This article appeared originally in educational Horizons 85,4 (Summer 2007)

The Other Side of Bureaucracy

by Wade A. Carpenter, Berry College

edited 1/27/08

The other day a friend and I had the pleasure of sinking Bismarck. The Iron Chancellor was wrong -- the great questions of this or any other time are decided not by blood and iron, but by blood and irony.1 In Scripture, blood is sacred, and it should be poured out only in a most holy sacrifice. Its circular course within us is the curriculum of life.2 And irony, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is "a figure of speech in which the intended meaning is the opposite of that expressed by the words used."

British comedians are wrong.3 Yes, Americans do irony, and do it quite well, spreading it nearly everywhere. Indeed, it sometimes seems to be the hidden curriculum of our entire educational system. Our conversation arose from several excellent examples that crossed my desk this week.

The first came in a second-stage portfolio submission by one of my student teachers. Pointedly, she included two reviewers' responses to her first submission. I don't believe I've ever seen a starker contrast. In response to one element Dr. Smith wrote:

Splendid shadow study. Sadly, there are lots of [Susies] out there. My bet is she's pregnant by now. My impression is that she has a low level of intrinsic motivation but very high affiliational needs. A highly personal style of teaching would do wonders for her -- probably. This is something more than just "high expectations," and varied methods, and praising successes. It involves a fundamentally different way of teaching, with much academic support, informal and pleasant interaction over and above formal classroom interchange, genuine interest (but not "nosy") in her personal life, and a high degree of the emotional investment by you and some of her other teachers. This style of teaching is, alas, "old-fashioned," and very difficult in impersonal test-driven classes, and is dangerous to the teacher's emotional health. It's dangerous because you won't win 'em all, and it hurts especially badly when a kid to whom you've extended your heart crashes. But however much it is discouraged, this is about the only kind of teaching that ever works with the [Susies] of the world.

For another the same professor wrote:

YES: accommodation does NOT mean dumbing down. In fact, the ability of the group to interpret [the metaphors in the material] suggests the possibility of some misdiagnoses. While the reflections on Goal Four suggest the value of a personal style of teaching, this entry shows the value of "current best practices": that is, effective methods and high expectations.

To the same reflections Dr. Jones wrote:

Be sure the title you give the artifact matches the artifact -- mdash;mdash;mdash; where does "shadow" fit? Curriculum and Methods. Check your response -- are you relating artifact to the goal or providing description of artifact? Artifact should demonstrate your performance of goal.


No bolding in context section. Can use the same phrase, but [use] bold[print] in the other sections (only once in each).

Dr. Smith was talking about unfree kids; Dr. Jones was talking about unfree teachers. I was reminded of a great line from Herodotus quoted in the recent film The 300. When the tiny Spartan force warns that the Persian arrows will "blot out the sun," the Spartans reply,"Then we'll fight in the shade."4

That's what teachers do, every day, and it really doesn't matter whether the Spartans won or lost -- anyone who can say that is already immortal . . . aren't we? That is the only life worth living, the life of a free man or woman. It is not the life of the bureaucrat or the slave.

I fear the greatest threat to freedom in America today may come not from terrorists or from government, but from those professional associations conceived to protect our freedoms. In achieving their standards, classroom teachers and professors are increasingly systematizing our instruction, and system isn't about Truth or Good or even Reality; it is about procedure. As Archbishop of Canterbury F. D. Maurice wrote more than one-hundred fifty years ago:

When once a man begins to build a system, the very gifts and qualities which might serve in the investigation of truth become the greatest hindrances to it. He must make the different parts of the scheme fit into each other: his dexterity is shown, not in detecting facts, but in cutting them square.5

Thank heaven, I had time to think about things like this, so that when I next saw my student teacher, I was able to give her my reactions to her new submission, written in the style of Dr. Jones:

Do you have documentation on how many students "jumped out of their seats"?


I like the way you bold printed the important words. Spelling is exemplary.


Dubious relevance. If you communicate the standards and meet the student learning outcomes, your beliefs will have little impact on their learning.

As I handed her my write-up, I grinned and thanked her for the message she sent me, acknowledged the difficulty and unfairness of serving two masters, and told her with a wink that she had to serve both. Then before she started reading, I recalled for her a quip from Father Roger's rather providential sermon the previous Sunday: "We don't know who Moses' Pharaoh was. It might have been Rameses; it might have been some other guy. But everyone knows who Moses was . . . because Moses took the time to investigate the burning bush." Then we both got a good laugh while reading over my comments, and what could have been either a life-draining bureaucratic fubar or a warm-and-fuzzy pontification became a worthwhile experience for both my student teacher and me.

