49. Institutional Wisdom

When I first heard about life insurance, I was quite young. I thought it was a neat idea. I knew that a lot of people in the past had died, and I thought the trend should be stopped. I asked my parents to buy me some, and they explained, as well as they could to a young child, that life insurance doesn’t insure that you stay alive. Later, I learned that health insurance doesn’t insure that you stay healthy. The companies providing insurance simply redistribute money. They do it with or without caring, on a personal level, whether or not you live and are healthy.
These companies are institutions. I checked a few dictionaries to see what “institution” means, and realized, after all, that those books are not semantic holy books. Meaning is personal, situational, and not something that can be ultimately defined. In a way, the dictionary is kind of like an insurance company; to the unsophisticated eye, it seems to purport to do what can’t quite be done.
Most of us spend a portion of our lives dealing with educational institutions. It sometimes seems that there are people in these institutions who have been hired to not listen to us so that other people with more power don’t have to be bothered not listening to us. Many of these people do, in fact, listen, but if you’re the one trying to be heard, desperation can quickly replace trust. Just as the receptionist can quickly tune you out, so you can quickly decide that you are hearing policy, not a substantial response.
There’s a kind of institutional “wisdom” that can get in the way of communication and problem-solving: if you make one exception, you’re opening a floodgate. Don’t get too involved in some one’s problem. Don’t ever admit that someone may have a point. I suspect that other kinds of institutions have their proverbs, too: when in doubt, put them on hold. Tell them to call another extension. Ask them to write down their problem and put it in a mailbox. Policy is often designed so that people who are supposed to serve the public don’t have to serve too much. That can help preserve the public servant’s sanity, but it can really bug you when you’re trying to get a need met.
I challenge people who work in schools to reject some of that institutional “wisdom” – to find a way to see and hear the sincerity and individuality – the humanity – in each person who has a concern, and whenever possible, avoid replacing concern with policy. Think of that one person you got on the phone who heard what you were saying, and stayed with you until your problem was solved. Try to be another memorable exception to the bureaucratic rule.

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