Guest Column

Getting Caught in Your Underwear


Back in the early '70s, one of us was blessed with a mentor, a fellow born and raised in Oklahoma, who was gifted with an abundant amount of horse sense. His name was Jerry Bell, and he could put into words important lessons about life in a way that everyone could understand.

One of his favorite aphorisms was "don't get caught up in your underwear." What he meant was don't take on complicated situations by yourself because more often than not you'll make matters worse. He would add, "Sometimes people just need to sit down together and work things out."

Back when life seemed simpler, Jerry's sage advice would come in handy from time to time. Today, however, his words have become increasingly relevant as our opportunities to get caught up in our underwear grow at breakneck speed.

The Kettering Foundation and other public policy think tanks say the reason we get caught in our underwear is that our society now faces a growing number of wicked problems that cannot be resolved in the same way that many problems have been resolved in the past. Wicked problems, they say, are not easy to define. They often defy logic, have many origins and are deeply embedded in human nature and social culture.

Take, for example, the broadly accepted idea that the public schools should function like a business and be accountable and lean. Some educators today even refer to their school district residents as "customers." Yet in their zeal to be good stewards of the public tax dollar, many school officials unintentionally are dismantling educational programs and lowering academic standards. To be efficient, they cut the budget for professional development, the arts, extracurriculars and other programs that do not fit the conservative view of a basic education. As one superintendent put it, "Schools don't run out of money; they run out of education. As long as we keep making cuts, it is relatively easy to stay in the black."

Compounding a Problem
So what's the point here? It is that when superintendents, principals or school boards fail to engage in meaningful dialogue with the people who will be affected by their solutions to wicked problems, those problems often are not only unresolved but the solutions themselves can create a host of additional problems. This is really what getting caught up in your underwear is all about.

Unfortunately, in the rush to get through the school day, important decisions routinely are made without consulting the people who will be affected by them. Even when we take the time to establish special committees and other representatives of the people to help connect us with the broader community, most residents still feel left out of the process and do not clearly understand the problem school leaders are trying to fix. As a result, school districts often get drawn into what are called "solution wars" where residents battle over the right thing to do and then end up trading one set of problems for another.

To avoid getting caught, we need to engage in meaningful dialogue or, as Jerry Bell would say, just sit down together and work things out.

Practically speaking, dialogue is a process of connecting with issues of mutual concern and grappling with them until there is some closure. In working through the issues, citizens become actively engaged and involved with one another. Generally, people who are engaged have all the information they need long before they are willing to confront the cross pressures that entangle them.

Deliberative Dialogue
The American culture, however, continues to be dominated by a top-down management style. Many of us still are not totally comfortable with the idea of connecting with one another and working through issues and concerns. Driven by the desire for efficiency, we continue to leave others out of the decision-making process.

The need for deliberative dialogue in our schools and nation has never been greater that it is today. Solving wicked problems requires that we take the time to work through the communication barriers and begin building long-term solutions--solutions that don't backfire and create more problems than they resolve.

Through meaningful dialogue, we can do just that. We can reach new levels of understanding from which to think and act. Instead of merely reaching agreement, we can create a new context from which many agreements might come. In essence, we can create a higher level of consciousness that taps into an energy field of shared meaning that brings us together.

Albert Einstein said, "You can't solve a problem at the same level at which it occurred." By listening deeply to the views that people are able to express through meaningful dialogue, we can avoid getting caught up in our underwear and harness the collective intelligence of everyone around us to create lasting solutions.

Harry Eastridge is superintendent of the Educational Service Center of Cuyahoga County, 5700 West Canal Road, Valley View, OH 44125. E-mail: William "Corky" O'Callaghan is a Cleveland-based consultant on public engagement for schools. They are co-authors of The Power of Public Engagement: A Beacon of Hope for America's Schools.