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Winners and Losers

July 6, 2009

I first kissed a girl in Kindergarten in 1962. Her name was Linda. It was ‘circle time’. We were all gathered around in a semi circle in front of our teacher, Miss Hamilton. Miss Hamilton was older than old, at least to a five year old. I understand she had been Kindergarten teacher for the parents of many of my classmates… maybe some of their grandparents, too. A real artefact she was. My point is that she wasn’t always too clued into what was going on around her. Remember Kindergarten? Your mom would embroider your name into a beach towel and call it your blanket for nap time. As I recall, Miss Hamilton was the only one napping, and not only at nap time. So… while Miss Hamilton was nodding off, I leaned over and planted one on Linda’s cheek. I was a winner! What a thrill! Wowee!

I was first slapped by a girl in Kindergarten in 1962. Her name was Linda. It was ‘circle time.’ Hmmm… I guess she didn’t share in my thrill. Apparently, I wasn’t such a winner, after all. No words exchanged then, and it was never raised again. Whether Linda considered the event a winning or losing experience, I never found out. I will say, though, that I have never again been slapped by a member of the tender gender.

As I consider the broad sweeping implications of this traumatic experience (for Linda, my kiss; for me, her slap), one thing is certain. Life is packed with ups and downs, heres and theres, tos and fros. In the end, life’s meandering path is invariably met with some form of equilibration. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Sometimes, this reaction takes time. Sometimes, it is more immediate. Clearly, Linda was more immediately familiar with Newton’s Third Law of Motion than I.

In my unilateral expression of affection, I had mistakenly employed Newton’s Second Law: The net force of an object is equal to the mass of the object multiplied by its acceleration. The operative word here is ‘force’. Affection, by definition, is mutually exclusive with force.

Perhaps, with this lesson learned at such an early age, I was a winner in the exchange. Hard to say. One thing’s for sure, my budding love life went into hibernation for some time afterward. Invoking Newton’s First Law: A body at rest tends to remain at rest…

Preamble thus dispensed, you may ask: Where on Earth is this going? As always, time will tell.

Here’s the thing. My failure to be a winner was founded in a matching failure to consider the opportunity for the other party to also be a winner. Here’s the really big thing. All failures in society are a direct consequence of this failure to consider the other party. That’s a pretty bold statement when you think about it. To properly test this notion, we must first consider what society is.

Variously defined, society is:

At the heart of it all, we are social creatures. Left in total social isolation, like the studied monkeys, we would wither away. Isolation, at one end of the continuum of socialization, leads to dysfunctional and aggressive behaviour when one is re-introduced to the community. Consider this continuum in wide angle, though, with total isolation on one end, and total selflessness in service at the other. Between these endpoints reside an infinite number of combinations, mixing portions of the individual with portions of the collective. To the extent that we serve ourselves to the exclusion of the collective, we win and others lose. To the extent that we serve the collective to the exclusion of the self, we lose (other than from the perspective of altruistic fulfillment) and others win. The same mixture characterizes one-on-one relationships as well, in a zero-sum framework. I win, you lose. My budget is larger. Yours must be smaller… and so on.

I’m a Canadian who travels extensively through the United States on business. People often ask me how I see the difference between the two countries. For the most part, we share more than we differ, in my opinion. This said, I do see one key difference. In my observation, the American experience is typified by an attitude that the rights of the individual supersede those of the collective. In contrast, the Canadian experience is one where the rights of the collective supersede those of the individual. Again, this is a continuum. I won’t say that one experience is at one end of the continuum and vice versa – only that this characterizes a relative distinction between the two societies.

This distinction is reflected in contrasting dispersion about various means. To illustrate, the potential to be very wealthy is much greater in the United States than in Canada. At the same time, the potential is also much greater for living homeless, or for living without access to affordable health care. Taxes in Canada are the great equalizer (or not so great, depending on your perspective). We have a much stronger social safety net than is available in the United States. As a result, I think, we enjoy a much lower crime rate, as just one by-product. This safety net, however, is not without a cost. Too many people in Canada look to the government for all solutions, abdicating their own responsibilities to make a difference.

