"I would we were all of one mind, and one mind good." --Cymbeline, V.iv.209-210. An English teacher's log. Slow down: Check it once in a while.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Process vs. Product

In an informal conversation at a school function I happened to note the challenges our students face because there is limited space in the regular rotation of required academic courses for arts electives. (The issue was on my mind because we are in the midst of conversations about revising our schedule.) A student artist must often pursue his or her interests with more talent (however little or great that may be) than experience or training. To this observation my well-meaning interlocutor replied, “Well, it’s the process, not the product.” I left the sentiment unchallenged, admiring the implied commitment to making lemonade from lemons or a silk purse out of a sow’s ear or . . . But the next morning I awoke thinking, “No. If the product doesn’t matter, there IS no process!”

I began to wonder what underlying assumptions about the nature of school and of society lie behind this weighting of process more than product.

Of what value is a process if its reason for being is not also valued? In the absence of product, can process really count? Of course process is meaningful. It matters not only that something is done but how it is done: winning an argument through rhetoric without logic, or winning a game through cheating, is not really winning at all.

But there are limits to the value of process in the absence of valuable product. On the subject of leaving the rearing of young children and moral responsibility to amateurs, G.K. Chesterton wrote, “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” Unfortunately many who quote that quip are too quick to apply it to everything. But some enterprises demand professional product over amateur process. You wouldn’t say to your surgeon or your house painter, “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” So where is the line between amateur and professional in the matter of the education of children?

Certainly the process of teaching young people to act in a play or paint a painting or dance a ballet or sing an aria is valuable in itself. But its value comes from inspiring in them also a vision of excellence, a longing for quality of product which only quality of process will achieve. Without that vision and that longing, there are no grounds on which the quality of the process can begin to be judged.

Every day, students are motivated to undergo grueling processes in the name of their concept of product. If we teachers value process over product, are we content to be duping our students by allowing them to pretend that the product matters when we ourselves wisely but secretly know that “it’s process, not product”? At what point are we to stop lying to them for their own good and confess that what they were aiming to achieve never had more meaning beyond the fact that they were aiming? And why, after that point, should they trust anything else we may say to them?

On the other hand, the sentiment that asserts the value of process over product does have some rational justification. My interlocutor was no doubt trying, by setting a virtuous example, to do his part to correct a culture that measures value by grades, scores, college acceptances, income, and net worth. Here we certainly agree. Quality lies in quality rather than in quantity. In my own English class, as my students hear often repeated, it’s the process of reading appreciatively more than the product of getting an A on the test that really matters.

But let us clarify our definitions a little. We should rather say that it is the attainment of the capacity to appreciate literature (product) rather than the taking of reading quizzes (process) that counts. Without the goal of appreciation, the quizzes would be meaningless. The only value of the precise means that is a quiz is the imprecise end that is education. We don’t think learning is an expendable excuse for engaging in the valuable process of quizzing. Indeed the very word “learning,” being a gerund (that is, a verbal noun), contains both process (its verbal aspect) and product (its noun aspect)—the acquiring of knowledge and the knowledge acquired. Are we to split the unsplittable gerund and say that learning (in the former sense) matters but learning (in the latter) does not?

At a deeper level, the valuing of process over product is an outgrowth of the age of Romantic sensibility, whose doctrines we inherit, consciously and unconsciously. One of them is that nature is process, and is good, and that human departures from nature are error—indeed the only error. Nature doesn’t care what comes of what it is doing; it just wants to keep on doing. And human beings, if they’re going to be worth anything, need to get back to nature, our mother, our guide, our measure, and our only judge. “Go with the flow.” “What’s your gut reaction?” “Be true to yourself.” “Let nature take its course.” “It’s genetic.” As Rousseau argued: man is naturally good; it is society that corrupts him.

But is this true? Notice that the phrase “if they’re going to be worth anything” depends on a doctrine that finds the value of a process in its fruits, not in itself. Even if Rousseau were right, there would be no way to judge whether a person had succeeded in “getting back to nature” or “going with the flow” if we didn’t have some consciousness of the difference between natural process and human judgment of results. And on what grounds can Rousseau argue that the most complex social institutions of the world (state, church, and school) are not simply nature doing what it does with human beings? Maybe society is nature’s way of getting human beings to “go with the flow.”

