Facing Backwards to Face Forwards By Bryn Sadownik

My son is four and has been asking some really interesting questions lately.   Did someone put the moon up in the sky?   Can you turn the stars off with our light switch? From an early age, we learn about the world through questions, many of which parents can be entirely unprepared for.   If there is one thing that I want him to keep alive and refine in school is the impetus to always ask questions, to think critically and to get answers, or as close as we can to them.  Luckily this is something that we value in Canadian society.  You can even grow up to be an evaluator! (Though fire fighter, doctor and nurse are still top of his mind)

The heart of evaluation lies in critical thinking.  We are not experts in a program but we can help those who are part of it to step back, ask good questions, and uncover the answers.  Fundamentally we help people look at what they are doing in a new way.

While the Canadian Evaluation Society is only thirty six years old, the value of critical thinking and its role in society is voiced by much earlier practitioners thousands of years ago.  In university I read Plato’s Apology, as guided by my philosophy professor with a southern U.S. drawl.  In it, Socrates is defending himself at a trial. One of the key accusations is that “Socrates does injustice and is meddlesome, by investigating the things under the earth and the heavenly things, and by making the weaker speech the stronger, and by teaching others these same things.”

Instead of finding a good defense lawyer who can get him off, Socrates proudly defends who he is and his role in society.   Wisdom is not always knowing.  It is asking questions that some people may not want to answer.  If that is being meddlesome, so be it.

Socrates likens himself to a gadfly (better known to us as horsefly), a persistent and annoying fly that will awaken “a great and well-born horse who is rather sluggish because of his great size.”  By this he meant his society of Athens.   He threatens that if they find him guilty and sentence him to death, Athens would loose out because they are unlikely to find another gadfly anytime soon.   But lucky for us the tradition has evolved and is alive and well in Canada.   Sheila Fraser comes to mind as my favourite, modern-day gadfly, who rocked the political establishment for years by unveiling the sponsorship scandal.

Many of our institutions are created with critical review in mind: we tenure professors so they can speak out; we mandate evaluations and audits to truly gain a better understanding of what we do, and how we can do it better. Whatever we call ourselves – evaluators, ‘auditors’, or even enlightened leaders who value good questions – we have a great responsibility facing forward to keep the tradition alive and to make it stronger.  Plato would surely love to attend the 2017 CES conference in Vancouver!

Bryn has over 15 years of experience in the field of impact assessment and cost-effectiveness analysis and is currently Program Manager, Evaluation and Community Impact with Vancity Community Foundation.