Here’s the problem with process over substance

Every spring I wonder about graduation. I was all right with the idea when I was 18 because then it just meant I could finally get out of public school. That was the limit of my foresight in those days. 

From my vantage point today, I think the public schools confuse process with substance. For example, if a student does not do well in school, what is the remedy? Well, most of the time, it is to prescribe more school. Excuse me, it’s school that they aren’t being successful at, so requiring more school seems to confuse the process and the outcome. Maybe what they need is a summer off. 

Scientists must measure things with some degree of accuracy. My first experience with it probably came in trying to keep a frog’s heart beating when it was taken out of the frog. We wanted to see how long we could keep the heart going without the frog. We did well until the weekend when the janitors locked the building, and we couldn’t get in to change the solution. Janitors and secretaries control the scientific world. 

To make the Ringer’s solution for keeping the heart alive, we measured small amounts of several salts, dextrose, and ATP into a measured volume of sterile water. Careful measurements of liquids are conducted in graduated cylinders. These tall, slender cylinders are made of either glass or polypropylene and are graduated for the exact measurement of liquid. 

This brings me back to the concept of graduation. Now, don’t think I question the value of graduation. It’s obvious that a graduated cylinder is worth a lot more than a non-graduated cylinder, so a graduated person must have been filled more carefully than an ungraduated one. I just don’t know how graduation from school is measured. How does one even read the meniscus for education? 

But graduated cylinders have many uses. I once used a graduated cylinder to determine the specific gravity of insect hemolymph, or blood. I filled the cylinder with different mixtures of kerosene and bromobenzene. Then I agitated the column until a smooth, concentration gradient was established. I calibrated the column using copper sulfate standards. Then, by dropping a drop of hemolymph into the column, I could read out the specific gravity for that blood specimen by where it settled within the column.

Because of this experience, I can’t help but wonder if graduation isn’t actually a measure of density. That would make sense. With my class standing at the time of my own graduation from high school, my position in my graduating class would suggest I was extremely dense.

I think the whole idea of school has taught generations of students to confuse process and substance. If there is something wrong in society, we create a process for dealing with it. Then, if things don’t get better, we demand more process, even though the outcome doesn’t change. 

When it comes to health care, “doctoring” ourselves is considered irresponsible. Learning on our own, or worse, homeschooling, is thought to be unreliable.  Community organizing is subversive if it isn’t paid for by a political party or someone in authority. Charity cannot be trusted unless it is done by the government. If we aren’t free, the government can make us more so. The solution to hate speech is more hate speech from the other side. News overload can be cured with more news?! 

The problem seems to be that we have accurate “graduated measurements of process,” but no “graduated measurements for substance.” Even science falls into the “process” trap. Notice how all the big breakthroughs will be ready soon, with just a little more research.

I have no idea how to solve the problem of process over substance. I don’t know what else to do about the complaint — except to complain some more. That’s the process. Personally, I think it is easier to measure liquids. They have graduated cylinders for that.

Gary McCallister, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), is a professor emeritus of biological sciences at Colorado Mesa University.


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