In any case, the “process not product” sentiment is our attempt, without realizing the consequences, to do to ourselves what cannot be done to a gerund: that is to cut ourselves in half, severing activity from judgment; quantity of process from quality of product; body, sensation, and feeling from mind, aspiration, and virtue, as if we were nothing more than animals or plants with the irrelevant and often irritating appendix called consciousness.

But the severing operation will not work. Cannot work. After a dull and poorly acted play that has bored and exasperated its audience, the cast may stay till the cows come home describing in a forum how moving and profound and illuminating the rehearsal process was. For the audience the experience of the play itself remains unredeemed. The forum itself may become a very entertaining high-quality product, of course, especially for believers in process. But the existence of dull, stale, tired forums refutes the notion that process in itself is enough.

After a lifetime of seeking meaning, a saint might discover that the deepest meaning lay all along in the searching. But do we who are not saints have the right to jump to his conclusion? Or worse, to use his conclusion as an excuse to give up our own search for meaning?

As so often, the poet Philip Thompson has articulated the truth about process and product, which, in more general philosophical terms, he calls means and ends:

"Can a means be employed in the absence of ends? Particular ends are indeed the means to further ends, but each individual end (a house, a marriage, a poem, a farm, a friendship, a meal) must be approached and completed for its own sake before it can be known as a means. If there are only means, there are only ends, and thus we work in a wilderness of equal and contradictory ends served in conflict, to our mutual confusion. And how would we know that the world itself was not an end if we did not possess an intuition of the end transcending it, and thus of the particular means it is? . . . [C]onsideration of the community’s well-being must start with the definition of proper ends (say, good houses, good poems, good farms, good meals).

"At any given time men’s minds bring the same values to the whole variety of their actions. Corruption of craft is the law in a society that does not serve particular luminous ends, and every work made by such a society corresponds to the Navy’s meals and houses: 'our works are not ends in themselves, they are simply the means of organizing for . . . .'”

We need only add ceramic pots, paintings, plays, and choral, instrumental, and dance performances (and, dare I add, athletic contests) to Thompson’s list to see why the processes of learning, practice, and rehearsal cannot be rightly valued without acknowledgment of the value of good pots, good paintings, good plays, good performances, and yes, good games. “It matters not whether you win or lose but how you play the game”? Well, after the fact, yes. But the aim to win defines what good athletic practice and good playing mean. (Let no one misunderstand me: I don’t mean winning at all costs. Playing dishonestly isn’t playing the game at all.)

Human beings find meaning not only in trying to achieve a great performance but in the greatness of the performance achieved. It is the concept of that goal which gives the trying whatever meaning it possesses. There is no serious chef who does not care how the meal finally tastes, no serious violinist who believes the quality of the practice is more valuable than the quality of the performance, no serious writer who doesn’t care whether his book ends up being any good. Following Rousseau, we can pretend to worship nature and its making as much as we want; in the end we cannot not care about the thing made—what it is and whether and how it moves us. It is that caring alone that makes us care how it comes to be.

As every child knows, praise for bad product lavished in the name of fostering self-esteem is hogwash. The child knows it, as we all do within our respective capacities, because human beings are those beings who can tell the difference between bad and good quality, and who love the good. We care about the quality of the things we make and achieve because of the highly unnatural, perhaps supernatural, but in any case uniquely human gift of consciousness that takes the form of a driving and inescapable need: to find meaning in things. We will find meaning or die. To the extent that my interlocutor was trying to find meaning in process without product, in activity without purpose, he was trying to do what in reality cannot be done. The meaning of a means lies in whether and how it achieves its ends. Without product, process is nugatory.

So let us be honest with our students and challenge them to quality process in the name of quality product. Let them strive to make a good play or picture or performance, and let us find the time and means to train them in how to do it. The value of our own teaching too lies not alone in putting our students through the process of learning. It lies in the greatest attainable quality of learning—knowledge, understanding, skill, wisdom, and virtue—that they have achieved when our part in the process ends at graduation.