My daughter wanted a new backpack several years ago, and after several unfulfilling stops, we ended up at Target. The selection was a bit slim – it being a few weeks after school had started – but she found something that seemed like a good combination of practical and not-entirely-embarrassing, and we took it to the nearest register.
It didn’t have a tag, which was inconvenient, so the girl at the register called a guy from the back. He found similar backpacks of the same brand, but not an exact match. A third person was called, a manager of some sort, who finally explained to me that she couldn’t sell me the backpack because it lacked a tag and thus could not be scanned by the computer.
By now we’re 20 minutes into our effort to purchase this backpack, and my daughter likes this one – not the ones we saw at Academy, or the ones we examined at Wal-Mart, and not the selection at Dick’s.
Yes, there’s a major chain of sporting goods stores which chose to call itself “Dick’s.”
I offered to pay the highest of the various prices listed along that aisle. Worst case for the store, I pay the correct price. Chances are I’m paying more than it’s worth, but I’m happy, and they’d be rid of the one without the tag.
The manager couldn’t, or wouldn’t, because there was no tag. I could not have it at any price because they couldn’t scan it.
Let’s step back for a moment and ponder the nature of Target. Its sole function is to sell people things they want, and in so doing make a reasonable profit after paying their employees and other overhead. To the best of my knowledge they don’t claim to do or be anything more or less. They guess what we might buy, procure it, tell us it’s pretty, and we flock.
But not this time. Compliance with the system trumped the primary function of the institution. They followed the rules, but lost the sale. Permanently.
The summer prior I’d had a similar problem with AT&T, who wouldn’t send me a phone I’d ordered. The website said they had it, the guy in the warehouse confirmed they had it, and even the manager I finally reached after 90 minutes of minion phone-tag hell acknowledged that it was on the shelf in front of her – but the computer wouldn’t let them send it to me because it showed they were out.
I remember losing my composure and at some point yelling that “THE COMPUTERS. ARE. NOT. IN. CHARGE!!!” before the vitriol and obscenities took over. Coherent English simply lacked the necessary elements to capture what I was feeling at that point. Most of it was a blur.
But whatever I ended up saying seems to have worked – a few days later, my phone showed up. Someone had to break the rules in order to fulfill the most basic function of the institution.
The problem is NOT that a few individuals at Target or AT&T are idiots – I doubt that’s the case. It’s systemic. In our ongoing efforts to legislate, codify, and policy away bad decisions and stupid behavior, we tie the hands of the people actually DOING useful stuff until they can do little BEYOND blindly following those policies.
I doubt anyone particularly wanted to deny me the joy of giving them money for their products. It’s far more likely they’d been trained to follow the rules at all cost, or face who-knows-what consequences. They did the defensible thing – even when diametrically opposed to their fundamental purpose – rather than the risky thing. They followed the rules by missing the point.
Why do those policies exist in the first place? Presumably, most began because someone did something stupid or dangerous without them.
You’ve probably noticed the tag on your hairdryer warning you not to use it in the shower, or the instructions in eleven languages not to let your kids play with large plastic bags. A recent commercial involved a post-apocalyptic warrior picking up a rhino by the horns and throwing it into the sky to knock down a helicopter. This scene is accompanied by small print warning us not to try this at home.
There’s a legal division somewhere covering someone’s corporate behind by advising me not to throw a rhino at a helicopter. We need a rule for that? Is there a label on the rhino?
A friend visiting his wife’s family in China a few years ago was surprised to notice while parking on the top level of a garage that there were no fences or other barriers to prevent someone falling. He asked about this, and was told with some bewilderment that anyone capable of driving a vehicle and parking it on the 15th story should be capable of not walking off the edge of a building.
We don’t assume that in America in the 21st century, and because we don’t, we can’t. We devote great energy and expense in our legislation, our business practices, and – yes – our public education, to make sure we raise an entire generation completely unable to make basic decisions or take risks or otherwise step out in ANY WAY. We begin, logically enough, by doing the same thing to their teachers.
We reward those who most closely mimic one another and culture at large, individually or in groups. We schedule conferences and base assessment not on great ideas but on how to best ensure uniformity.
The system doesn't judge teachers or their students on what they do well, but on what items they miss. Inspire your kids all you like, but if you don’t simultaneously fulfill requirements 4a, 4b, 7, and 11 and have your learning objectives on the board when your administrator drops in for five minutes, you suck. We, in turn, tell our students to write with sincerity and passion, but if the MLA heading is on the top left instead of the top right, we can't accept it, won’t read it, and you fail.
It’s all about the policies.
We dictate the curriculum EVERYONE should know, mandate the tests EVERYONE must pass, and - perhaps out of necessity - regulate their dress, their behavior, and anything else we can standardize. We legislate away their choices in lunch, daily schedule, personal giftings, or genuine interests. We process them in the hundreds and in the thousands and quite honestly we can’t tailor very much or it all falls apart.
If only we had more laws, more rules, more guidelines… utopia!
We can't even blame administration. The public demands that those in charge be held accountable for the worst behaviors, the worst choices, the worst outcomes. The majority of our energy is consequently devoted to limiting the damage done by the bottom 5%, whatever the cost to the other 95%.
It’s not working, by the way – somehow no matter what we do, there’s always that bottom 5%.
In the process we’re crushing the initiative, the energy, and the ability to make sensible decisions based on the realities of the moment out of our best teachers and students. And the average teachers and students. And the slightly below.
We’re making policy based on worst-case scenarios and bottom-enders, at the expense of everyone and everything else.
Of course we’re left with a ‘real world’ whose populace seems so clueless, so helpless, so lacking in initiative or even concern. Of course I can’t buy the backpack without the right tag or get the phone on the shelf without having a complete meltdown. It’s what we’ve been fervently working towards for years.
I'd like to see us try something different, but it's against - well, you get the idea.
This is a slightly reworked repeat of an older post - like when a band covers their own song years later. Unfortunately, you probably still can't dance to it.
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