That’s what my friend Tom in grad school called the kind of PITA I’ve just discussed as strategic incompetence. In the field of education this game is sometimes what Geertz called ‘deep play‘ (pdf), in which the provision, seeking, and evasion of education are about much more than just the transmission of skills and knowledge. In ‘honor’ of me, my students, my colleagues and our administrators as an exciting new academic year fixes to open, here are a couple of videos:
The first is courtesy of Donna, with whom I play mixed doubles. Her job is to design computer tutorials for a big corporate law firm so that the attorneys can actually use the fancy software the IT guys afford them. We’ve bonded over the unique kind of stupid highly specialized professionals can be. The second leverages my favorite metaphor for the same thing.
The real horrors of education are not brought by people (teachers, administrators, students) who are just plain dumb. They’re doing their best, bless them, we help as we can. Intelligent people may also just disagree about priorities and practices. No worries there. Talents differ; this can be worked with. No, it’s people whose smarts and talents are blocked or diverted somehow that buckle one’s knees and blur one’s vision.
When irrational waste is occurring Geertz tells us to look for ways in which people’s sense of social honor is at stake. Sometimes the particular equipment in play — cocks, novels, philosophical systems, histories, footballs — is far less important to the players than “the dramatization of status concerns.” Certainly we can see this logic being played out in the Olympic games — how else to explain the enormous economic and political capital being spent over dubious accomplishments soon forgotten? A “status bloodbath,” as Geertz quotes Goffman. But can we see this sort of game being played in our own meetings, hallways and classrooms?
Btw, in a nice irony, Geertz’ famous article is apparently so often and stereotypically assigned as a paper topic that several of the top google hits for it are commercial plagiarism sites.