Over the past three decades, a radical shift has occurred in how we go about the business of living, working, believing and playing. The early 1980s brought us trickle-down economics and a leaner, less compassionate government. For those conscious during those times, we saw major tax revolts, the complete annihilation of the mental health system and the rise of a righteous indignation for any sort of dissonance or dialogue.
These changes occurred across party lines, and their infection spread to every major sector — education, health care, investment banking, retail, even religion and leisure. And so we have spent the past 30 years falling in line, embracing the normative and drinking the Kool-Aid of corporate and political America, which has increasingly crossed the line into education and faith.
In the process, we have become slaves to a bureaucracy that has created a self-serving life of its own. We don’t own it, it owns us. Enslaving a culture is quite simple really, and can be accomplished in a few “easy to remember” steps.
» Step one: Convince everyone there is a right way to do everything. The secret is to find that way. Well, not exactly. The right way is far less important than the ability to convince people that it is the right way. In this model, spin is everything and there is no such thing as bad publicity. Villains thrive and incompetence reigns in this milieu.
The rise and fall and rise again (accomplished with your tax dollars and bipartisan support) of the financial services industry is a fine example. Did the good guys win? The financial services industry led us to the cliff, stepped aside and looked on in mock horror as average Americans tumbled down the cliff. They then returned to their lairs unscathed and ready for the next windfall.
» Step two: Tie success to doing everything the right way. Six Sigma comes to mind. Developed by Motorola for its manufacturing processes, a Six Sigma process is one in which 99.99966 percent of the products manufactured are statistically expected to be free of defects. It is a worthy goal to be sure, but at what price? Few would argue that Six Sigma reduces the humanity of the workforce to mere numbers and defines the only worthy end as profit. That’s not my father’s company, nor was it his father’s.
» Step three: Use data to support success and impose universal rubrics. In his first bid for the presidency, George W. Bush touted the success of his education reform in Texas. It was not until a few years later that it was discovered the vast majority of gains were realized by lowering the educational benchmarks in the state. As is typical, our short cultural attention span quickly dismissed this revelation and educational “standards” were embraced with a new and dangerous enthusiasm.
Unfortunately, standards are not working, unless of course you take the data being produced by our schools as evidence. Data from educators with an agenda should always be viewed with suspicion. Most often, however, it is accepted without review or criticism. We want to believe our schools are good and the education system is working for our children. It is not, and standards have done little if anything to stem the tide of declining academic readiness of our students. The United States currently ranks 20th globally and has been in a decline for the past two decades. In spite of this, we act and vote as if the opposite were true.
» Step four: Convince people that all of this is in their own best interest. Whether it is the latest political propaganda, a pharmaceutical company peddling its latest wonder drug or the pastor of a mega church dolling out salvation and damnation like candy at a carnival, the underlying message is, “We want what’s best for you and we know what that is.” Only they don’t.
It is, admittedly, far easier to surrender, to let the currents take us where they will. But the destination of those currents has changed and with it the need for us to reflect on whether this is really where we want to be going.
I don’t believe it is, so I’m sticking my feet in the mud and standing against the tide. We need a new direction.