by pam ashlund
Two problems are troubling me tonight: 1) Progress is so slow (in every arena, but it's social change that I have in mind here); and 2) For whatever reason, human thought falls victim to the most base errors; preventing us from seeing and thinking clearly.
Progress is slow: The challenging part of any academic endeavor is that we have to start over again with every generation. Unlike physical genes, these non-physical meme thingy’s are not transferred by DNA through reproduction (or any other physical mechanism).
Fortunately, there is some overlap of generations to achieve a modicum of historical memory. The invention of the printing press didn't hurt either (should I be saying silicon chip?).
Still this darn transmission process is SO fragile. The dark ages almost wiped out all of human knowledge were it not for a couple of cloistered monks tucked away here and there. It all came down to copying manuscripts by HAND. This whole image was burned into my memory by the fabulous PBS history populizer (author/host of The Day the Universe Changed), James Burke, and has haunted me ever since.
By way of illustration, in 1993 when the Clinton Administration launched the AmeriCorps program, a cadre of young and enthusiastic Clinton staffers charged in to create a government agency and program that would be new and different.
I'm sure they didn't know what they were in for. The staff created a model where "volunteers" were paid a monthly living allowance. Nothing wrong with that (idealistic, efficient, etc.); except that State Law contradicted that form of pay (violating wage and labor law). It took five long years to resolve that, where all of the nonprofit agencies geared up and paid living allowances, then reverted to an hourly wage, and then (when a specific exception for the AmeriCorps program was established), went back to the living allowance model (first there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is?).
Clinton created the first new federal agency in 20 years (which unlike Health & Human Services or the Department of Labor), had an unusual name, the "Corporation for National Service". Even the Federal Department name being called a "Corporation" challenged the status quo.
In other words, the new (enthusiastic, motivated) generation learned quite a few lessons the hard way. By the time "Year Ten" of the AmeriCorps program had rolled around, I'm afraid it had succumbed to governmental bueracracy.
Obviously we stand on the shoulders of everyone who has come before us, and even if we cannot rise above the tide of history, a knowledge of the lessons of the past can't hurt.
It's a cliche and a truism, nonetheless, I recommend using this quote as a daily mantra and tool for self and organizational analysis:
Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.Human thought, flawed by base errors, hinders clear thinking:
George Santayana, 1863-1952
Social Psychology's perspectives on personality traits and human motivations and limitations, are as an important factor as heeding the lessons of history.
Recall the philosopher, Thomas Hobbes describing life as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short"? Well how about this quote from the critical thinking website:
much of our thinking...is biased, distorted, partial, uninformed, or downright prejudiced.Why do some people have no trouble acknowledging that limitation while it seems an insurmountable hurdle to others? Psychological research offers a few answers, one being a personality trait dubbed "self-monitoring". Posited by Snyder in 1979 and substatiated by volumes of data since, high self-monitoring individuals have better work performance and are better leaders than their low self-monitoring counterparts. Oddly, low self-monitoring individuals are dominated by a quality of "being true to themselves". I wouldn't be surprised if more of the folks drawn to work in the nonprofit sector (or helping professions in general) might be of the low-self monitoring variety.
Research on the behavior and psychology of "groups" offer similar insight. Tyler Cowen, blogging in Marginal Revolution: Small Steps to a Much Better World writes:
Time and again research has shown that people think of more new ideas on their own than they do in a group. The false belief that people are more creative in groups has been dubbed by psychologists the ‘illusion of group of productivity.
But why does this illusion persist?”Check out his blog to see Tyler’s answers.
Technorati Tags: Institutional Memory, Non-Profit, Nonprofit, Self-Monitoring, Social Psychology