Monday, November 14, 2011

Fontal Freedom

I’m back at the ACS International School outside London guest teaching for four days. Last time I was here, the Iceland volcano had blown and various teachers and families trying to return from Spring Break couldn’t make it back. This time, it’s an eruption of a different sort—the school is in the midst of its second visit from an inspection team. Instead of being able to pay attention to what I might offer, teachers are whisked off into meetings and are all in a tizzy. They had just been through a week with the British Inspectors and today was the first day of the Americans.

In the teacher’s room, some acknowledged that such inspection could be a good thing, a chance to share what works well at the school and get some outside feedback on what might need work. But, as one teacher put it, the first team (British) seemed to be snooping around with clipboard in hand trying to “catch us out. They made us jump through their hoops and told us things like ‘We don’t accept this font you used in your report.’” They were hopeful that this next team would be more friendly.

This is another face to the “consultant culture” I ranted about in an earlier posting—the outsider who doesn’t know a community’s history, population, values, intentions, dreams, offering advice or demanding compliance. When the team comes in with the pen of judgment poised, things get tense. When they come eager to partake of the fruits of a school culture, ready to listen and offer suggestions, things relax and some good work can get done. We can all use an outside eye to give us perspective, to both affirm and challenge.

But tone is everything. Conversation, yes. Conversion, no. The goal of any such team should be to assist a school community to become even more itself. When it gets twisted to complying with the way everyone else dots their i’s and crosses their t’s, things start to go awry.

I have long been an ardent fan of local control, guided by the story of the Roman arches. In ancient Rome, the architect of an arch was required to stand beneath it when the scaffolding was pulled away. So much of the nonsense of outside intervention is justified with the illusion of accountability. But standing under the arches of your own decision-making is the ultimate accountability. So to the inspectors and evaluators and assessors and other nosy parkers, I say, “Don’t tell us how to build to your specifications because you will walk away next week with the scaffolding and leave us here standing under them. That’s why we don’t like you outsiders snooping around in our business. We know what we’re doing and we can handle the situation. (And notice I’m writing this in MY preferred font!)”

But is local control really always the best? Were white Southerners right to resent the intervention of those damn liberal Northerners as they imposed anti-lynching laws, the end to school segregation and the like? The child-abuser justified in wishing that Child Protective Services would get out of his business? The corporation dumping toxics in the river correct to be offended by the Environmental Protective Agency official knocking at their door? Maybe locals don’t really always know what’s best and we sometimes need some outside intervention to set and enforce certain standards of health, accountability and human decency.

In our human ignorance and moral shortcomings, even our best intentions can turn to mud and start to cause their own kind of damage. The stories of bureaucrats from these outside agencies slavishly following rules with little or no intimate knowledge of a local circumstance are many—some merely frustrating, others causing great harm. Where is the middle ground?

The bottom line is that laws and the agencies enforcing them should serve to protect our health and freedom of expression and limit our power to cause damage to the land, the air, the water and each other. They should maximize freedom of expression within the boundary of the common good. But without thinking, feeling living human beings standing behind these laws and working in the agencies, none of it will do exactly what it intends. Fact is you can’t legislate thinking, mandate compassion, order people to adhere to a national standard of morality. We can draw the black and white lines of justice and infringement, but each community will have to negotiate all the grey areas of cultural health and happiness.

Life will always be a gamble and when we reach the crossroads of decision-making, we rarely know which path to really take and how it will turn out. All we can do is carefully consider consequences and be the architects of our own community, willing to stand under the arches we have built. Then instead of inspectors or evaluators, we’ll open our door to visitors and let the conversations flow.

In any font we choose.

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