Decline of Authoritarianism? Not where I look

Martin Thomas writes in The Guardian about the shift from authoritarian to a more horizontal and collaborative style in business. He sees this as a shift from a Platonic to an Aristotelian approach. It may be happening in business, but I don’t see it in the institutions I know best, the United Methodist Church and education.

I think one reason some people are suspicious of the proposed changes in the UMC is the perception that it is in the direction of greater authoritarianism (more power to bishops, closer and more minute supervision of pastors). Recent “reforms” in other areas of society (I think of education in particular) have been revisions disempowering local practitioners (i.e., teachers), in favor of expertise, strategy, and models from above.

The perceived increase in authoritarianism is lending itself to more fragile systems. Consider public schools. The teachers are on edge. If their students don’t pass the (new) standardized tests, they are told they will lose their jobs. The coaches are always on edge. If their teams don’t win, they will lose their jobs. Band directors are on edge; if their bands don’t bring home the trophies and awards, they will lose their jobs. Yet as co-actors in a finite system, the work of these three kinds of educational workers (and others) over laps. The leaders of non-academic activities worry when the teachers pile on the homework. Teachers worry when non-academic activities fill student’s time so they can’t do all their work. Activities collide, tempers flare, anxiety spirals upward. And the State keeps saying, YOU ARE ACCOUNTABLE! IF YOU DON’T PERFORM, WE TURN OFF THE MONEY SPIGOTS!

Or turning to UM pastors. When it comes to church health, the buck stops with the pastor. If the church is unhealthy (i.e., not performing well according to the currently chosen, eminently quantifiable statistics), the pastor is the one held accountable. It’s the pastor’s fault. The hierarchy doesn’t threaten to turn off the money spigots (since money usually flows the other direction), but does say things like, “I think this other opportunity will be great for you” (and it pays less and is in a location that doesn’t fit family needs), or “With all the ineffective pastors out there, we need to re-think the Guaranteed Appointment,” and the pastor KNOWS, since more members are dying every year than are taken in, and that the new members often give less than the dearly departed, that SURELY he or she will necessarily be judged “ineffective.”

How can we make some progress here? I have a few ideas.

  • Must we believe that everything that is assessable is quantifiable? Sure the neat thing about the quantifiable is that judgments can be seen as objective and neutral. When a factor can’t be quantified we have the messy problem of human judgment involved. There might be bias and prejudice. But do we live in a wholly digital world, a world that our digital mapping can adequately accommodate? I’m not convinced.
  • Along similar lines, we need to find new ways of assessment. What makes for a healthy church? How do we know if a student has adequately mastered a particular topic or field of study? I think the numbers do tell us something. It is useful to know how many professions of faith happen in a church and what’s happening with the attendance. It is useful to know how well a student performs on a test. But if these are our only forms of assessment we lack an adequate conception of church health or learning.
  • Our quest to make our knowledge claims demonstrable and objective has led to over-simplification. Since entering teaching full time in January, one of the things I have had the most trouble wrapping my mind around is the idea that learning can be adequately assessed by means of “embedded” questions in a multiple choice exam. I know that such a method makes assessment easy and demonstrable. But the cost seems way too high. Maybe some day I’ll become smart enough to figure it out.
  • Finally, we need to complete our national economic recovery. Maybe then we can stop being so hard-edged in the questioning of everything: “Is this worth my money?” We think objective answers from assessment will answer that question. But this kind of valuation question is not easily amenable to quantification and the answers provided by quantification. The black & white nature of the answers provided by quantification make it easy to say no, hard to tolerate failure.


This entry was posted in Current events, Ecclesiology, Education, Epistemology, United Methodism. Bookmark the permalink.

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