Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Board of education anecdote

I know I have at least one regular reader in academe who will probably find this anecdote even more amusing than those whose experience with academe is limited to the student side of things.

In Alaska I worked for the school district and at a staff meeting I once heard an anedote from someone who'd been in the school district's administration for a long career, and been to countless board of education meetings. At one particular meeting of the board, one of the members of the board (from the "parents of students" side) got up and made a lengthy presentation, running about twenty minutes, about the serious problem of gingivitis and how the board needed to take decisive action to help make a difference about this problem. As the people who teach the children (who are our future) it fell upon the educational system to plant the seeds of change, yadda yadda yadda. Everyone nodded, listened as well as they could, vaguely agreed, and nothing at all seemed unusual about it: they get presentations like this all the time.

Right at the very end, he said something about gingivitis which made no sense. Eyebrows were raised, faint expressions of confusion were seen, but he was already heading back to his seat. Someone managed to stop him and ask him to clarify. Only then was it finally discovered that the whole time, he hadn't been talking about gingivitis at all. He'd actually been saying "gender bias" the whole time. Everyone nodded dutifully, and they went to the next agenda item.

What I find hilarious is that a twenty-minute presentation can be made during which not one thing said about gender bias wouldn't also apply equally well to gingivitis. That's how things are for boards of education: lots of lofty-sounding proclamations of grave importance that are so light on actual specifics and "brass tacks" that you can replace a single word or phrase and get another presentation that will be taken with just as much gravitas.

Not that this is something limited to academe. I'm sure a similar story could be told in corporate boardrooms, in halls of government, in the break rooms of hospitals, behind the printing presses at publishing houses, and in many other places. There is so much pontification out there that aims for the "big picture" and overshoots until all that's left is what C.S. Lewis described as a "hyperextended rice pudding" (admittedly talking about an entirely different big picture, but the analogy holds).

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