ALBERT Einstein has often been quoted as saying, “Not everything that can be counted counts. Not everything that counts can be counted.”
He also said, “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
These are profound sayings for a world that is obsessed with numbers and figures in search for “excellence”. The notion fundamentally arises from the skewed industry rule of thumb alleging that “what gets measured gets done,” regardless of if what you are measuring is not the right thing.
What matters is that it becomes an easy and lazy way to arrive at some idea of “success” fit for the league table, leading to an arbitrary “ranking”. Then the obsession takes hold.
Consequently, it becomes a standard way of thinking which insidiously creeps into the academia. When academia, too, gets caught up in the hype and fails to pause and think hard, it falls victim like the proverbial “fish” and ends up believing it is “stupid” as referred to by Einstein.
A similar issue came up at the recent UK-East Asia Higher Education Forum organised by the British Council and the Association of Commonwealth Universities.
Themed, “The Role of Higher Education Institutions in Realising the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)”, what counts can be no more than a mere academic exercise.
For example, in attempting to increase access to education (SDG 4), citing numbers without caring what is taught and learned renders it useless, even by approximating it to grades or credits as an outcome of “learning”. This was articulated by Harry Lewis, dean of Harvard (1995-2003), when he remarked: “Universities have forgotten their larger role for students. Rarely will you hear more than the bromides about personal strength, integrity, kindness, cooperation, compassion, and how to leave the world a better place than you found it.”
This, in a nutshell, is what is implied in making SDGs a reality. Lewis further explained: “The greater the university, the more intent it is on competitive success in the marketplace of faculty, students and research money. And the less likely it is to talk seriously to students about their development into people of good character who will know that they owe something to society.”
The irony today is the reverse. The claim is that society owes students a living; pushing the situation to be exponentially unsustainable. Simply put, it creates tension and aggression as is experienced when resources are exploited repeatedly, and with no figures to give clarity to the actual situation.
On the other hand, evidence seems to show some link between “success” and higher levels of wellbeing (sejahtera). In Falsafah Pendidikan Kebangsaan (1996), this is described as “kesejahteraan diri”.
Studies show that a sense of wellbeing precedes important outcomes of thriving, including fulfilling work, satisfying relationships, pro-social behaviour, superior health and longevity, according to S. Lyubomirsky, an American professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of California, Riverside, and author of the bestseller The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want (on strategies backed by scientific research that can be used to increase happiness).
Put in another way, we may have neglected to see education as a multi-dimensional endeavour beyond a one-dimensional numbers’ game, normally biased to (analogue) economics. Indeed, the human capital theory is emphatic, whereas education is re-theorised as an economic determinant.
Suggestions to the contrary are regarded an aberration to the theory. So we are stuck with the key performance indicators (KPIs) for good!
That said, another expression is by using key intangible performance (KIP).
This is the challenge when it comes to the intangibles that have long been neglected, as reminded by Lewis.
Must everything be counted only in mathematical terms, when they actually count? Or metaphorically, must “climbing trees” (read as KPIs) be the only way to acknowledge “success” and “excellence” as alluded to by Einstein?
If so, maybe we need to shake off the analogue mindset and embrace the digital era of impact and outcomes, bottom up, where connectivity, integration and wholesomeness matter most.
The writer, an NST columnist for more than 20 years, is International Islamic University Malaysia rector
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the New Straits Times