In Praise of Inefficiency and the Incalculable

Much has been written in recent days about the Cleveland Cavaliers improbable victories over the Golden State Warriors in Games 2 and 3 of the NBA Finals.  The Warriors, the NBA’s best team during this year’s regular season and, according to several advanced metrics, one of the most dominating and efficient teams ever, were supposed to steamroll the Cavs, especially given injuries to Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, two of Cleveland’s big three stars.  And yet, as we’ve seen and then read about, this is not the case.  Observers have noted a number of reasons for this.  Cleveland has slowed the pace of games by running down the shot clock, aggressively pursuing offensive rebounds (which prevents Golden State’s big men from releasing on fast breaks), and pressuring the ball in the back court.  Golden State has thrived on playing a fast paced game and they’ve clearly been confounded by Cleveland’s tactics.  Of course, a big factor in Cleveland’s ability to set the pace has been the play of LeBron James.  Here, we read how James, whose career has been marked by efficient scoring and unselfishness, has reluctantly adapted to the conditions of this series by controlling the ball more on offense and putting up many  more shots than usual.  The story, to boil it down to oversimple terms, is that, contrary to predictions based on statistical analysis of the regular season (and even the longer career trajectories of key participants), inefficiency is beating efficiency.

I find this heartening for many reasons, but I want here to focus on just one.  My career as a professor in the humanities has seen a marked trend towards running colleges and universities like for-profit corporations, seeking to minimize costs and maximize productivity and efficiency.  Whatever the merits of this approach in a capitalist enterprise (and I have my doubts), I’m very concerned about the drawbacks of it when it comes to higher education.  Efficiency can mean many things, I suppose, to administrators of college and universities, depending on the area of concern.  But one measure of it that is of particular concern to me is the ratio of student credit hours to faculty positions.  Efficiency-minded administrators want to see this number go up, reasoning, it seems, that student credit hours represent revenues (in the form of tuition dollars) and faculty positions represent expenditures (in the form of salaries).  It follows that one way to enhance the bottom line is to get faculty members to teach more students (other ways include increasing tuition and fees, and cutting faculty salary costs by hiring temporary and adjunct instructors).

I can’t speak for faculty in math and science, but I can state with quite a bit of confidence that learning in the humanities happens best in small groups, where a great deal of discussion can occur.  The materials of the humanities after all can be seen as a long, multi-faceted conversation spanning millennia and encompassing thinkers and writers from all over the globe, all engaged in considering the world, our place and purpose in it, how to live meaningful and purposeful lives and how to help others to do so as well.  In the humanities classroom, we introduce students to that conversation and encourage them to participate in it as well.  There’s no short cut, no other way to do it, no reliable way to measure the success of the process, and little that is efficient in it because, you know, human beings.

So I worry when I encounter approaches that measure the value of everything that happens in colleges and universities by quantitative standards of efficiency; approaches that lead to policies that tend to force humanities departments and instructors to choose between making themselves operate (or at least look) like other disciplines or face getting squeezed out of existence.   When this happens, we extinguish the very places in higher education where alternatives to the blind pursuit of quantitative efficiency can be cultivated and, with them, over time, a memory that such alternatives ever existed and were valued.

Don’t get me wrong, I think the humanities should have an argument for its practical value in the world.  I just don’t think that argument can expect to take a quantitative form.  When allowed to function under proper conditions, the humanities help students to be more knowledgeable about the historical and social context for the issues facing them in the present, more aware of themselves as heirs to a past and agents of a future, and more concerned with their relationships to others in the world.  I think this is valuable, but I wouldn’t know how to put a number on it.

Statistics and quantitative reasoning have much to offer us, in many spheres of human life, including basketball and higher education.  And I can sympathize with the feelings, in times of scarcity, that lead us to want to avoid waste.  But they can’t, by themselves, help us understand every challenge or solve every problem.  On the contrary, by themselves, they tend to create more problems than they solve. Indeed, it is only when contextualized by the kind of contextual, qualitative thinking cultivated in the humanities classroom that their own benefits can be maximized.

So whatever happens in this series, I’m glad that for a moment in the world of basketball, those who care about the sport have been prompted to reconsider the importance of efficiency and to recognize the value of what cannot be calculated.

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