In a ratings-obsessed culture, another way

I studied pedagogy when I was in college and one of my favorite pedagogical theorists was Alfie Kohn. For me, he’s a profound thinker. He is a great teacher of teachers and a great teacher of parents as well. His work often revolves around offering alternatives to grading, rewarding, and punishing. You can see his case against grades in this article. He wrote another text called Punished by Rewards which expands his basic theory that success that is based on an extrinsic factor is ultimately damaging.

Kohn is right, intrinsic motivation beats rewards. The best students are motivated by wanting to learn not the affirmation that comes from grades. I tend to agree with Kohn when it comes to this basic theory.

But my actions betray me. I love affirmation, especially the verbal kind. And I love consuming highly rated things!

There isn’t a Sunday that goes by that I don’t read Craig Laban’s restaurant reviews and dream about eating at his so-called three-bell restaurants. Just this last Sunday, Laban got me thinking it was rational to pay $85 for a sixteen course dinner that specializes in “molecular gastronomy” because he offered Marigold Kitchen a three-bell review.

I have Pitchfork’s Best New Music on my RSS feed so I know when the kings of indie music rate a record so highly that I need to listen to it. Not surprisingly, I’m listening to Beyoncé’s latest record right now. Don’t worry, I’ll offer my thoughts on its cultural implications when I give it a few more listens. Pitchfork gave the queen of pop music’s record a near 9 review. It was wan 8.8. The different between an 8.7 and an 8.9? I don’t know, but that decimal matters. Perhaps the most sought after reward is Pitchfork’s year-end list—the top 50 albums of the year. Being number one on that list is a greater honor than Album of the Year.

And I do the same thing with my cooking appliances, he recipes I use to make dinner, he beer I drink, the books I read, the shows I watch. There’s something about having the best thing, and having it rated on an arbitrary scale that compels us. Everyone knows what Rotten Tomatoes is. And with my latest gadget, a Nintendo 3DS, I’ve frequented the aggregate rating website Game Rankings which much greater regularity.

Even the Chip Kelly and the Eagles couldn’t be saved from the completely arbitrary nature of ratings. This time different players were graded, as if there was an objective standard. Measurements are helpful mainly because a standard exists. An ounce weighs an ounce because someone (arbitrarily) created the standard. But when it comes to assessment, no such standard exists. Ask any teacher how he or she grades papers at the top of the pile and to the bottom.

The need to have the best thing is a major problem in our narcissistic era. How amazing it is to have anything at all. The best? I’m not sure that’s so important. Furthermore, the measurement of what is the best is so random, it’s hard to think of it as remotely scientific. Some of these ratings are coming down to a tenth of a point! Comparisons are odious anyway–it doesn’t make sense for us to comparing ourselves to one another, let alone a fabricated rubric.

If ratings are necessary, they should be done personally and based on where a person is in his or her life, on his or her journey, and so on. And when it’s that personal, a relationship is simply better. People want rules, but I resist offering them, because systemic rules take away the relationship. Don’t reduce the church don’t to a list of dos-and-don’ts. It’s more than that.

I think Jesus models that. I think that’s why he taught in parables. I think that’s why he told stories. Why he built relationships. And why applying the scripture to our lives as if it’s a textbook doesn’t make sense. If you are looking for “contradictions,” there will find them.

For example, in Mark 10, when Jesus begins to address the rich young ruler, he isn’t necessarily making a rule that all of us should follow (although we would definitely benefit if we shared all things in common), it’s a personal story. It’s about the man, his wealth, and his pursuit of perfection. It’s personal.

When Jesus is asked to make an assessment or to answer a dichotomous question, he often goes about it another way. Out of the twenty five times Jesus was asked a close-ended question, he only offered a direct response four of those times.

What I think that tells us is that Jesus meets us where we are. I think that’s the purpose of the incarnation. I don’t think he is assessing and judging us on some standard—to which we would all fall short. None of us are perfect, but Jesus is.

Like I said before, there is room for statistics, trends, and measurements. There is a use for them. But to assess value, meaning, importance? I think we’re way off of the mark.

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