Online survey Praestare perplexes

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February 8, 2008

6:00 PM

Just out of curiosity: Can you verbalize and quantify all your goals and beliefs? Could you dramatically improve your quality of living by weighing “positive life values”? Is becoming a better person as easy as taking a 20-minute survey?

p. The Praestare Project, available via a link in the myWM portal, says yes. Touted as “A Values-Based Personal Development Program” and a “Life Values Inventory (LVI),” the website is sponsored by the Counseling Center. And it is, to me, more than a little bit creepy.

p. Praestare is Latin; pronounced “preh-star-uh,” the project defines it as “to excel, to fulfill, to be responsible for.” In short, this survey aims to clarify your ambitions. Its six steps are brimming with vague jargon: “Crystallizing” and “Prioritizing” values, “Strategies for Optimal Expression of Values,” “Managing Life Transitions.” Looking for fun things to do this weekend? Try the “Leisure Activities Locator.”

p. The questionnaire asks you to rate the degree to which certain values “guide your behavior” on a scale of one to five — a misleading exercise, to say the least. What’s most important to you: God, money, art, nature, exercise, alone time? Decide. Right now. On a scale of one to five.

p. Trickier still is its tendency to rephrase the same values in different language. On page one, you rank “Believing in a higher power;” on page two, this reappears as “Believing that there is something greater than ourselves.” Page one’s “Having financial success” becomes page two’s “Making money;” “Being sensitive to others’ needs” is “Helping others,” etc. Page three has even more rewordings. Surely there’s a psychological rationale to this, but it strikes me as deceptive.

p. At its core, Praestare operates under a dubious assertion: Personalities and values are formulaic. Praestare believes our aspirations can be loaded into a hierarchy. Plug our hopes and dreams into a computer and out comes the prognosis. It knows what our next move will be.

p. I don’t doubt that the project’s authors and sponsors are very intelligent people who want what’s best for us. I accept, furthermore, that distraught and lost students might find a friend in Praestare. But why proffer a website as a stand-in for face-to-face counseling? What good can come of trusting a program to do a psychiatrist’s job?

p. My own LVI was accurate, albeit reductive. To Praestare, I most value achievement, creativity, belonging and concern for others; I least value financial prosperity and spirituality. But this index holds true only at the broadest level. My “concern for others,” for instance, might fulfill the same requirements as “spirituality” without being explicitly God-oriented; this is what secular humanism is all about. And on some days — hell, on some hours — I respect independence more than belonging. On those occasions and others, Praestare’s got me all wrong.

p. Far from missing the forest for the trees, Praestare misses the trees for the forest. The survey boils down human potential until it’s no more than a series of clickable traits. Complicated sub-values, nature versus nurture, mood shifts and peer pressure — the stuff that causes problems in the first place — disappear.

p. The only thing standing between you and your desires is a big time-management chart.

p. Self-help book sales are booming right now, and the hottest titles make promises eerily similar to Praestare’s. Rhonda Byrne’s “The Secret” has topped the Times’ hardcover advice bestseller list for 55 weeks. Her thesis declares that constant positive thinking is a magnet that attracts unbridled success in all walks of life. It’s free will run amok: If you want something enough, it will be yours.

p. Maybe it really is this simple. Maybe our objectives fit into a few intuitive categories and happiness requires only persistence. Perhaps if subscribing to Praestare were mandatory, the College would face no more catastrophes, disagreements or conflicts of interest, leaving the student body steeped in good news.

p. However, all it takes is one act of fate, one victim of circumstance and the illusion is shattered. Praestare grants you total control of the future. Just out of curiosity: Do you have that? And do you want it?
Dan Piepenbring is a senior at the College.

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