Let's listen to Aristotle

Dear leaders visiting Philadelphia:

As you zip around on a tight schedule this week, please find time to get lost and make discoveries. And keep this in mind: America is ready to be impractical.

No doubt you have some inkling of this. I sense the secret dream of the impractical floating through your hearts like memories of summer vacation. Even as you move toward greater productivity and higher test scores, the doubt of their effectiveness grows.

So do this for me: Put on false beards and overcoats and lose the Secret Service. Go to Rittenhouse Square and lounge on a park bench. Wander beneath the trees, hum tunelessly, speak to yourselves--in other words, act like the locals. Breathe deeply: It's spring. Which is what we need.

We've spent 300 years trying to engineer a better civilization. Machine logic and quantification--the hallmarks of the Newtonian spirit--seem to have reached their limits. For look where we stand:

We have finally invented a unit of measurement--the dollar--with which to weigh the value of everything, from works of art to sexual experiences to the devastation of a tornado.

We have finally invented the means by which to measure education, talent and intelligence. Test scores determine who gets into college, what schools get money, and which principals get to boast of their school's ranking. Over time we have come to believe that unless something can be quantified, it has no value. We have come to value the measurement apart from the thing measured. We begin to worship money and test scores, instead of what we acquire by them.

When you try to quantify everything, you get, for example, a sort of modern suburban architecture not valued for its aspirations to beauty (for it has none) but because it provides the shelter from which individuals can launch for work every morning.

You experience the conversion of open spaces into strip malls and office complexes, because open spaces pay nothing tangible.

You experience the decline in schools of music and arts programs and extra-curricular activities, including language clubs, camping clubs, art clubs and the class play. You lose participation in after-school sports (ask any principal). Attendance at high school Homecoming games has dropped through the floor in recent years. The stands contain half the fans they used to. These activities yield no useful numbers.

You experience the loss of human sensitivity to any behavior we might call unprofessional. Acting out, tardiness, daydreaming, goofing off--even when exhibited for good reasons and with good results--are frowned upon because they don't improve immediate productivity. You experience the culture of communication addiction, in which everyone owns a cel phone, a fax machine and a beeper--because every moment must yield its measurable reward.

Ultimately you experience a withering of soul which accepts the quashing of delight as the lot of being awake.

Let's let the hammers rest a while. It's time to try another approach--in education, economics and community.

Aristotle prized music and contemplation among the highest human pursuits precisely because they brought no practical reward. To Aristotle, practicality was in many cases an objection unto itself: It denied the immediate happiness of doing for the distant satisfaction of having done.

Leaders of the next century, I ask not for greater efficiency, but for less efficiency. I ask not for more hours worked, but for fewer. I ask that you forget national school tests and rating systems, which turn schools into grade factories and students into factory hands. I ask not for greater wealth, but more time and wilder fancies. I ask for volunteers and a re-thinking of paid employment. I ask that we leave some things unmeasured.

So go and look at the flowers, dream of getting crazy. Consider building houses shaped like fireplugs for no good reason. Let the clocks all run down. Declare a holiday without specific ending. I ask you to think about this, nothing more. Don't make a plan. Don't do anything practical.

© Rob Laymon 1997

Return to Columns