I recently enjoyed dinner with a cousin in Redondo Beach, California. As a single mom, with no support payments, she’s got two boys attending university, to the tune of more than $24,000 per year… each! Tuition here in Canada is in the range of $6,000… and we never stop complaining about how high that is. Everything is relative, I guess.

When I tell Americans that I really don’t care which university my kids attend for a liberal arts undergraduate degree, they gasp in disbelief. Again, the dispersion of the American experience allows for very good schools and also for very bad schools to exist. In Canada, at the undergraduate liberal arts level, the student makes the program much more than the program makes the student. No matter where you go in Canada, the potential for acquiring a passable university education meets the mark in my book. Graduate studies are another matter altogether, but you catch my point.

In my work, I consult to independent (private) K-12 schools, surveying and studying their various constituent groups (parents, students, employees, and alumni). Tumbling data into literally thousands of pages of tables and graphs, I’m in a position to provide clear and concise guidance to senior administrators on how they can do a better job. Working with my lovely wife, Olga, a former educator, our business mission is to help to bring clients closer to their markets.

Our personal mission, however, is to aggregate data in such a way as to help to move education, generally, to a better place. Education in our society has seriously lost its way. Society is now paying a huge price for this loss. To fully explore this indictment, one must first consider the purpose of education. Now, the answer to this question varies depending on whom you ask. Here’s my take. The purpose of education is to prepare students to become highly functioning contributors to society. A good number of people would nod or even pay lip service to this statement. When pressed, however, many of these will fall back on the technical side of education.

Our system of public education is ruled, largely, by the demands of the employer community. Employers call up the government and say, “we need this skill or that skill.” In turn, the government calls up the Ministry of Education and says, “do it.” This process trickles down through universities and colleges, into high schools, and all the way to our Kindergartner classes. What a change over the past forty years. It used to be that a university education was considered an end in itself. Not any more. Now it’s a trade school, with no other purpose than to prepare students for the workplace.

So sad, I say. Whatever happened to citizenry? Whatever happened to responsibilities matching rights? Whatever happened to character and values education?

In my view, the greatest folly in our modern-day system of public education is excessive stress on specialization. Too many programs are designed and delivered to produce technicians, rather than citizens. We produce lawyers, doctors, engineers, and financial managers rather than well-rounded members of a team with a common goal. Recall Al Pacino’s character in Any Given Sunday: “That's a team, gentlemen, and either we heal now as a team, or we will die as individuals.”

We create, develop, and promote hyper-specialization in such a way that the broader interest is done a great disservice. Our medical schools are key culprits in this. It’s a common joke in that community that the generalists say of the specialists, “your field of study is so narrow that you know everything about nothing.” Of course, that goes the other way, too, where the specialists say of the generalists, “your field of study is so broad that you know nothing about everything.” Somewhere in between, there must be a golden middle.

Business schools are equally culpable. I know. I attended one. Almost everyone in attendance became a specialist in one area or another. Most popular was Finance. These were the folks heading for Bay Street or Wall Street. The Finance stream was (and I suspect, remains) most Darwinian in nature. I win… you lose. At the other end, those in the Organizational Behaviour stream were lost in the ether of touchy-feely patter, and not much taken seriously by their number crunching counterparts. Coming to an MBA program with an English major, I saw little merit in either end of such specialization then. In the many years since, I have found no reason to change my mind.

Lawyers have crystallized the notion that anyone with money can win in the laws. Another Al Pacino film comes to mind: “And Justice for All”… who can afford it. Through hyper-specialization, many have lost complete view of the big picture. Their motivators are distorted from any semblance of acceptable human behaviour, and they become weapons of destruction of the masses. Throwing out the rationale, “may the best man win” or “the race to the swiftest” some among us have lost sight of the greater good. These folks will stop at nothing to win. Caveat Emptor is their motto. I can sell you this garbage if you’re foolish enough to buy it. I can embezzle your life’s savings if you’re unable to catch me. Finders keepers, losers weepers. I’m too big to fail, so I won’t. As long as I can keep winning until I decide to retire, someone else can repair the mess I’ve created.

The world is getting smaller and smaller with each passing day. Our circles of contact and influence, in turn, are getting larger and larger. We are touched by people from so many more spheres of so many different types that the combinations of potential outcome are incalculable. No wonder the guys in Washington are having such a tough time these days. In truth, they haven’t the first clue where to begin, let alone end.

