Saturday, August 13, 2011

PME: Thinking v Groupthink

MIL INT works in a double bureaucracy - it is both a military and an educational bureaucracy. As happens from time to time, such organizations think about their direction. PME has internal and external challenges as readers will know from earlier PME stories. To what extent will the administration allow new ideas? What will make the graduating officer capable of inspired leadership? Is it more important to make the trains run on time or is the direction of the tracks more important?


MIL INT has been interested by arguments that have been mounted that resist raising educational standards in PME. Counter arguments about the triumph of bureaucracy over innovation, to use the words of one author are "not merely the rumblings of disgruntled academic[s, but] a potential existential threat to be met in the appropriate manner."

So it was with some interest that MIL INT read a recent speech at West Point in American Scholar, sent in by a friend of the blog, that explored a variety of themes, including the bureacratic impulse to crush creativity - the complete opposite of the objective of PME. Or is it? Sir Ken Robinson has a thought-provoking animated video on youtube that explores how educational systems are outdated and incongruent with contemporary societal needs. Robinson's essay on primary education is relevant to PME at a minimum with respect to the creativity killing tendencies of bureaucratic machines.

So, to the American Scholar article. William Deresiewicz observes of a particular passage in Conrad's Heart of Darkness:
Note the adjectives: commonplace, ordinary, usual, common. There is nothing distinguished about this person. About the 10th time I read that passage, I realized it was a perfect description of the kind of person who tends to prosper in the bureaucratic environment. ... Excellence isn’t usually what gets you up the greasy pole. What gets you up is a talent for maneuvering. Kissing up to the people above you, kicking down to the people below you. Pleasing your teachers, pleasing your superiors, picking a powerful mentor and riding his coattails until it’s time to stab him in the back. Jumping through hoops. Getting along by going along. Being whatever other people want you to be, so that it finally comes to seem that, like the manager of the Central Station, you have nothing inside you at all. Not taking stupid risks like trying to change how things are done or question why they’re done. Just keeping the routine going.
We have a crisis of leadership in America because our overwhelming power and wealth, earned under earlier generations of leaders, made us complacent, and for too long we have been training leaders who only know how to keep the routine going. Who can answer questions, but don’t know how to ask them. Who can fulfill goals, but don’t know how to set them. Who think about how to get things done, but not whether they’re worth doing in the first place. What we have now are the greatest technocrats the world has ever seen, people who have been trained to be incredibly good at one specific thing, but who have no interest in anything beyond their area of exper­tise. What we don’t have are leaders.
What we don’t have, in other words, are thinkers. People who can think for themselves. People who can formulate a new direction: for the country, for a corporation or a college, for the Army—a new way of doing things, a new way of looking at things. People, in other words, with vision.
MIL INT continues to contribute suggestions internally regarding how PME might be made more effective and has received replies to the effect that everything is running very well thank you and that suggesting changes might have more to do with MIL INT's personal/professional short comings than the effectiveness of the college. Make no mistake, much does work very well indeed and only minor tweaks were suggested but apparently those ideas got in the way of keeping the routine going.

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