John Jensen: Chicago Strike Shows Need for ‘Back to Basics’

Does anything basic strike the eye about the Chicago teachers' strike? Issues and personalities vary place to place, but is any angle of it broadly replicable and useful?

"Basic" means one condition that determines others. When I was a kid, my father set about constructing a two-story, four-apartment building in the lot beside our house. He cleared the lot, leveled a pad, and built forms for a concrete footing around the perimeter. As the concrete hardened, he inserted bolts into it and then laid 2 x 4s over the bolts that protruded through the wood. He set up a surveyor's transit and carefully leveled these 2 x 4 plates as they floated on the soft concrete before bolting them in place.

John Jensen, Ph.D.

"Why are you doing that?" I asked him.

"If you get the plates level," he said with a satisfied smile, "then everything else is plumb and square as you go up. Everything fits."

We might call "basic" what enables everything else to fit; when you build on it, your work proceeds smoothly without glitches. Amid school conditions that have accumulated for decades, what could qualify?

The most common response today doesn't merit the label "basic." Political and economic powers take sides, issues are too narrowly construed, and uses of power overwhelm a range of less influential values left to fester. The public discussion of Chicago schools shed light on sharp imbalance in the allocation of resources, racial segregation, homelessness, multiple impacts from poverty, the needs of children, and the varied conditions of children's and teachers' experience in school.

With so many adjustments to make, where do we start? What comes first in our discussion so other issues are dealt with more easily?

The answer lies in a shift of attitude. People facing each other across a table expecting contention might well find it novel ground, but their first duty is to examine their personal stance. Will they try to appreciate the other person's viewpoint? Decades ago, Jack Gibb, a pioneer in group process, uncovered six dimensions of trust that speak to this issue. Participants should strive toward being equal instead of superior, provisional rather than certain, spontaneous rather than strategic, seek problem-solving instead of control, be empathic instead of neutral, and seek evidence and information rather than evaluate and blame.

Such changes occur only out of a root desire. A personal quality begins with one wanting the quality; in this case wanting what benefits everyone ultimately. Adopting this desire oneself in a situation of conflict makes it more likely that others will do the same, and appreciating another's point of view expands one's own picture of salient reality. As we grasp how others regard the issue, our thinking incorporates circumstances that before were closed to us. We might not have penetrated to those corners on our own, but seeing through another's lenses, we grasp them: "Oh! That's what you're saying!" And that tendency carried through to completion produces significant benefit. Economist Beardsley Ruml remarked that "reasonable people always agree when they understand what the other person is talking about."

The willingness to appreciate another's viewpoint is itself an outcome of a yet more basic choice, to relinquish a subjective mind for an objective mind. The difference is not just philosophical and it is not mysterious. The subjective mind is immersed in "how I see it." Its own priorities are presumed correct, its intuitions regarded as accurate, its values legitimate, and its aims above criticism. Consequently it feels defensive when questioned, blocks out feedback, blames others or conditions for what it causes, fails to appreciate the distorting effect of emotions, and when upset sabotages communications.

An objective mind instead is immersed in a world understood to be larger than the self or group self-interest. The larger reality is apprehended through objective information rather than subjective impressions, feelings, and intuitions. Consequently, an objective mind values feedback, draws profit from criticism, questions its own intuitions, seeks to understand cause and effect, acknowledges the distortion possible from feelings both positive and negative, and attempts to maintain constructive communication even when upset.

This suggests an agreement contentious sides can make before addressing their issues. They agree on objective thinking as the basis of solutions. In practice, they agree up front to allow themselves to be dragged, even kicking and screaming, back into objectivity when they depart from it. With this as common ground, everything else can at least be negotiated. Solutions will align with reality.

Such a principle emerges at the beginnings of western civilization in the Dialogues of Plato narrating the conversations of Socrates in ancient Greece. Underlying the discussions was the assumption that reasonable people accept reality evidenced to the eyes and ears. When Socrates made an assertion of fact—"Is it not true that…"—his interlocutors responded reasonably. Granting his point, they could expect, would place them at a disadvantage as Socrates followed up his train of thought, yet they answered logically. They acknowledged fact, and fact then was subjected to reasonable argument and interpretation.

Such a standard might serve as a criterion for whether one approaches an issue objectively. Do I allow my opponent to confront me with a reality I prefer not to accept? Because I am committed to objectivity, do I concede the point and face what I need to face? If in such situations the behavior of adults instead remains intransigent, then their own education has failed them, the influence of church and family and personal development have failed them, and personality has claimed for itself an indefensible social standard. It must matter to us that reality is larger than our mind, and our solutions must take account of it.

Able to concede a point against our self-interest, we declare the broader reality to be our home. A society today cannot prosper for long without accepting a real world in common that all help to sustain, a world negotiated by objective information and reasonable thought.

John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and author of the three-volume Practice Makes Permanent series (Rowman and Littlefield). He will send a proof copy of the volumes to anyone on request: [email protected]

John Jensen, Ph.D.
John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and education consultant. His three volume Practice Makes Perfect Series is in publication with Rowman and Littlefield, education publishers. The first of the series due in January is Teaching So Students Work Harder and Enjoy It: Practice Makes Perfect. He welcomes comments sent to him directly at [email protected]
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