* * *

The second great irony of the week came from two news articles I read on the same day, one a professorial reflection on a public obsession and the other a bloody tragedy smeared by parental anguish. The first discussed the pedagogical lessons of American Idol, in which Washington College provost Christopher Ames remarks:

What American Idol reveals is a veritable hunger for realistic evaluation.. . . in a world full of people rating themselves highly, audiences seem to long for the enforcement of standards of taste and judgment. . . . [T]he audience and judges can still reach a mighty consensus regarding the efforts of out of-tune, off-the-beat singers who forget the words of the song. . . . Later in the season, disagreement will reign as the judges differ or the live audience protests Simon's critique. But the early episodes of American Idol establish that those differences in taste exist within a broad cultural consensus. . . .

Obviously, we shouldn't absolutize this reflection, but I do think it has application to our current test anxieties. Yes, of course test-driven instruction really is as bad as it appears, but that does not mean that standards and accountability are evil.

The second article highlights the dangers of not engaging standards and accountability. AOL News reported the murder of a teenager by the cuckolded husband of the kid's teacher. The boy's distraught mother was quoted as saying,"These teachers are feasting on our children in school and something has to be done." Just as obviously, no one can fault the heartbroken mother, but nonetheless, that was cheap-shot journalism. Frankly, it has raised my sympathies for most of the Muslim world just a little. Still, public standards of morality have clearly been violated and bureaucratic accountability mismanaged, and as a result at least one life has been lost.6 It's true that the law cannot give life, but the lack of law may be the surest way to lose it.

* * *

Perhaps the silliest example of this was the third irony to cross my desk this week, a set of criteria developed by a "bias-screening subcommittee" to help a college (which shall remain nameless) meet NCATE's standards protecting education students from unfair testing. Among the criteria:

-- one's religion does not enhance or decrease one's ability to prepare and perform well on this assessment;

-- personal relationships with faculty or staff do not enhance or decrease one's ability. . .;

-- residential or commuter status does not enhance or decrease. . . [et cetera]

"Well, duuhhh!" one might say. This should be obvious to any intelligent person, and it seems totally benign. But the irony is that what is said is also anything but obvious, intelligent, or benign -- it is monstrous. If one's religion is predominantly self-serving (as is that of N percent of the human race), one is very unlikely to do well in schools, and equally unlikely to do well in my courses. In fact, such a student may not even understand most of the questions. If personal relationships with faculty or staff are to make no difference in a student's preparation to be a teacher, why have teacher education at a liberal arts college at all? If one's residential status makes no difference to one's preparation, then why have residence halls to begin with?

But this would leave us with "standards" that fly awfully low: only huge, uniform classes should be allowed, any sort of personalization should be forbidden, and many future teachers just won't "get it." Happily, one size does not fit all. Frank learns in very different ways from Fred, and Janie finds exciting strategies that would bore Joanie to tears. Mrs. Dean finds history engrossing while Mrs. Dunn regards it as just gross, and what flies in Rome, Georgia, might crash in Rome, New York. Given the variety of different goals for schools, strengths of teachers, and styles of children, a diversity of educational delivery makes sense, and carefully considered personalization can help prepare teachers who are both principled and adaptable.

While a basic, common curriculum can be admirably humanistic, limiting our children to some lowest common denominator is as inhumane as separating them into inescapable academic tracks. And neutering teacher-education students spiritually, instructionally, and socially will lead neither to reproduction nor to reconstruction. Of course, that committee could argue that the goal is merely preventing injustice. But even Bismarck had the laugh on that, quoting Cicero: summum ius, summa iniuria ("the more law, more injustice").7

Nobody should get upset; the committee is just trying to get usable data. But the purpose of data isn't to use; it's to accuse or to excuse. The committee is only talking about particular assessment devices, isn't it? While that is certainly the precise wording, it still doesn't wash, does it? It only "ironies," and the blood that flows is not a holy sacrifice, but the worship of false and obscene gods.


1. Otto von Bismarck, Reden, 1847 -- 1869, ed. Wilhelm Schüßler, vol. 10 of Bismarck: Die gesammelten Werke, ed. Hermann von Petersdorff, 139 -- 40 (Berlin: Otto Stolberg, 1924 -- 35), trans. Jeremiah Riemer, available at <http://>.

2. E.g., Genesis 9:3,4; Luke 22:20.

3. Jonathan Duffy,"Do the Americans Get Irony?" BBC News Online, January 27, 2004, available at <>.

4. Herodotus, The History of Herodotus, trans. George Rawlinson, vol. 4 (New York: D. Appleman and Company, 1885), 7, 226.

5. F. D. Maurice,"Ecclesiastical History," in Glorious Companions: Five Centuries of Anglican Spirituality, ed. Richard H. Schmidt, 189 -- 190 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002).

6. Christopher Ames,"Schooled by American Idol," Chronicle of Higher Education, March 16, 2007: B5; Duncan Mansfield,"Affair with Teacher Leads to Slaying," Associated Press and AOL News, March 17, 2007.

7. Bismarck, ibid., quoting Cicero, De Officiis I.10.33.