Executive Perspective

Simultaneous Thinking

by Paul D. Houston

Remember the joke from your childhood, “What is black and white and red all over?” Answer: a newspaper, because the red is really “read.”

As I look at our world I realize we are living a trick question, which is “why do so many people see the world as black and white when it is mostly grey all over?” We oversimplify everything because we can’t handle paradox. Complex moral and intellectual questions are reduced to simple black and white sound bites. And then we want to punish others if they don’t reach the same simplistic conclusions.

Leaders must be adept at dealing with dilemmas and paradox since that is what we face constantly. Unless we can do that, the lesson will be lost on the wider world. Educators must help people understand the complexities of their lives and help them navigate the turbulent moral dilemmas of our times. Western thought tells us something is “either/or.” Eastern philosophy teaches that it is usually one thing “and” something else simultaneously. They learn to be comfortable holding conflicting ideas. We need to learn the same.

Ready Critics
We see this all the time in our world. As the war in Iraq warmed up, some declared that if you were against the war, you were not supporting our troops. Who decided that? Isn’t it possible to want the best for the troops and see the war they are fighting in as being questionable? Can’t you support one aspect of the war but not another?

Another version—we’ll call it the “Dixie Chicks Syndrome”—suggests that if you criticize the policies of the president, you are unpatriotic. Can’t you love your country and still see its policies as flawed and its elected leaders as humanly fallible? Are the dreams and values of this nation confined to one person? Isn’t one prerequisite of living in a free and open society that there be room for various expressions of opinion?

On the education front it has been suggested if you oppose high-stakes testing, you oppose accountability. Are they synonymous? Isn’t it possible accountability can be more broadly stated? And those who criticize the No Child Left Behind Act are said to be promoting low expectations. Isn’t it possible that NCLB itself aims too low? One of the best ideas I’ve heard lately about the concept of adequate yearly progress is that we should declare all our schools as needing improvement (as do all of us) and then move on. Is one policy the only way to get to higher expectations? Can’t you support the goals without embracing the methods?

If you point out that schools aren’t as bad as some claim, the critics of public education say you are embracing the status quo and see no need for improvement. That is like saying you can’t like yourself and be for your own growth at the same time. I have a pretty good self-concept, but I know where I fall down. The reality is that public schools have done well in achieving the old mission over time, but changing times and changing missions have dictated the need for change.

At the classroom level, there has been an ongoing attack on developing students’ self-esteem because there is a belief that it leads to self-satisfaction. On the other hand, isn’t it critical that each of us has a sense of personal efficacy if we are to have any chance at all of improving? Coercion is not the way to excellence. Threats and intimidation are not the way to increase effectiveness. Coercion yields compliance—nothing more. You can’t intimidate students to achieve.

Human Obligations
This leads to what is really bothering me. It is bad enough to oversimplify complicated issues. But too often what follows is vilification and punishment. It is not enough to disagree. We have to crush those who don’t see it our way.

Human beings are complex critters. As Zorba the Greek said, “What a strange machine man is! You fill him with bread, wine, fish and radishes and out of him come sighs, laughter and dreams.” When we deal with children or with staff, we must understand that what goes in isn’t necessarily what comes out and that the machine that processes all that isn’t something you can kick if it isn’t working.

I recently had the opportunity to visit the Sistine Chapel—a lesson itself in the capabilities of one person dedicated to his art. Michelangelo didn’t create that incredible ceiling and wall because the Pope had created a high-stakes accountability model for him. He created it out of his love for God and the art that would celebrate that love. It came out of Michelangelo’s sighs, laughter and dreams.

The center panel of the ceiling is the famous scene of God reaching his hand to Adam to touch him with the divine spark of life. It is my personal belief that each of us has been touched with that divine spark. That means our capabilities are well beyond our own imagination and our obligations to one another are immense.

That leads me to the conclusion that we owe each other a suspension of judgment and a willingness to see the world in much broader terms than simple black and white and right or wrong. Part of the obligation of being human is to be open to others and part of the responsibility of a democracy is to tolerate others’ ideas. My early religious training carried an admonition that “he who is without sin should cast the first stone.” We need to be careful what we pick up and hurl, otherwise the “red” in the joke I started with will be the embarrassment on our faces—or worse, the blood of those around us.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director.