Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Not My Job. Yours Either.


College teaches people to manage others.

I know, you thought you learned about organic chemistry or Dante or building a homemade hookah when you went to college (if you did; if you didn't, you might have, like I did, thought it taught people to be smarter than you).

At a regional Quaker event, one Friend told of a story about her nephew who'd recently graduated from Macalester College, an elite (though not Ivy League) liberal arts college in St. Paul, Minnesota. (My meeting, located within a block of this fine institution, gets a lot of visitors from this school, and more than a few stick around long enough to call themselves Friends). While this Friend's nephew was in college, he earned spending money by working for the buildings and grounds department. After he graduated, the head of that department passed away unexpectedly, and this fresh-faced young man, a newly printed and signed and notarized college degree in hand, was asked to apply for the dead man's job supervising sixty full-time-equivalent employees.

Unsure of himself, he protested to his mother. Without missing a beat his mother reassured him.

"If any of those sixty people were qualified for the job, they would have been asked to apply for the job. They asked you instead."

I'm not going to go into all the lies involved in that sentence (and won't post comments about that either, because this blog post isn't about that sentence...this story is meant to point out that indeed, college graduates are most qualified to manage others according to a social class rule I have yet to clearly articulate but this story demonstrates).

What does any of this have to do with Quakerism?

We have a disproportionate representation of college graduates at our Meetings (as compared to the general population where 25% of American adults have college degrees), and therefore, a disproportionate number of managers: people who believe they are the most qualified to manager others.

The first problem we run into is that there aren't enough people in Meeting who don't mind being managed, people who either by disposition or education prefer to take direction. This can look like distrust of committees.

I'm not writing about that.

The second problem we run into is that this model of the managed and the managers is that it is supposed to run counter to our testimony of equality.

I'm not writing about that either.

I am, on the other hand, writing about God.

Tonight, I had an IM conversation with a F/friend about her First Day School class (at an anonymous Meeting). Someone I'll call B (not her real initial). B approached my friend and said she had a leading to work with her FDS group. My friend felt uncomfortable for a number of reasons, mostly personal, but brought up issues about flexibility, appropriateness, and a good fit with the teaching team.

These are all good questions to ask if you're hiring a teacher or teacher's aid. I bet many of you ask these same questions when talking about First Day School issues.

But I know B to be well-led, and very good at discerning her leadings. I'm sometimes uncomfortable around B too, but if she came to me saying she felt led to do something with me, I would take it at face value.

Even if I didn't know anything about B, though, she said the word "leading," and that says to me that it's not my job to consider questions of appropriateness or flexibility or compatibility just yet. It's first time for me to listen, to her and to God. Maybe even it's time for me to gather with a few Friends for some discernment so that my heart may also be open to this Friend's leading, or at least my part in it. (Yes, there are times when those -ability questions should come first, especially when working with children, but I would argue that those instances are rarer than we think).

I think that because we are, in the aggregate, so very well educated, we default to relying on well-made, sound arguments and reasoning. We want to be seen as good managers, so we consider the well-being of everyone around us. And we forget about obedience to God.

Perhaps because of my working class upbringing, I find great comfort in hearing from the ultimate Manager about my life's work (when I can let go of the message I heard when I was in college recently). I can really say, "It's not my job to figure out what the big picture is." Just like my elementary and middle school and high school teachers told me.

Despite what your mother might have told you, you're not qualified to manage God's will for you or for your Meeting, either.

9 comments:

Hystery said...

Dear Jeanne,

I am increasingly convinced that classism is a problem among Friends and I am intrigued by this post but am confused by your statement that college teaches people to manage people. Would you mind explaining this concept (or maybe point me to some material)?

Jeanne said...

Hystery, I know this from my own experience before college, since college, and now from the anecdote I write about the new college grad getting offered a job supervising sixty people. His mother affirmed that indeed he was entitled to do so (and, what I didn't say is, all the people listening to that Friend's story, and the storyteller herself, believed that this young man was qualified and entitled to that job over the 60 people he would supervise). I've experienced this entitlement from other middle and owning class people, including my partner and people at Quaker Meeting. Like it's their job to boss me around, even when I'm the one who is supposed to be in charge. But you can find other anecdotes in books about social class including one by a Quaker, Linda Stout, Bridging the Class Divide. Al Lubrano's book is a good one too, with lots and lots of interviews of people who themselves grew up working class but are now middle or owning class. That one's called Limbo: Blue Collar Roots, White Collar Dreams. Another good one, Class Matters by Betsy Leondar Wright.

Each of those books have very specific stories. One in Betsy's book is about her and her then partner. she grew up upper middle class, and her partner grew up working class. They worked through some of their relationship issues when they figured out that Betsy was trying to manage her partner. The whole manager/managed thing has a very interesting dynamic too.

earthfreak (Pam) said...

Jeanne, can you elaborate on your experience? like did you learn in college how to manage people? or see yourself and others developing a sense that they could/should?

This is one of those things where I'm inclined to believe you, but my middle class blinders or something get in the way.

