Strategic Thinking

I hate using the term “strategic” as it implies a kind of top down approach to problem solving where a few brilliant people are responsible for all the planning and, eventually, the outcomes. It’s a kind of heroic thinking as well, where you lionize a few key people and then everything makes sense.

Perhaps the best example of this is the grand-daddy of so called great strategic thinkers, Winston Churchill. Yes, the man was sure strategic. He triggered a naval arms race that led to World War I, came up with the disaster that was Gallipoli, had his fingers in the cruel and thoughtless partition of Ireland on religious grounds after the equally cruel deployment of the Black and Tans and when he returned as First Lord in the Second World War immediately went to work undermining Norwegian neutrality. Was late to the game on convoys and thought that Greece and Yugoslavia, an area known for mountainous goat paths that defied invaders for centuries, was somehow a “soft underbelly” to Nazi Europe and preferable to the coastline of Normandy. Thank goodness Eisenhower and Roosevelt were able to hold the old boy back, but he’s celebrated as a great leader because he gave great speeches, so he must have had a strategy. Well, no. He was a meddler and wrong on many things.

Educational reform movements are led by contemporary figures who probably believe all the hype about Churchill, or at least they act like they do. No one has been more wrong on improving education that one Bill Gates, who parlayed the shittiest operating system he could find into a monopoly position because of good lawyering. Basically he did for computers what old man Rockefeller did for petroleum using nearly identical legal strategies. No one thought Rockefeller created oil though, and when somehow engineers figured out automobiles could run off of the byproduct of making kerosene for lamps, the lowly waste product we call, gasoline, a fortune was made even more impressive.

Rockefeller spent the rest of his life giving out shiny new dimes and then building memorials to himself that barely made a dent in his fortune. One of those memorials was the modern American research university. At least that reform worked.

Bill Gates has so far had an absolutely horrible impact on K-12 and university education, not to mention his impact on the teaching profession, but no one will say otherwise. He must be brilliant after all. He’s rich. And he has a strategy to improve education, but it never seems to do any good whatsoever.

When it comes to strategy I’m more in the Tolstoy mode. You want to improve things in schools then get the teachers involved. They’ll figure it out. Education is managed from the middle, not the top. When strategies from the top work you have figures like Horace Mann and Humboldt who start from the premise that you are educating whole human beings who are going to be enlightened, truth seeking citizens. In short you aren’t focusing on the practical, but the impractical.

Which is, in retrospect, why Winston actually was for a brief time a great strategist…

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