The Consequences of Artificial Constraints

In a bizarre, “He said, she, said they said” turn of events that happens quite routinely on the internet (if not everywhere in life), Zwicky Arnold at Language Log posted an excerpt from Language Hat who had a link to a TED talk by Erin McKean titled, “Erin McKean redefines the dictionary”. I feel like I need a PlayBill.

Anyway, in that talk, McKean makes some very interesting comments. While I strongly disagree with her philosophy (“Love makes things real”, which I doubt was an ontological statement, but this is the 21st century, so it could be), she did say something with which I agree wholeheartedly,

“Artificial constraints lead to arbitrary distinctions and a skewed worldview.”

This quote stood out to me because I’m in an e-mail conversation right now that is dealing with the utility and harm of using competition to teach subjects that are not inherently objective (a truth I’ve been trying to show people for years). This one sentence says it all.

If you take a subjective subject, let’s say music, and try to turn it into a competition (which requires some level of objectivity), you are obligated to invent “artificial restraints”. This, of course, leads to arbitrary distinctions (this is important, this is not important), which is then passed on to the students who were then just given a view of the world that is inaccurate, or “skewed”.

There are few things that aggravate me more than when an arts or humanities student comes to me discouraged because they didn’t do well in a competition. I’m not angry with the students, I’m frustrated at a system that insists on telling students whether or not they’re progressing based on an arbitrary formula.