WNCS and The Point
Monday March 8, 2004

George E. Longenecker, Assistant Professor
Vermont Techncial College
217 Conant, Randolph Center, Vermont 05061

Recently everyone at our college was asked how our departments have become more efficient. At the same time we were asked how we have become more effective. The questions are well intentioned, for nobody wants to waste time and money. Yet the juxtaposition of efficiency and effectiveness made me think. Does efficiency necessarily lead to effectiveness?

In her 2001 book, The Cult of Efficiency, Janice Gross Stein looks at how efficiency has become an end rather than a means. If we are efficient in cranking out the end product, then we have done a great job, especially if we have produced at the lowest possible cost. However, in education and in medicine we are working with human minds and human bodies, where solutions are not always amenable to the lowest possible cost.

Whizzing through the class or lab as efficiently as possible may indeed not be effective. Socrates was not a particularly efficient teacher. With his rambling dialogues and low teacher-pupil ratios, he would not make the efficiency grade today. In education we are dealing with minds and souls. A student- teacher relationship cannot be measured, yet it is incalculable in value. Of course we want students who master the essentials; however there are intangibles in teaching that cannot be quantified or even delivered efficiently.

So too it is in medicine. Nobody denies that medical care is expensive and that waste must be eliminated. Speed is critical in good emergency care. However, efficiency as an end is inherently destructive to good medical practice. Good medicine means taking the time to listen to the patient and to evaluate. Good medicine, like good teaching requires compassion, a quality not efficiently quantifiable. To rush a diagnosis to save money is not efficient or effective in the long run.

The efficiency question bothered me because I am one of those people who is considered a good time manager - efficient. Thereis value in doing our work in a reasonable time so that we have time left over to think, to love, to write, to walk, to draw or to be inspired in thousands of other ways. Efficiency is okay if it leaves us time to be human, effective and humane. The goal in education is learning. The goal in medicine is healing. When the goal becomes efficiency, we have lost our humanity.

I’m George Longenecker, and that’s the way I see it.