But by 1991, my family had moved back to the States and I was suddenly aware of something very, very cool: there were these guys, the Bulls, who played like the best orchestra in the world. They were all awesome individually–Michael Jordan was basically God in Nikes, and there was this guy Scottie Pippen who was a star in his own right–but they also played as a real team. By the time the Bulls were going for their “threepeat” in the ’92 NBA season I–and just about every other kid in America–loved the Bulls. I didn’t really even care about basketball, to be honest–I liked it all right I guess, but what I really loved was to watch Jordan play. By the time I was headed to college, the Bulls were finishing up their second “threepeat,” and I knew for certain that I didn’t really care about basketball at all–just the Bulls and Jordan. I also knew that this was somehow lame or shameful, and it was also kind of sad. I only cared about seeing something really, really good. But who could blame me–especially after Jordan decided to come back after giving minor league baseball a shot, especially after game five of the ’97 championship, when Jordan, running a fever of over one hundred degrees, scored 38 points including a game-deciding three-pointer in the last minute. That’s pure magic; that’s divine spirit channeled. But why am I going on about this? You were probably there too, and if you weren’t, you know the mythology.

The point is that we love winners in America. We love to see someone excel at something, to do something better than anyone else, and do it harder, faster, longer, more, more, more. We don’t just want excellence, we want spectacular excellence (and conversely, devastating, soul-crushing failure). And we want excellence we can measure: points made, times beaten, wins racked up, championship victories accrued. We want to know for sure who won: we don’t like ties (soccer will never really take off in America). We want objective evidence to point to, so we can say plainly what is good and what is great and what is excellent and what is not: see, the numbers are right there.

This need for winners is, of course, not confined to the world of sports. Americans now seem to want to know who the winners in education are: they want test scores and school grades that objectively determine what a student knows or does not know. But the ability to think critically, rationally, logically, and creatively cannot truly be determined objectively. Education isn’t a basketball game, with points, and winners, and losers. When a basketball team is good, we know that they’re good because there is a system of rules that make the game a game (without the rules, there is no game). However, education is not a game, and treating it as such is unfair to young people in schools.

I am not making an argument that all kinds of testing be done away with, or that objective testing can’t provide a clear idea of the strengths and weaknesses of students and schools. The right kind of tests help assess deficiencies that can then be remedied. However, America is doing little right now to educate their children. Our educational model in this country goes back to the Industrial Revolution; we are behind the rest of the world in science education; we have abandoned the idea of teaching civic responsibility and bought in to the myth that to be American is to be a cannibal capitalist. There is clearly a gap between public expectations of public education and public support of public education. I don’t think that the average American comprehends the genuine literacy crisis that this country is faced with right now, but it’s real, it’s happening, and the results will be objectively measurable in the ever-growing gap between the rich and the poor in this country.

I’m on a rant now; sorry. I’ll try to be clearer: standardized tests like the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) are a big waste of taxpayer money. They prove nothing and divert resources–money and educators’ time and energy–away from meaningful instruction and real learning. I’m not arguing that the test is too difficult–it’s not, and you certainly should be able to master such material in order to graduate high school–but the amount of stock the state has put into this test is ridiculous. It delimits creative and complex thought, limiting students to bubbling answers without recourse to explanation or rationale. Even the written response sections don’ t allow for real analytical assessment–students must literally think inside a tiny little box, and if their answer goes outside of the box, it will not be considered for grading. We need to abandon these types of tests and replace them with a meaningful, real-world based curriculum. We need to teach kids word processing, website design, standard office programs. Institute new hands-on science programs. Bring back shop, home ec, etc. But that’s not what’s happening: instead of curricula based on real-world needs, Florida continues to ask for objective data in place of real thinking, test scores instead of laboratories and practicums.

We all knew that Michael Jordan was great; we didn’t need the scoreboard to tell us. We didn’t need the MVP awards and National Championships and thousands of points he made to tell us. You could see it in his jump, in his tongue, in his eyes. It came out of the TV and you could feel it. MJ’s excellence was truly excellent because it transcended objective data: even a nerd like me could recognize it and honor it and hope to reach something close to it in some unknown way. We loved MJ because he represented an unquantifiable, nearly ineffable excellence; I believe that this excellence has a potential analog in the mind of any student in this country. But when we get hung up on things like points, scores, and grades, we not only send the wrong message, we also squander and misspend that potential.