The Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 killed about a fifth of the city’s 200,000 residents and leveled 85 percent of its buildings, including almost every major church — on a church holiday, when they were packed with parishioners. It also shook 18th-century philosophers to the core. “Candide,” Voltaire’s comic polemic against the belief that all was for the best in this best of all possible worlds, was written in the quake’s aftermath, as Voltaire was abandoning any notion of godly oversight of the world’s affairs. The young Immanuel Kant was sufficiently upset to research and write one of the first books ever on the causes of quakes, before he turned to his life’s work of creating ethical codes that functioned in both the presence and absence of God.
Today, the quake, tsunami and, most particularly, the potential of a nuclear catastrophe in Japan should weaken at least one of our own deeply rooted faiths — in our own infallibility. Consider, for a moment, all the systems that the experts said had been rendered safe, foolproof and immune to disaster, and that nonetheless crashed during the past three years. There was the financial system, an assemblage of immense wagers on all manner of things, which an array of mathematicians and economists assured us could not possibly come tumbling down. There was deep-water oil drilling, which the oil companies’ geologists, among others, insisted could not possibly result in a cataclysmic spill. And today, there are nuclear power plants, safeguarded, their engineers have told us, against the oh-so-remote possibilities of meltdowns.
These assurances — at least, most of them — were not given in bad faith. Wall Street’s quants genuinely believed that they had erected a stable system, as did the geologists and the nuclear engineers. The equations were elegant; things penciled out. At long last, humankind had triumphed over risk.
Except when it hadn’t.
What all these wizards did not factor in was that these were all just as much human and social systems as they were mathematical. Behind the equations were human and social assumptions, rooted in such human and social impulses as greed, denial and hubris.
The Great Gates tells us he has solved the riddle of teaching and education and will ensure that all students learn from "great teachers" if only the country will accept Gates Foundation-sponsored evaluation systems to rate teachers by value-added assessments.
Except that the tests are badly written, they're graded by $10 an hour temps, and the value-added systems used to grade teachers have margins of error between 12%-35%.
Just like the financial system is safe from risk, nuclear power plants are modernized and immune from major catastrophe and oil rigs never leak, the modern education reform movement has the future of students all mapped out for success - if only we would all listen to them.
Greed, denial, and hubris indeed.