We deny to claim "any Superiority to ourself
to defyne, decyde, or determyn any Article or Poynt
of the Christian Fayth and Relligion,
or to chang any Ancient Ceremony of the Church
from the Forme before received and observed
by the Catholick and Apostolick Church."

Norman Simplicity

Norman Simplicity
Click image for original | © Vitrearum (Allan Barton)

Sunday, November 8, 2015

How Organizations Die

Being a lover of the odd, the discarded, and the truly off-beat, once I found out about this guy, and his work, I was completely intrigued. And then there was that title: "The Prophet." The man in question? Laurence Veysey.

I don't think much of author of the piece but I raced to get a copy of the book highlighted anyway. It came yesterday and I read through much of it today. I'll summarize the basic idea my way (which may diverge not only from the article but from the basic intentions of the original author himself).

The American University, at the time of writing, betrays the marks of four highly discordant ideas. By my lights, these are:

  1. The American I: the purpose of higher education is mental discipline or what I call "mental orthopedics." This is the Puritan idea that effort and the full exercise of our innate capacities is good in and of itself. (Notice that it scarcely matters what subject matter the mind is then exercised with.)
  2. The French: the purpose of higher education is social utility. The institution must serve and pay close heed to its master, the State, and its multifarious interests.
  3. The German: the purpose of higher education is pure research, unsullied by such mere instrumentalities as actual applicability. (Here the danger is that students themselves may become subordinated only to the institution's own goal of self-replicability.)
  4. The English: the purpose of higher education is the acquisition of that rarest of possessions, humane or liberal culture.

    To this must now be added a fifth:

  5. The American II: the purpose of higher education is to serve as the hothouse in which necessary social engineering first takes place, in light of the ultimate goal: social justice. This is the Progressive idea that all the wrongs of larger society must be overcome from within the institution itself. For example, the university must be completely color-blind, totally egalitarian, and utterly free of the race prejudice that infects the culture at large, etc., ad nauseum.

I think Veysey overestimates the disappearance of even the first ideology. Although Puritanism, as a social movement, is surely marginal, I keep encountering versions of this idea nonetheless (and sometimes in the strangest of places).

Veysey's main contribution is the realization that these discordant goals and aspirations may nonetheless coexist inside a social structure, without leading immediately to incoherence and dissolution. It may thrive, after a fashion, despite these odds, and so it has, until late. In one of the more lyrical passages (of which there are many), he writes:

The success of the American university, despite its internal incoherence, is best explained as the product of a working combination of interests, only one of which (the faculty’s) was inescapably linked to the values which the university could uniquely promise to realize. The combination of interests worked, it might be further hazarded, because the various participants were sufficiently unaware of the logic of the total situation in which they found themselves [my emphasis]. The fact that students were frequently pawns of their parents’ ambitions was meliorated by the romantically gregarious tone of undergraduate life. The fact that professors were rarely taken as seriously by others as they took themselves was hidden by their rationalistic belief in the power of intellectual persuasion, direct or eventual, and was further concealed by all the barriers to frank dialogue which are stylized into courtesy. Those at the top, in their turn, were shielded by a hypnotic mode of ritualistic idealism. … Tacitly obeying the need to fail to communicate, each academic group normally refrained from too rude or brutal an unmasking of the rest. And in this manner, without major economic incentives and without a genuine sharing of ideals, men labored together in what became a diverse but fundamentally stable institution.

The university throve, as it were, on ignorance. Or, if this way of stating it seems unnecessarily paradoxical, the university throve on the patterned isolation of its component parts, and this isolation required that people continually talk past each other, failing to listen to what others were actually saying. This lack of comprehension, which safeguards one’s privacy and one’s illusions, doubtless occurs in many groups, but it may be of special importance in explaining the otherwise unfathomable behavior of a society’s most intelligent members [my emphasis].

The real danger is not ideological pluralism but rather the subsequent imposition of an organized, bureaucratic structure. Not only will that bureaucracy seek to enforce coherence, rationality, and efficient economies, but it will ultimately subordinate the entire organism to its own, parasitic, self-interests. Then the whole thing unwinds, as we know, according to Hoyle.

This is the way the world ends:
Not with a bang but a whimper.

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