I suppose today’s thoughts could go in the category “things Americans never tire of doing.” The newest business preoccupation to creep into the mainstream (like into your poor child’s school) is “best practices.” Lately I’ve been hearing a lot about “best practices” because my wife, the professor, and my son, the teacher, have been invaded by the fear of not performing according to these practices by their colleagues.
A world of efficiency experts
The whole discussion reminds me of the 1950 movie (even more the book that spawned it) called Cheaper by the Dozen. It is a humorous look at the family of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth (Clifton Webb and Myrna Loy) who are time/motion study and efficiency experts. The comedy comes from watching them try to run their children according to their theories, and the drama comes when father’s body proves to be all-too inefficient. The title comes from one of Dad’s favorite jokes. In the movie, the family is out in the car, stopped at a red light. A pedestrian asks, “Hey, Mister! How come you got so many kids?” Dad pretends to ponder the question carefully, and then, just as the light turns green, he says, “Well, they come cheaper by the dozen, you know.”
Now they want to produce our children cheaper by the dozen. What was most useful in developing software has leaked into developing people and we are just foolish enough to go with that as if it makes sense. “Best practices” are techniques that are believed to be more effective at delivering a particular outcome than any other technique. The idea is that with proper processes, checks, and testing, a desired outcome can be delivered with fewer complications. For years we have been tormented with “outcome-based” everything. God save us from the people who believe that data is law and then decide the outcomes accordingly!
Slaves to the data
It seems to me that Americans (maybe humans) repeatedly have the same arguments. I don’t want to use the most hysterical example just for show, but it comes to mind that slaveowners made the argument in the 1850s that the most efficient way of farming for them included slavery. It had shown itself to be the most profitable way of accomplishing the production of cotton, in particular, with repeatable procedures that had proven effective for a large number of planters over generations. It took brave Christians, in particular, to demand an end to that “best practice.”
But Christians don’t seem to be as vocal as they used to be. They seem to be as subject as anybody else to the tyranny of “best practices.” The Bible repeatedly says (in the face of former outbreaks of human-reliance) that “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” But these days we seem to be in step with everyone else in fear of the taliban of “scientists” overwhelming us with inscrutable data about the best way to do everything (until they change their mind again). “Best practices” should be suggestions from well-meaning people. Instead they become rules from “science” ayatollahs who make it plain that not following the practices is, essentially, immoral if they can’t make it illegal. And many Christians go with that.
Courage to cure the headache
For educators, therapists and social workers (for many of my family and friends!) this outcomes-based mentality is a real headache. The data is not so bad if it is suggestive (since figures lie and liars figure); but life becomes untenable when you end up “teaching to the test” and lobbyists get regulations passed that force you to conform to their interpretation of the “best practices.” For a Christian, who has little faith in hyper-rational world views, it is a particularly oppressive moment when fellow believers have bent the knee to the baal of “best practices” and one’s tenuous grip on viability within the system is stretched to a breaking point. For instance, CACREP (the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs) has a line in their core values statement that says the board of directors believes in “creating and strengthening standards that … encourage program improvement and best practices.” So when these wannabe accreditors get your legislature to adopt their standards of accreditation, pretty soon you’re subject to their idea of “best practices” for your counseling. It is a surprisingly small degree of separation between efficiently producing mother boards and thinking one could mother children with mothering “best practices.”
I hope in that by 2050 (when I will only be 96, after all) I will get to see the fruit of brave Christians showing up the ludicrous nature of wisdom that does not begin with the fear of the Lord. One does not need to be anti-science to see its limitations. One does not need to be very loving to see that people are often driven by fear, not wisdom. One does not need to be very observant to notice that movies keep prophesying the horrendous effects of the rational-extension machines. But one does need to be faithful and courageous to work, plot and persevere in the institutions that can be devoured by the latest version of the same old arguments. Even more, one must be downright creative to live in an alternative to the latest attempt to enslave us to what the antichrist powers deem best.