We call it by many names: drawing lines, making judgment calls, exercising discretion, setting limits. As human beings, we’ve got an inborn tendency to want routines — rules that we can follow to minimize the amount of time we spend making decisions. If we had to actually decide, consciously, whether to stop at each and every red light, our lives would be unbearable.
But we also are a pretty smart species, which means that we know that our general rules don’t always apply. So we make judgment calls, we make exceptions. We use “common sense”, which Descartes claimed was the best-distributed thing in the world. If we’re being chased by a car full of murderers, we don’t stop at the red lights.
The social institutions that we build also follow rules. We “set policy”. But whereas as a species we have a pretty good handle on how to bend the rules on an individual basis, as a society we really don’t have a handle on striking the balance between giving discretion in the execution of policy on the one hand, and avoiding the sort of corruption that can arise from unfettered discretion on the other.
My favourite example of this is “zero tolerance” policies, about which I’ve written extensively in the past. But the mindless application of policy can take other forms, just as intellectually and morally offensive, and even a bit macabre:
Michael is nine years old. Born prematurely, he weighed four pounds. He has a brain stem but, according to doctors, most of his brain is missing.
No problem, says the state. An alternative version will be sent—pictures that Michael can describe.
Unfortunately, Michael is blind.
No problem, says the State. There’s a Braille version.
Michael doesn’t know Braille, and is unlikely to ever be able to learn it.
The first thing I want to do is point out about this situation is that “the State” never said a damn thing. Some individual person, acting on behalf of the people of the State of Florida, made these decisions.
Now, that person probably doesn’t think that he or she has done anything wrong: after all, policy is policy, and the people of the State of spoken in passing the laws that they’ve passed, and in appointing the people they did to write the regulations that were written. Who is this sole individual to take it upon him or herself to contradict the “wisdom” of publicly-announced policy?
This is, of course, the dilemma. As a representative of the people, are you entitled to make your own decisions about such things? And if you do, don’t you risk being wrong? Couldn’t some judge somewhere decide that you weren’t applying the law equally? Better to just follow policy — at least that way you won’t have made any sort of mistake for which you can be held accountable.
Through intensive physical, occupational, and speech therapy, along with meticulous efforts of his Hospital/Homebound teachers for the past seven years, Ethan has achieved very limited and rudimentary communication skills. He has a very slight thumb lift with his left hand to indicate ‘yes’ or ‘no.’
Ethan has been required to take the Florida Alternate Assessment for the past two years, and in addition to the questions being entirely inappropriate for his level of cognition (he cannot comprehend questions about math, staplers, clocks, shoes, or even food) there is no way to accurately assess his understanding of the material being presented… Additionally, the testing procedure is extremely physically taxing for him, requiring him to sit in his wheelchair for long periods of time and focus on black and white pictures which are difficult for him to perceive at best… After the testing sessions, he is physically exhausted and often develops pressure sores from sitting in his wheelchair. He also has developed respiratory infections from fluid pooling in his lungs from the long testing sessions.
Ethan’s mother managed — after immense bureaucratic hassle — to get a waiver, good for one year.
I initially thought I’d blog about this article because it’s catchy and exciting and filled with all sorts of easy, low-hanging outrage.
And yes, it’s easy to point at these cases and accuse the state officials of being idiots. I know it’s easy; I’ve done it a lot. But it’s also, I’ve decided, the wrong thing to do.
The administrators who make decisions like this, who make decisions like suspending students for Pop-Tarts or poems, who make other sorts of jaw-droppingly stupid decisions… are not idiots. I don’t doubt for a second that, in most cases, if they believed that they wouldn’t be punished or criticized for making exceptions, that they would go ahead and apply policy in a common sense manner, giving exceptions to students like Michael and Ethan.
What they are is adept bureaucrats, with a cunning sense of survival. They are also moral cowards, after a fashion. And yes, that’s a failing. But we get the government we deserve. We get the policies we deserve. We get the bureaucrats we deserve. We’ve put a premium on moral cowardice; it’s rewarded.
If we want a school system that makes sense, a school system where wise administrators make wise decisions… then we need to be open to the possibility that this might require us to actually give the administrators some play on their leashes. And that might mean having to deal with some bad decisions from time to time; it might mean having to deal with a bit of corruption, racism, or sexism.
I don’t want to read any more stories about kids getting suspended for Pop Tarts. I don’t want to read any more stories about Michael and Ethan. I’d rather live in a world where even our officials are given room to make a few mistakes in judgment — because that means that they’ll be given room to do the right thing, too.