Thursday, July 12, 2007

Al Gore, Institutional Behaviour, and School Boards

I’m currently reading Al Gore’s excellent book, The Assault on Reason. Although I am only on chapter two, there is much in it thus far reinforcing the vital role that reason and education must play in a civilized society. As well, there is much in it detailing the abuse that institutions are capable of. It is the latter that I would like to offer a few comments on.

Gore examines the behaviour of two bodies, the CIA and the FBI, to show how those at the top often subvert the integrity of their operatives. For example, in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq, CIA analysts who disputed the link being forged between Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein were under tremendous pressure to keep their own counsel. The cost of displeasing their superiors was too high -lost opportunities for promotions and salary increases. Similarly, in an earlier era, for an FBI agent to challenge J. Edgar Hoover’s belief that Martin Luther King was closely aligned with the Communist Party could have meant dismissal, transfers to undesirable locations, etc. Again, their voices were muted.

Anyone who believes the institution of education operates any differently is deluding him/herself. Although I could provide countless examples, let me draw on one brief anecdote to illustrate. A couple of years ago during an in-service session, one of my colleagues called into question some of the assertions being made about a program that the director of education was promoting board-wide. I guess someone on staff or administration must have communicated this ‘disloyal act,’ because about two days later the director made an unannounced visit to the school, and invited the critical teacher into the principal’s office to ‘clarify his remarks.’ My colleague, through some quick-thinking, was able to defuse the situation, but there is no doubt that had he been less resourceful, serious consequences for his career would have ensued because of his independent thinking.

The message sent to the rest of the staff by the director’s visit was both chilling and all too clear: “Disagree with me at your peril!” There were no further questions about his initiative.

So much for exercising one’s critical faculties.

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