Monday, May 24, 2010

Testing and worthiness

The nasty twinge about half way down my back on the right side has abated today. I was forced to curtail my wood splitting session yesterday because of the pain. The remnants of three big locust trees are stacked in a line along the edge of our property. I felled them because they were dying and infested by ants. Now they are dead -- and infested by ants. I need to split and dry the good wood, and burn the rest. The large logs resist my efforts to move them, though, and sometimes they win. We love our home -- built in the 1960s by a professor at E&H. He built it on the ridge at the edge of the woods at the perimeter of the college campus. He built it out of timber salvaged from a Saltville train trestle. We are surrounded by trees. The sun is already raging this morning, but we are protected by our trees -- their leaves like countless miniature umbrellas hoisted above us.

To me trees are the most majestic of nature's creation. I feel most connected when traversing a trail deep in a mature forest. Everything feels buffered by a stand of big trees. They are also a big pain. Every season has its own kind of tree litter that we have to deal with: pollen, flowers, leaves, and branches. The ants and termites that live on trees also try to live on and in our house. Simply because of their height and mass, trees are dangerous. This brings me to my main point (and, I will eventually relate that point to running) that the height of trees is, in at least one sense, a waste.

Trees live on sunlight. Trees grow upward to reach the sunlight. The light is just as potent at ground level, though, as 50 feet up. So a tree can just as effectively harvest sunlight at the ground as 50 feet up at full canopy height. And staying low would be a more efficient use of the tree's resources. It could commit more of its energy to making leaves and reproductive organs and less into making wood. Never mind that people generally like trees better than bushes, bushes are more efficient organisms. So why don't trees settle for being bushes?


A tree doesn't settle for being a bush because trees beat bushes. A bush is literally overshadowed by a tree. You've probably heard of ecological succession. An exposed hillside will become populated with nice, humble, efficient bushes. Eventually, though, slow-growing organisms will invade and begin to build big, fancy, tall trunks upon which, eventually, a mighty canopy will rest. The stature-challenged bushes will be displaced, and the shadow of the large trees will cover the forest floor. That's not the end of the story, though.

Trees don't really win. The competition is ongoing, it's just between trees and other trees, or trees and their parasites. Trees have to strive to get taller and taller, and more and more vulnerable, just to obtain the same resources. The escalation is a biological arms race. Organisms adapt to their immediate environment, including the competition. They don't have a long-range view. We are in a special position to see that trees would all benefit if they could just agree to cap their height at something reasonable -- say 25 feet. They can compete through other means -- make more efficient leaves, or really agile spermatophores. This business of growing to dangerous heights could all be contained -- and everyone would be better off! (Again, I'm not concerned with the aesthetic appreciation of tall trees, which has its own biological explanation).

OK, so trees compete, and runners compete. Is that all I got? What's the connection? First, another digression...

Did you take a college entrance exam when you were in high school? Maybe you took it seriously, maybe you didn't. If you were blessed, as I was, with benignly negligent parents, you probably didn't worry about preparing. Do you know what kids do now?

Maybe there are some tests that seek to answer a simple question, something like: has this person learned what they need to know? A driving test is like that. You get an answer, up or down. Some state licensure tests might be like that -- for plumbing or electric work, say. These tests have passing scores, so you either make the grade or you go back to study some more. College entrance exams may seem to be like that, but they aren't. Like most tests, they are designed to show differences between people. Colleges compete for the best students, and college entrance exam scores array students hierarchically. Colleges can most easily compare students using the scores on a college entrance exam.

'In the beginning' the test was a measure of the capacities of students as they had developed through the standard K-12 school curriculum. Assuming students have similar classroom experiences, the test will accurately reflect the variation between students in readiness to continue schooling through college. Students (and their families), like trees, adapt. There are test-taking strategies, after all, that can bump your score up a little. Simple things like getting a good night's sleep and eating a wholesome breakfast. Just slightly more strategic things like "go ahead and guess if you can eliminate two of the choices." Not only might those things raise your score, but if you do them, and others don't, you will probably score a little higher than others -- even if they are equally ready to continue schooling through college. When it comes to college admissions, you will have an edge over your equals.

More power to those kids, you say! The motivation to do well on tests is all part of it. Maybe it means they actually are better prepared for college -- since they know how to be at their best for a test. I think that's a stretch. Call me traditional, but I think the valuable stuff in school is experienced in class when there is no test, and no test looming. A good test would measure that stuff -- not the ability of the test-taker to prepare. Come on, you say, we're just talking about common sense stuff -- like getting a good night's sleep! Everybody should do that anyway. Fair enough.

The students in school now who care about college, though, go way beyond that. They take dual credit college courses while in high school, and they take test preparation courses. They buy books, take practice tests, go to tutoring, etc. The intent isn't enrichment. The point is to improve one's score on the test. Again, we can respect the effort that young people make toward improving themselves. The unfortunate consequence that we also need to recognize, however, is that other students will be compelled to prepare to the same extent. And when they do, no one will have gained, and everyone will continue to pay the added cost in time and energy of test preparation. It's a treadmill.

Finally, running. If you are like me you will run headfirst into a menacing thunderstorm before you'll go to the gym and get on a treadmill. Even if you can get a good workout that way -- it just doesn't feel right to run and not get anywhere. Getting somewhere -- even just experiencing the natural world for an hour -- is a virtue. It's worth it, even if nothing else is gained.

Much of what athletes can do to improve performance is like the test-preparation that students use. The common sense stuff is even the same -- eat and sleep well (if possible). The use of performance enhancing drugs is a problem because it escalates the kind of preparation that others must make, just to stay even. We want athletes to prepare, and try to separate themselves, through hard work. If they all have to work harder, so much the better. There isn't much to value about athlete's figuring out the best steroid recipe. Likewise with a test-prep course. We value the application of energy into one's studies over the course of years -- not the strategic memorization of strategies and likely questions in the weeks before a test.

Some kinds of striving are worthy. The simple test goes: "I did it, but didn't achieve what I hoped. It was still worth it." I couldn't say that about taking a test-preparation course. I couldn't say that about taking performance enhancing drugs. I can say that about the 5 weeks I spent running in Colorado last summer to prepare for Western States, and about every run I am doing now. Especially the ones under the grandest trees in the mountains of southwest Virginia.


  1. at the risk of sounding redundant: good post.
    and hell, yes.. it's worth it.

  2. Striving, virtue, value, and trees...Aristotle meets Thoreau. Throw in some George Sheehan for the running & philosophy...mix it together with a 21st century spin and you've got Eric Grossman. You and Anton Krupicka should win blogger awards for best running blog with a metaphysical timbre. You both just feast on aligning your runs with the rhythms of nature, thought, body, spirit...then you allow yourself some ego time with your races. Great posts of late, thank you...