We seem to want to understand our world in binary terms—on/off; heads/tails; good/bad. Although binaries look like opposites, lately I’ve been reflecting on their similarities. If a switch is on, current is flowing. If it is off, current is not flowing. Both describe the state of the current, the state of the appliance. Heads and tails are sides of a coin, and a coin can’t have one without the other. Whether something is good or bad relates to the level of detriment or benefit received from it. As I sit on the grass at my son’s baseball game, I ponder this because it’s way more exciting than the game. That should tell you what a yawn-fest it is watching 9-year olds get walked for two hours.
Binary thinking assumes we can quantify something, that there is no in between. What if it’s neither “good” nor “bad”? What if it’s good for one person, but bad for another? When we can’t select an option from the drop-down box, what do we do? Check the appropriate box, goddamn-it, or you can’t go to the next page! Our post-modern society often forces us to ignore the complexity of the world and of life.
I see binary thinking in education. There is more pressure every day for teachers to ask students to check the right box. For a complex task, the answer isn’t necessarily A or B. The student makes a judgment and comes up with a solution. The teacher might anticipate their answer, but it could also be totally original. In a complex task, teacher judgment assesses whether the student was successful.
Teachers receive soft, but consistent, pressure from parents, students, and administrators to steer away from complex tasks because teacher judgment is continually challenged by students and parents. Teacher judgment is called subjective—and it is, absolutely. Any judgment call is. It’s easier to give a multiple choice question where the answer is right or wrong. No one will question that 2 + 2 is 4. When teachers give a complex task, we sometimes design “fail-proof” rubrics with quantitative rather than qualitative descriptors (e.g., “Has three sources” instead of “Has adequate sources to support research”). No one can accuse us of dreaded subjectivity when, instead of looking for quality, we look for quantity.
I see binary thinking in the reactions people give when they learn I practice jiu jitsu. “Isn’t that for men?” “You fight? Like UFC?” Jiu jitsu isn’t masculine or feminine—it is jiu jitsu. And I love jiu jitsu because it’s not binary. In jiu jitsu, to make things work well you need pushing and pulling. A push is just a pull, but away from you. Force in the opposite direction. If you don’t have your opponent in the limbo of the push-pull, you will not get the sweep. Notice it is not the push or the pull, but a combination, a meeting in the middle, that gets the job done.
Binary is great for a computer. Not so good for humans. Real life is not black or white—it is black, white, and all the colors in between. So, yes, I’m a (rather old) woman and I practice jiu jitsu. It’s part of the color of my life.