Renewal Nine : We’re Learning What?

I like teaching, mostly because I’m learning. I have no idea if students are, but I know I am. In fact, I’m very uncomfortable with either the word teacher or student, the hierarchy seems at least partially artificial. The implication that is often derived from the distinction is that teachers are smarter than students. At the college level (and I suspect in high school as well), I find this ludicrous. Just because I may know more about a specific subject, doesn’t make me a smarter person. I think both “sides” are better off keeping this distinction in mind.

The problems of academia are many, but mostly seem to lie in the management of the system. This is not to say the problem is administrators and/or members of a board of trustees. The problem seems to be the need for influence.

In business, if one wants to know what is going on, the saying is to follow the money. In politics, I suspect that one needs to follow both the money and the influence. In academia there is not much money, so if one wants to understand what is happening, one must follow who’s getting and/or giving the most influence (though money can still be involved).

In California, Assembly Bill 1725 mandated participative governance, at least at the community college level. This is influence, but not necessarily for those used to it.

In business, as I was for nearly 23 years, one could not wait, one could not ignore, one could not, not think ahead. It was death. In academia, one can do all of those things, at least in the short-term. Committees and management and paperwork are endless. This is not a bad plan for bad ideas, but a good idea can grow old and die before ever seeing the light of day.

So, I understand some administrators’ position that an end run sometimes needs to be invoked in all this endless circling around a problem. However, I can also understand the faculty’s position that end runs are disrespectful, and certainly not collegial or collaborative.

The argument for any of these positions is supposedly serving the students. This is the banner under which the various sides proclaim their right to prevail. Not a new concept by any means, but one that might need some revision, despite our Pleistocene nervous system that still fears being caught unaware.

Part of the problem occurs when the end run is set in motion on the front side of the issue. Then, when it is announced, students, faculty, or classified staff become annoyed, administrators once again curry influence, and so begins the dilution of the issue. Divide the system, dilute the power. Administrators are few (well, not always), and students, faculty, and classified staff are many. Besides, faculty may be tenured, students are out of there in two or three years and/or are very busy trying to juggle their own lives, and classified bump around between a rock and a hard place. Where is the motivation to band together? Who’s going to listen anyhow? All of that committee work and many times administrators do what they want anyway.

The Board of Trustees are supposed to be the trustees of the system. But that is a political body and they are well aware of that. Politics, after all, is the art of influence, and in a hierarchy, as are most organizations, who wields the most is the alpha leader. And the alpha leader is also a position that is a target for all the wannabes.

It seems to me that all of this can add up to a deadly serious, adult version of King of the Hill.

As I said, it also seems to me that bargaining and influence peddling rule the roost. Okay, I may be a little jaded or I might be a little naive depending on one’s perspective. But we all grew up in a kind of bargaining world. If you don’t eat your dinner, you can’t have your dessert; be a good little girl or boy and something good will happen; treat a man or a woman nicely and you’ll get what you want; go along to get along; if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours, etc., etc.

Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral development suggested that these are primitive moral behaviors, mostly centering around the self. David McClelland suggested that the need for personal power within organizations is a recipe for problems–there is a very real difference between the need for organizational power which is about having the necessary tools to accomplish organizational goals (which are not always ethical either) and personal power which is about the accumulation of personal leverage and influence–a currency designed to polish the ego and not the organization.

So then, what about learning and the organization dedicated to the calling?

Though learning is often defined as relatively stable changes in behavior or thinking incurred through experience, experience is not the great truthsayer. Experience is an interpretation, a perceptual issue–one influenced by what we decide is the context. Nonetheless, experience and context may be the only reference point we have. And both require divergent or creative thinking (tweaking the context and/or the experience) to learn.
Relative to organizational learning, there have been attempts, from term-limits to work evaluations, to put a refresh button on the whole influence-peddling mechanism. However, when we still have a hierarchy, those in power, and those recently disposed, are in different ideational camps. The result can be a round robin of philosophical doors driving organizational purpose with the one mainstay the idea of power, position, and influence.

Well, those three components have been a relatively stable behavior, however it was birthed. Perhaps we need a new definition of learning. I wonder who is going to fix that problem?

Renewal of our personal and organizational directives may just require a little less emphasis on the ability to gather and exert personal influence, especially when it serves personal goals at the expense of other people. Likewise, we cannot have an organization just run over individuals because it serves the organization.

This is a delicate problem and one that has a very old nervous system to go along with it. But I’m guessing that our nervous system can learn, much as our immune system does. It will be scary, and it will require some practice, and it just may require a new learning about the role of bargaining and influence.

Perhaps our stories about learning and relationships are mostly talismans that keep away those annoying ecological changes, the ones that require we tear down our stories periodically to return to those eyes that are filled with wonder, yet able to make the necessary distinctions. Those who have honed their stories and built an empire do not relish the loss of power, and they will fight like cornered animals if challenged.

So what are we really learning?

Whether in our personal relationships or in our organizational ones, when we consider wonder and beauty, when we consider how those two contribute to learning, the arbitrary use of personal power, the wielding of egos, and the emphasis on hierarchy will all seem like an oil spill upon hallowed ground.

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