People Not Components

There is a saying I’ve heard several times in my career – if you think you are absolutely critical to the success of this organization, stick your hand in a bucket of water then pull it back out. The size of the hole that is left is how much you will be missed after you’re gone. In other words, you are not irreplaceable.

Kind of cynical, isn’t it? A fundamental need of all human beings is to be needed and appreciated. (For an in-depth treatment of this idea, I recommend reading Drive by Daniel Pink.)

Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen once said on his Emmy award winning television program “Life is Worth Living,” that people are becoming expendable, thanks in no small part to technology. In our technological world of machines, when a part breaks we remove the part and replace it with a new one. Sheen argues that in this world-view, people are becoming akin to these broken parts that can easily be replaced. Of course this program was recorded 40 years ago; with today’s paradigm, we don’t even replace the part, we just ditch the entire machine and get a new one, but I digress.

If a person doesn’t live up to our expectations of them in our organizations, we can simply discard them and find someone who does. Nowhere is this better modeled than in the electronics factories of China. My class has been listening to the weekly podcasts of This American Life, and we recently heard the episode Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory which is about the deplorable working conditions of the people in China who make all of our wonderful consumer electronics.

In one particularly dramatic part, Mike Daisey, the author of the piece, describes how everything made in these factories is assembled by human hands because the labor is so inexpensive:

I talk to people whose joints in their hands have disintegrated from working on the line, doing the same motion hundreds and hundreds of thousands of times. It’s like carpal tunnel on a scale we can scarcely imagine. And you need to know that this is eminently avoidable. If these people were rotated monthly on their jobs, this would not happen…

And so when you start working at 15 or 16, by the time you are 26, 27, your hands are ruined. And when they are truly ruined, once they will not do anything further, you know what we do with a defective part in a machine that makes machine. We throw it away.

Well, that is in China, you might say. We don’t treat people like that in developed countries – do we? Well, let’s consider how teachers are treated in America. It’s not too far a stretch of the imagination from the factories of Shenzhen. Our teachers are limited in how their creativity and initiative can be expressed, but they instead are prescribed what to do and how to do it, just like in factories. Even bathroom breaks are scheduled and of limited availability, just like in the factories. And in America, our teachers have quotas they must meet, where they can lose their jobs if they don’t measure up, just like the factory workers.

Isn’t it true that so often we view people in our every day life as things and not as human beings? The person at the drive-thru is there to give us food. We behave as though a machine could do (or is doing) the job. At the bank, there are tellers at drive-thru windows, but very often we opt for the ATM, or treat the living, breathing teller as an ATM. How many times a day do we treat people like they are invisible? As Brené Brown says,

When we treat people as objects, we dehumanize them. We do something really terrible to their souls and to our own.

Fulton Sheen argues that people are people, not objects we can use and discard when their utility is gone. He believes we should treat people as being made in, “the image and likeness of God,” as every human life having great dignity, as something sacred.

It seems to me that every year our teachers are becoming more and more objectified. What they say, think or feel doesn’t matter. Their expertise doesn’t matter. In Philadelphia, a “walk-through team” removed a teacher’s reading area from her elementary classroom deeming it as “clutter.” When teachers feel their ideas don’t count and that they have no autonomy, it must follow that their motivation and ultimately their teaching will suffer. Incredibly, in New York City, the mayor would like to cut half of the teachers and double the size of classrooms. What message does that send to the teachers who work in that city? In Los Angeles, teacher effectiveness is measured by a quantitative value-added analysis of before and after student test scores and the score is published in a public database. For the moment, this kind of value-added scores will be not be made public in my home state of Kansas, but the idea was supported by our governor earlier this year. This ham-fisted attempt at improving education in the L.A. school district was a direct motivation for a teacher’s suicide. Do you really need more evidence that we view teachers as replaceable component parts, not as human beings?

It’s no wonder that half of all new teachers quit the profession within the first five years. What I find even more incredible is that they can even find young people to sign up for this career path. These soon-to-be teachers cannot truly know what is in store for them. When veteran educators are telling would-be teachers to rethink their career paths, you know something is wildly amiss.

The news reports of the working conditions of Chinese factory workers are deplorable. I’m beginning to think that the working conditions of American educators in many ways aren’t that far from deplorable as well. It’s sad that teaching, what is in essence an art-form, is being reduced to paint by numbers. How long until we start viewing the people who teach our country’s kids as people and not as replaceable commodities? Please, please bring back the autonomy, bring back the importance of creativity and innovation in teaching.

3 thoughts on “People Not Components

  1. People are objectified – students as well as teachers. But it’s not worse today than yesterday. In 500 BC when a soldier was killed, there was always another to take his place. A serf in the year 1215 was not valued highly by the lord of the manor, nor was a plantation worker in 1600s Cuba. The “good old days” are a myth. If we bring back everything we had 30 years ago, the world will not be a better place. There’s always room for improvement, but turning back the clock is not the answer.

  2. Chris, I suppose you are correct in that my hope is for a future where there is a greater respect for the dignity of human beings. I’m not sure I’m pining for the past in this post. It might be that I ran out of time to write a good summary, and that’s what I came up with in a rush to finish. I have over 30 unfinished drafts on the back end of this blog, and sometimes I figure it’s better to go with what ya got than to let it sit, never used. I really admire people who can manage to release only highly polished work on their blogs. Sometimes I fall short & this one might be an example.

    However, sometimes I wonder from your comments if you really think deep-down we do go unscathed by technology? Humanity is not the same, it is not unaffected by the technologies we embrace. It affects our behaviors, our attitudes, our thinking, and even our souls if we let it. But like fish in an aquarium, because we are immersed it it, it is a difficult thing to know just the extent of these changes that are happening to us.

    Personally, I don’t think we can long persist in a hyper-connected, networked world with selfish motives at the center of our world. If anything, I think this post should be viewed as a call to work on self-improvement; on character development. The disturbing trends I mention in the field of education are only a reflection of what ails our society as a whole.

  3. You’re right, technology does change us. We need to be aware that changes are happening and do our best to minimize the negative impact. Unfortunately, there will always be people don’t always react in positive ways to new opportunities – they will abuse, obsess, monopolize, be seduced, obsess, etc.

    And I am with you 100% on the idea of getting what you want to say out into the public sphere, even if it’s not perfect. I didn’t mean to sound like I was attacking your post – just presenting another view :-)

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