The Egalitarian Virus

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Peanut butter cures attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. If this doesn't seem like mainstream medicine to you, then welcome to my world, where this nostrum was aired at a faculty meeting, and the school psychologist in attendance sat in resolute silence.

I hate to admit it, but I was that school psychologist. But before you condemn me for being apparently unable to discern between content in The Midnight Star versus The New England Journal of Medicine, consider that I labor amongst a populace that suffers from a peculiar disease. I call it the egalitarian virus.

Let me explain.

During the 1980's, various permutations of the Deming model became popular in business and industry. Inspired by the management theories of W. Edwards Deming, each aimed to foster a sense of ownership, control, and responsibility in each person in an organization for its ultimate success. This required less hierarchy and more "lateral decisionmaking." But as with many good ideas that migrate from the private sector into public education, this one mutated rather than evolved, transmogrifying into the insipid notion that it's nice to be important but more important to be nice.

Now, it has become anathema to think that a speech clinician should behave as if he knew more about language pathology than a teacher, or that a principal should behave as if she knew more about personnel management than a custodian. Instead, each opinion or idea is afforded equal rather than due consideration. Teamwork qua teamwork is the value. Where the egalitarian virus lives, one does not stand up in front of an assemblage and announce that the emperor has no clothes. So, bring on the peanut butter!

Imagine if such a convoluted permutation of teamwork were logically extended to a football team. The whole notion of position specialties would somehow become elitist and undemocratic, regardless of what skills or talents each member might bring to the whole. The defensive ends would just as legitimately take up the quarterback position; the receivers would be equally entitled to kick the ball toward the uprights; the kicker would have the right to call plays; and the coach would hold daily polls to garner the players' collective decisions about long-term strategy, but only after he took his turn washing the team laundry.

Of course, this will never happen. Football teams, unlike schoolhouse committees, need to demonstrate concrete results. If the team consistently loses games, then there is no obfuscating the fact. The record is plain. Conversely, the vague progress made by schoolhouse committees toward ephemeral goals is always assessed and reported by the members themselves. Always reporting "progress," they produce only gerunds, forever "discussing," "analyzing," or "conceptualizing" until interest in the topic eventually wanes or the committee disintegrates. In the meantime, hours and resources get squandered.

A certain kind of employee flourishes in this culture: the back-slapper, yes-man, form-over-substance, feel-good guy who ingratiates everyone. He provides sycophancy to his superiors and only nominal leadership for his subordinates, the latter of whom will harbor a vague sense that nothing is being accomplished. But anyone attempting to address reality will be construed as an obstructionist, insensitive to "paradigm shifts," and troubled with a runaway ego. Thereby, the most perceptive of the faculty shut up, leaving only the chuckleheads to run the schoolhouse, the latter unprejudiced by facts, figures, or cosmic reality.

None of this is to say that teamwork per se is a bad idea. But true teamwork means that each player executes his peculiar skills in consideration of what others bring to the aggregate. The quarterback does not throw a pass to illuminate his great aerial ability when a clandestine hand-off to another player will more likely result in yardage. Similarly, a school psychologist should not summarily dismiss a school nurse's ideas about behavior management simply because he perceives it as an intrusion upon his intellectual territory.

Nevertheless, to regard the expertise of each employee as directly interchangeable with that of any other is a frank misappropriation of human resources. It is neither elitist nor egocentric for a learning-disabilities teacher to assume that she knows more about learning disabilities than might the music teacher. And someone should probably chastise a school psychologist so cowardly that he wouldn't challenge the silly idea that peanut butter cures attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Mea culpa.

Vol. 14, Issue 23, Page 35

Published in Print: March 1, 1995, as The Egalitarian Virus
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