Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The Files of the Bureaucracy

I regularly read the book excerpts at Delancey Place. One day recently they featured an excerpt from Niall Ferguson, Cash Nexus, Basic, 2001, pp. 90-91.

The book told how bureaucracy grew after the Industrial Revolution in Europe.

" In 1891 total government personnel amounted to less than 2 percent of the total labor force in Britain. ... By the 1920s public employment exceeded 5 per cent of the workforce in Italy, 6 per cent in Britain and 8 per cent in Germany:"
This bureaucracy was often thought to be very rational: 'rules, means, ends, and matter-of-factness dominate its bearing,' Yet disillusionment with it was growing.
"The reality of modern bureaucracy turned out to be closer to Kafka's Castle, in which enigmatic files are trundled up and down grey corridors, being allocated apparently at random to faceless pen-pushers behind identical doors. ... "
That description sounds disturbingly familiar to me. Especially effective in this excerpt was a story told by Elias Canetti of an episode he witnessed during a violent political riot in Vienna in 1927.
(Canetti) vividly recollected seeing a distraught official outside the burning Palace of Justice, 'flailing his arms and moaning over and over again':" 'The files are burning! All the files.'" 'Better files than people!' I told him, but that did not interest him; all he could think of was the files. ... He was inconsolable. I found him comical, even in this situation. But I was also annoyed. 'They've been shooting down people!' I said angrily, 'and you're carrying on about the files!' He looked at me as if I weren't there and wailed repeatedly: 'The files are burning! All the files!'" The files had become an end in themselves.

This story has stayed in my mind replaying itself again at odd times. It has several layers of lessons. The obvious one, of course, is the one that Canetti sought to teach by telling the story - The files had become an end in themselves. As human beings in a highly developed and very busy society, we have to work at making sure the means to our goals don't become goals in themselves. As one motivational expert once said, "The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing."

As a retired teacher, as the mother of a working teacher and two principals, as a sister of two working teachers, as an aunt of a working teacher, as a cousin of another retired teacher, as an other-relative of at least 7 or 8 educators, as a friend of numerous other people who have dedicated their lives to teaching children: I am aware that the bureaucracy of public education is causing many dedicated educators to concentrate on "the files" while the living, breathing, two-legged, representations of our future are being reduced to ashes.

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