Thursday, February 10, 2011

Trusted naysayers

I will look at any additional evidence to confirm the opinion to which I have already come.
-Lord Molson, British politician (1903-1991)

I blog because I care.

I blog because I want to share.

I know too many people who wish I would just shut up.

I know too many people who kind of agree with me but think I'm foolish for saying it out loud.

I know too many people who have implicitly or explicitly threatened me (and others like me) to "be careful" with my blog.

These people are products of a system built on a culture of compliance. The system's use of carrots and sticks have most people drunk on incentives or scared shitless - so not much can change or improve.

When someone speaks up, they are predictably seen as someone who is up to no good. But if you understand how self-justification works, it should be no surprise that those who are comfortable with the way things are become angered by those who wish to influence change.

Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson discuss the effects of self-justification in their book Mistakes Were Made (but not by me):

Self-justification has costs and benefits. By itself, it's not necessarily a bad thing. It lets us sleep at night. Without it, we would prolong the awful pangs of embarrassment. We would torture ourselves with regret over the road not taken or over how badly we navigated the road we did take. We would agonize in the aftermath of almost every decision: Did we do the right thing, marry the right person, buy the right house, choose the best car, enter the right career? Yet mindless self-justification, like quicksand, can draw us deeper into disaster. It blocks our ability to even see our errors, let alone correct them. It distorts reality, keeping us from getting all the information we need and assessing issues clearly. It prolongs and widens rifts between lovers, friends, and nations. It keeps us from letting go of unhealthy habits. It permits the guilty to avoid taking responsibility for their deeds. And it keeps many professionals from changing outdated attitudes and procedures that can be harmful to the public.
None of us can live without making blunders. But we do have the ability to say: "This is not working out here. This is not making sense." To err is human, but humans then have a choice between covering up or fessing up. the we make is crucial to what we do next. We are forever being told we should learning from our mistakes, but how can we learn unless we first admit that we made any? To do that, we have to recognize the siren song of self-justification.
If to err is human, and systems are made by humans, then systems are built on an edifice of errors. But you wouldn't know it based on how systems systematically deny their mortality.

The education system throws around the phrase life-long learning a lot. But I don't see us walking the talk. Too often, life-long learning is something for the kids to do while the adults watch from the sidelines - as if we've already crossed the learning finish line and no longer need to participate.

Adults who subscribe to learning as a linear race to the finish line are no different than a commissioner of the patent and trademark office resigning because "everything that can be invented has been invented." If we are not careful, blind self-justification can mislead us to believe that the here and now is as good as it gets.

Tavris and Aronson explain:

...the most harmful consequences of self-justification exacerbates prejudice and corruption, distorts memory, turns professional confidence into arrogance, creates and perpetuates injustice, warps love, and generates feuds and rifts.
While it is true that understanding the costs and benefits of self-justification may be the first step to finding solutions that will lead to change and improvements, it is likely just as important to understand why:

We need a few trusted naysayers in our lives, critics who are willing to puncture our protective bubble of self-justifications and yank us back to reality if we veer too far off. This is especially important for people in positions of power.

If those in power are the shepherds who expect everyone else to simply fall in line like good little sheep, problems are as inevitable as they are predictable.

Which is exactly why we must tread softly when we are fortunate enough to travel in a flock with a handful of colleagues who are willing to stand up and challenge things that we've always done and those that have always done them.


  1. I've never read anything inappropriate here. I think we all benefit from contrasting perspectives and a critical stance on our own.

  2. Don't stop! The things you write are challenging many of the paradigms of education I've been "schooled" in over the past two decades, and while I can't quite yet jump 100% into the abolishing grading camp, I am working to figure out how I can incorporate its principles as best as possible in my district's structure. Sometimes the shit needs to be disturbed in order to raise a proper stink...

  3. I hope that you will keep stirring the education world up. It is needed and it is important. "We" need to keep working to create a culture of true life long learning. It isn't just for kids and it doesn't mean it has to be connected to a test.

  4. I don't think you will ever know the true positive impact of this blog. Your voice is essential and, don't forget, global.

  5. I agree. In the short period if time I've been connected, I feel that I have been challenged exponentially - all for the better. It's only when we speak up and let our voices be heard that we can start the dialogue that needs to be happening. Keep speaking!