Tuesday, December 06, 2005

In my 11th grade math class, some students once balked at the teacher's policy of not giving full credit if you didn't show your work or if you made a mistake in your work, but still ended up with the right answer. His response went something like this:

Mr. P: So if you get the ball at the 50-yard line, and you run to the end zone, it's a touchdown, right?
S: Right.
Mr. P: Always?
S: Yeah.
Mr. P: What if you ran out of bounds on your way?
S: Oh, well that's different...
Mr. P: What if your teammate committed a holding penalty?
S: Well, no.

I thought this made a key point very succinctly: we may be a results-oriented society, but process counts. You take math class not to actually solve a particular equation but how to solve equations in general. Or, at another level of abstraction, you take algebra in junior high not because you'll need to know algebra as an adult, but because you need to learn how to work through processes systematically, and how to reason abstractly. We care about process in other areas too: due process is critical in many areas of the law, we feel better about elections even when our candidate loses if we are convinced the process wasn't rigged, we expect our financial transactions to work smoothly, etc. A large society is based on processes--simple and complex--that work the way they are supposed to. Results are great, but without a well-functioning process, getting a good result is random chance, and just because you get a good result in any one instance does not mean that you will continue to get good results if you are following a faulty process. A good result obtained using a faulty process can actually be detrimental, because it hides the underlying problems.

Ladies and gentlemen, your 2006 Rose Bowl.

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