Common culture, mutual interest, self-perpetuation, totality! These concepts don’t easily fit into the modern model of our society. The great irony, of course, is that our greatest strength is in diversity. If we were all the same, life would be very boring, and very predictable. Groupthink would reign, and inbreeding would lead us to a speedy demise. At the same time, commonality in values and overarching goals are necessary foundations for the existence of any society. Hence, the need for our children to engage in common goal activities is even greater today than it was even 25 years ago.  

Family, school, clubs, and teams all serve to prepare our children for finding and forging a place for themselves in the big world that awaits them. I know this because I’ve done the research to prove it. Having conducted more than 200 related studies, involving close to 100,000 subjects, I am comfortable in saying that social and relational skills, so important to saving our society from self-destruction, are overwhelmingly developed best in out-of-classroom-activities (OOCA). Let’s not call them extra-curricular activities. There’s nothing ‘extra’ about it. It’s central… central to the nurturing of future citizens… central to the development of people who can see another point of view… central to the understanding that winning is neither everything nor the only thing.

I cringe when I hear of parents saying, “I don’t want Johnny or Susie to engage in any out-of-classroom-activities this term. I want him or her to focus on his or her academic studies.” Parents who say this deliver such a blow to their children as they cannot imagine. Engagement, is and always will be, everything. Until and unless classrooms are transformed into an environment where these skills can be reliably imparted, they cannot remain the dominant forum for educating our children. Our schools should be a microcosm in training for larger society. Good or bad, that’s what they are.

Where these social and relational skills have not been acquired, or where they have been displaced by perverted paradigms that deny society its due, we step one pace closer to our demise, both as individuals and as a society. These days, in my view, society does not successfully promote its own perpetuation. When common goals are exchanged for Darwin, the end is near and predictable. A study of history reveals this at a glance.

When an elite few find themselves in a position of great power, choose to exempt themselves from external authority, and opt not to regulate their own behaviour, is it any surprise that only mayhem ensues? “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

I call on Al Pacino once more, in his great closing speech from Scent of a Woman. “You’re building a rat ship here… when the bough breaks, the cradle will fall… be careful what kind of leaders you’re producing.” How discerning. How prescient.

Regulation versus deregulation. Capitalism versus socialism. So much baffling bull feathers being tossed about. Turf protection in the extreme. Jingoism replaces basic compassion and listening skills, and anyone “not for us is against us.” As long as we’re winning, it doesn’t matter who’s losing. It’s so easy to assign broad brush labels on opponents as unpatriotic or socialist.

At the same time, it’s so easy to see the price of this kind of one-dimensional thinking. When one party in a relationship is allowed to freely pursue self-interest at the expense of the other, the inevitable outcome is a dissolution of that relationship. How long can one sustain a so-called winning position for themselves in the absence of a winning position for the counterparty? This is the big question today. How long can the guardians of a corrupt system sustain control over the destiny of so many others… others who have been foolishly inclined to think that they may be independent makers of their own destiny… others who are only now beginning to see the truth with unprecedented clarity?

John Locke posed that “no man can be ruled without his own consent”. So, what happens next? Has our system of education been ‘dumbed down’ enough that this farcical framework can be perpetuated through the current crisis and beyond? Time, as always, will tell. Greed is often disguised by political ideology. This is not likely to change any time soon. What is not clear is if and when Western society will be willing and able to re-create itself on the same premises from which it was founded.

When our schools stopped teaching good grammar (and they did, make no mistake of it) thirty years ago, the entire structure for clear communication was placed in jeopardy. This structure cannot now be readily re-introduced, because an entire generation of teachers, themselves, have not learned proper grammar. In much the same way, values education to repair the prevailing corruption in our markets will suffer a long and treacherous path to recovery. In the absence of wholesale revolution, the steps to a better place may consume several generations, if ever successful.

The answer to all ills in society, I believe, begins in education. For as long as our system of education leaves character and values as ancillary components… for as long as we consent to being ruled by corruption in the markets… for as long as winners are glorified, regardless of the path or the consequences… we, and our society at large, will be losers.

Perhaps a few more among us would have benefited from a Kindergartner slap upon stealing a kiss.

With respect,

Kevin Graham

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