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Thursday, October 12, 2017

Pursuing Excellence: cultural rivalry disguised as common market?

Everybody talkin' 'bout Heaven aint goin' there… -- Thomas Arthur Dorsey (1899 - 1993) Walk All Over God's Heaven

"Excellence in All Things!" A friend was hired as the headmaster of a small (70 students, grades 9 - 12) private school, the dominant if not sole admissions criteria of which was the parents' ready ability to pay the tuition. This school touted its ability to transform reluctant or lackadaisical children into "Ivy League" students. In fact, scholastic achievement, as one might soberly expect, was rather variable.

At a school board meeting, several of the governing members proposed that the headmaster post and preach the slogan, "Excellence in All Things!" The headmaster suggested that such action would only provoke derision from their rather sophisticated teenagers and likely, also, a certain disdain for the competence of the staff. He, the headmaster, would personally be happy if each student could show better than mediocre accomplishment in a few areas of endeavor.

A particularly vociferous board member remonstrated that it was the headmaster's and teachers' duty to educate all the students to adopt the slogan and strive to actualize it. But another asked, "Which subjects should be favored if it turns out that time or other resources run short?" Thus began what turned out to be neither a very long nor very comfortable "discussion" among those present at the meeting.

Creating More Hamster Wheels. Many of us can look back over many, many years to see the sacrifice of the adequate, the good, even, to the pursuit of the excellent. Yet we seldom see memories of such pursuits raise much apprehension of yet another treadmill exercise. Is our communal memory so weak, our resources so plentiful or our embarrassments so forgettable? What accounts for this Sysiphean proclivity (in almost every area of organizational life)?
One kind of explanation for cavalier attitudes toward excellence comes readily to mind: disregard of how ideas of "excellence" vary even within the markets pursuing it.

Broadly characterized, a market is a (theorized) group of people looking to acquire what they perceive to be a benefit, some thing or state of affairs perceived to be of positive value. These market members pursue an exchange via some medium, be it money, labor, time, attention, material items, or the like.

These and related notions are quite run-of-the-mill. However, here we mean to include in our considerations "externalities," beneficial or damaging effects affecting persons or organizations which are not themselves involved in the markets creating those effects. The motivations of school directors and staff, paying parents and the students involved may be -- indeed, usually are -- somewhat different, despite school slogans proclaiming, say, "Our school community works together in pursuit of excellence!" (See SLOGANS: junkfood, dead-weight or poison?.)

Weak Markets Markets can be weakened by attrition or disorganization. If groups that are willing to bear the costs of pursuing "excellence" are lacking, of insufficient size or disorganized, "excellence" remains little more than a vacuous shibboleth. This is often seen with the promises so easily bandied about in our political campaigns: hopes for benefits are much more easily raised than are the sacrifices, e.g. taxes, to pay for them.

Sometimes a purported benefit is perceived to "cost" too much. Just as the initial costs and future upkeep may "price" a car "out of the market;" so, also, might the burdens of a social relationship with some persons, "high-maintenance" individuals, leave them unbefriended.
It is by universal misunderstanding that all agree. — Baudelaire
Though many people will agree on the face of it that "excellence" is better than "mediocrity," lack of agreement as to what the term, "excellence," delineates may cause an actual market to dissipate.

A potential market may not coalesce because of disputes about which criteria exactly should be used to describe the hoped-for benefit. This is a general problem in every area of life with vaguely described benefits, such as security, responsibility, ownership; and, not least, achievement, education and excellence.

Consensus is often only apparent. Sloganistic terminology abounds. Practical criteria are either missing, or lost in controversy. Leaders of long established institutions, family, schools, churches and governmental entities, may not to be able to find common criteria of excellence that serve each of their particular institutional interests. (See Engaging Conflict: a Leadership Necessity?)

For further examples pursuing these issues, see "Sacrificing Public Education to "Pursue Excellence"?

--- EGR

Thursday, August 3, 2017

A Most Annoying Question: "How Do You Know That?"

He who knows nothing is closer to the truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors. -- Thomas Jefferson
"How do you know that?" Unless we are teachers in a classroom, or students in a philosophy seminar, we tend to raise that question only when confronted with a statement we find unfamiliar or uncomfortable. Just posing the annoying question risks being taken as challenging the good sense or honesty of the claimant.

So it is that many us stumble through life sticking with the familiar and comfortable beliefs we've had passed down to us, even though, upon reflection, we know that what people believe, or not, is not a measure of truth or falsity. How many times throughout history have people been called to sacrifice dearly for some Faith in an unexamined "Truth"? (What "truths" have been served by setting off bombs in civilian marketplaces and schools?)

Let's relax and consider. Suppose we wanted to know why the sun rises in the East and sets in the West. As we walk down the street we see coming toward us some familiar faces: three deeply educated men, Lorenz, Maurice and Curlius, believed by many to comprise the Wisdom of the Ages. We stop, greet them and ask, "Why is it that the sun rises in the East and sets in the West?"

They answer as follows:
Laurence, a scholar of ancient religions: 'Tis because Phoebus, the Sun, rises in his golden chariot in the East, drives across the sky to the West and then spends the night traveling underground to get back East to repeat the cycle."

Maurice, Ptolemaic scholar: Who believes that anymore? Actually, it is because the Earth, as center of the Universe, is circled by the Sun. What we call night is our period in shadow. The Sun's visible arc begins for us in the East and travels to our West.

Laurence interjects: Well, Maurice, I disbelieve your story. So there!

Curlius, erstwhile Copernican companion, declares: You may well believe your falsehoods, but the truth is that the Earth travels around the sun, spinning counterclockwise on an axis somewhat perpendicular to its orbit. So there!

Laurence and Maurice, both: Utter nonsense!

This interchange illustrates some principles we come to know at an early age, even though many fail to put them into practice in the direst of circumstances.
That some people believe something does not mean it is knowledge.

That some people disbelieve something does not mean it is not knowledge.

Our continuing controversies over evolution or global warming, illustrate these principles.

(However, were we to put the annoying question to our three sages, they, being deeply educated would likely be able to produce justifications for believing their respective claims to be true, as well as for rejecting counterclaims as untrue. So much for Plato's definition of Truth as justified, true* belief!)

But this goes way beyond the concerns of classrooms and philosophy seminars. What actions might have been forestalled, what decisions reconsidered, what bodies left unbroken, what lives saved, had the annoying question, "How do you know that?" been seriously considered at the appropriate times in the long, sad history of this planet?

For references and to examine these issues further, see Questionable Assumptions in Social Decision Making

--- EGR


*The truth condition is not practically separable from the justification condition. (See The Truth Condition)