Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Being Mortal (And Measuring )

I've been reading the book Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. It's not at all a book about education, except that, like everything that deals with being human, it does.

The book is actually about facing the end of life, mortality, and the ways we handle end-of-life decisions in this country. It's about gerontology, assisted living, and making decisions about hospice care. Gawande is a surgeon, a staff writer for the New Yorker, and a professor at Harvard Medical School, and if you or anyone you know and love is ever going to be old, it's worth a read.

There were many passages that jumped out at me. Here's one from a chapter in which he's talking about the way that old age health care and nursing homes hit the wrong targets in their approach to care. 

Compounding matters, we have no good metric's for a place's success in assisting people to live. By contrast, we have very precise ratings for health and safety. So you can guess what gets the attention of people who run places for the elderly; whether Dad loses weight, skips his medications, or has a fall, not whether he's lonely.

Go back and read just the first sentence. There it is. When dealing with the care of living human beings, the things that matter are really hard, if not impossible, to measure. But because we want a concrete, clear, put-in-a-number measure of success, we just measure what can be measured and convince ourselves that it's important, or a valid proxy for what is important. We might want the measurement for "accountability" or so the authorities can Tell What's Working or because we don't trust our own insight or judgment about knowing success when we see it. True for aging humans placed in care facilities, true for young humans placed in schools.

And then there's this one, which I would very much like to put on a poster and then go back in time to hang on the wall of my classroom.

All we ask is to be allowed to remain the writers of our own story. That story is ever changing. Over the course of our lives, we may encounter unimaginable difficulties. Our concerns and desires may shift. But whatever happens, we want to retain the freedom to shape our lives in ways consistent with our character and loyalties.

I love the nuance of this so much. This is not the cry for "Liberty" that we here from pseudo-conservatives these days demanding the right to be free from rules or obligations to society or other human beings. Nor does it pretend that we just set our vehicle on one track and follow it straight on no matter what we learn or see or discover or encounter. This is not a demand to live in the land of Do As You Please.

It's a basic human desire--to write our own story (the book was published in 2014, the year before Linn Manuel Miranda built a powerhouse finish to Hamilton by raising the question of "Who lives, who dies, who tells your story.") That desire applies to students and teachers both, and it is necessarily wobbly and fuzzy and not in tune with the desire of some to reduce it all to a simple formula, precise and set in concrete. 

Being able to write my own story doesn't mean that I don't face obstacles. rules, requirements, the strictures of institutions and society. But I still write my own story and set my own course as I travel about the seas I didn't create against the weather I didn't ask for. It means that while others may have the power to set the conditions under which I travel through life, they do not control how I respond to those conditions. And that should be true for students getting started in the world as well as older humans approaching the end of life.

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