I also think there's a difference between learning to manage people, and learning to think of yourself as a manager. I also don't happen to think that in the US at least, people who end up in management are any more likely to be the people who are good at it.

in your story, we have no idea if this young man learned anything about managing people, sounds to me like a straight up class issue - the kind of a situation where a ten year old owning class person is seen by many/all in his surrounding to be in a "management" position over a 50 year old servant, regardless of their accumulated knowledge or measurable intelligence, it's straightup unabashed classism.

As far as the other example. I certainly struggle with giving things over to God (or for me, the great whatever) and I havne't thought of that as a class issue before, or at least not from that perspective. I think it makes sense to me that working class folks might be disinclined to become quakers because the "authority" figure is so esoteric (in mainstream churches there's an actual guy/gal who likely stands on higher ground and actually tells you things about how to do it)

It's a semi-new concept to me that many quakers are bad at following leadings because they are used to being in more control than that allows, and that that's about class (I thought everyone had trouble giving up control) but certainly intriguing

Hystery said...

Thanks, Jeanne. I've got to get my hands on some of those books. I get so swamped in my reading list with at least a dozen books piled up for me now. Still, it is a really important topic especially given the population I teach and the community in which I live. If you ever find some good articles, I'd love to hear about them too.

So you're saying that college teaches people that they have the right to manage people and not really that it teaches them the actual skill of managing people (unless of course they are studying to become managers)? I can see that.

I find that kids from middle class families are better at manipulating others and at playing the game. They are good at using the right body language and at using the right words at the right times to get where they want to go. They are more confident in their presentation. I also find, btw, that gender plays into this too. I notice that kids from middle class families have an easier time with the politics of academic and professional success than their working class peers even when the working class kids are brighter and more skilled.

In reality, college didn't teach me how to actually manage people but it did teach me how to bedazzle them. I often tell my students (only half in jest) that the most important thing they'll learn in college is how to bullshit by which I don't mean that they'll learn how to lie but that they'll learn how to present their material with so much confidence that no one will think to question their authority.

Jeanne said...

It's not a conscious thing--it's all those things that college teaches you unconsciously. They don't call it "management school" (unless you are in the management school), but it teaches you the social mores that go along with management (which is endemic to middle and owning class culture).

For instance, like I've brought up in this blog before, you're more highly valued in the workplace (eh hem, and in Quaker meeting) if you can keep your emotions in check. There's no teacher who said to me, "You'll be more likely to be accepted as middle class if you keep your emotions in check." But that more is valued in college classrooms--it's enforced over and over and over again in instructor after instructor. College classes value making a good, sound argument on paper over talking things out in class (you wouldn't want to let emotions get out of hand, would you). You are even taught the acceptable form of an argument...getting taught argument forms sets up expectations not only how to make arguments, but also what kind of arguments you'll accept! Getting taught that emotions must be kept in check not only causes you to learn to do so, but also sets up an expectation in you for such behavior as "proper."

It's insidious.

I could go on and on and on...

Jeanne said...

Hystery: shoot me an email, and I'll send you links to some shorter online stuff. I can be reached at one of many emails (I think my google profile has a way) but you can send it to writeousness at gmail dot com.

Jeanne said...

Pam: I make no statement about actual ability--just plain and simple social class expectations. Lots of middle class people are really bad at managing precisely because they take some of their class expectations too far, and aren't open to the wisdom that exists in people who actually do the jobs the middle class people are just overseeing.

I said to the Friend who told that story about her nephew, "You'll be doing him a favor if you explain to him the untruth of his mother's statement. He'll be a better manager if he understands WHY it's untrue."

Liz Opp said...

The phrase that best suits me and describes my unintentioned manage/power-over behavior is "internalized superiority."

Just as people in an oppressed group can act from their own internalized oppression, so people in the privileged group (middle class/educated class) can act from their internalized superiority.

I've got a phrase for the dang thing but I still engage in those managing behaviors, you betcha. Stout's and Lubrano's books are helping.

Blessings,
Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

Jeanne said...

From my friend Jeanne L who had a hard time with a possibly buggy comment posting feature:

I see what you are talking about in a lot of the workplaces I have been in, and, as a middle class person, in the unconscious assumptions I discover I sometimes carry about the capacity of working class/poor people to lead others ("internalized superiority" is a good name for it). I appreciate your clarity. I especially appreciate your analysis of how this plays out in Quaker meetings.

I want to share my reaction to something you said twice in the post about what your pre-college teachers said: "It's not my job to figure out what the big picture is." The first time I read it, it struck me as out-and-out capitalist ideology and classism (siblings -- perhaps twins -- to be sure). After reading your entire post, I think I understand what YOU mean by it, in the spiritual sense. But from a classroom teacher it sounds more like, "there, there, dear, the system is too complicated for us ordinary folk to figure out or think about." To me it sounds like a way of telling young people that questions they have about injustice are trivial or that "those questions are just too complicated" and/or "you'll understand when you get older" (things I'm sure I heard at one point or another). I don't think that anything humanly constructed -- an economic system, a particle accelerator, a bicycle, a religious institution -- is beyond our ability to think about (and pray about) and decide if it is workable or needs to transform in some way. I'd be very interested in the context and tone with which this thing was said in your classrooms. To me, it sounds like an oppressive message. (You can probably tell a button has been pushed for me!)

Thanks for your commitment.

Love, Jeanne L.