“We knew they wouldn’t stand a chance,” Student X said. “The training we gave them was shit.”
Class was long over and a conversation about total institutions had naturally led to the military, and from there to ISIS and the current situation in Iraq. Student X was a vet and spoke freely about his time in the Army.
“That’s it?” I was incredulous.
“Yep. No range. Nothing about sighting-in or how to maintain the weapon. We didn’t want them to know too much.”
“Because of deserters?”
“Yep. Why would I want to train an Iraqi soldier today who might change his mind and decide to shoot me tomorrow?”
“Weren’t you an officer? What about your orders to train the new Iraqi army?”
“I was an NCO –in the dust with the grunts. We went through the motions but given the reality of our world, actually filling that boot on the ground, we weren’t exactly motivated. It’s no wonder they’re getting beat so bad. We didn’t train them at all.”
A feeling of resignation and distant anger took hold of me. It was top-down thinking at its best and a common failing of any large institution. Those in charge, in this case remote politicians and generals, conceive an idea and make a decision. This plan of action is then kicked down the chain of command for actual implementation. Thus, a strategy devised in Washington by high level officials must be executed in Iraq by those on the very bottom of the totem-pole. These sad-sack individuals, living the reality of the conflict, naturally have their own ideas and opinions about what needs and should be done. Given the vast discrepancy in rank, geography, agency, and personal safety, these ideas are often quite different from those of their far-off superiors. So, as Student X says, they go through the motions. They do enough to look busy and avoid getting in trouble, then call it a day. A report then travels up the long chain stating that Iraqi soldiers were trained today. This is not true, but because it is properly filed and sent back up through the ranks (like some vast game of telephone) it gains a sort of organizational reality. After a few months of these reports the politicians and generals at the top assume their plan has been implemented.
Large institutions are predicated on this sort of magical thinking. A linguistic imperative is made (in the beginning was the word) and physical reality is then expected to conform. Now, if this change was anticipated immediately, no one would buy in. However, because the command is uttered by a figure isolated by his/her own authority and expected to be carried out by distant minions, a seemingly efficacious fantasy is sustained: “I told them to train the troops. They said they trained the troops. Therefore, the troops must be trained.” Sadly, the devil is in the details.
Given his position Student X can’t really be blamed for this failure. Nor can the generals and politicians be judged for believing these generally honest and hard-working soldiers. Everyone involved, including the tragic Iraqis, is simply a victim of institutional thinking.
So, why am I relating all of this in a blog ostensibly about education? Because, for better or worse, we teach within institutions. The stakes are, admittedly, lower, though perhaps no less important when looking at the long-term health and well-being of our nation. As teachers we occupy a unique role in the hierarchy of the institution. We have administrators above us relaying commands and expressing expectations, and below us are our students, to whom we relay commands and express expectations. This makes us the fulcrum of the institution and ideally positioned to combat the perils of institutional thinking.
We do this by seeking to understand the “boots on the ground” reality of the students –what are their challenges, hopes, and fears? In turn, we ask for them to buy-in to our vision of what needs to be accomplished. Working in close conjunction (and this is key) we can then pursue implementation together and track results.
When looking to our administrators, we must demand the same. Invite them into our reality, share our goals and concerns and then seek to develop an institutional vision together with broad, vertical support. If a teacher feels understood and believes in a president’s plan, it’s likely to succeed. But if not . . . well, we might as well just call it a day.