Process is More Important than Content

An engraving of a Quaker meeting in Colonial America
Our fellow travelers on the conservative side of the political spectrum are generally great champions of the principle of liberty, though it seems they often advocate for applying this principle inconsistently in favor of the rich and powerful and their rights to use property and conduct business as they wish, even at the expense of the rest of us. Unfortunately, we on the progressive side are just as guilty of inconsistency in applying humanistic principles like the Golden Rule.

We on the left are quick to tar those on the right with believing in the bastard corollary of that Rule which is sometimes stated as, “He who has the gold makes the rules”, yet we are guilty of forgetting that how we attempt to implement humanistic principles and practices is just as important as their intended positive consequences.

So what am I trying to get at here? We progressives are often guilty of trying to use strong-arm authoritarian tactics to implement our humanistic goals. If the ends are fairness, equality or giving every child the opportunity to get a good education, the means used to get there are not important. That is, content (outcome in this case) trumps process.

Process… so many of us on both sides of the political spectrum give it short shrift, particularly when it comes to running our society’s institutions, a concept known as “governance”. I fear that many of us don’t think enough about this concept beyond this being what governments do and we abstractly support “the democratic process”, whatever the hell that is in real practice. We too often would seemingly forsake our “inefficient” democratic process in favor of the dictates of an enlightened despot, if only we could find one who agreed with us.

My Unitarian-Universalist theology and practice has made me very conscious of process and particularly the process of governance. We UUs are “process junkies” and “governance geeks”. The classic joke is that when other good people die they go to heaven, but when UUs die we go to a discussion about heaven. But looking at this obsession in more of a positive light, UUs literally turn democratic process into a sacrament (celebrating the democratic process is one of our seven principles), and we turn meetings (if well led and actively participated in) into something akin to a worship service, a proclivity we borrowed from the Quakers.

Einstein said that “Imagination is more important than knowledge”. Some might argue with that statement, because how can you function without knowledge? But understanding that Einstein was all about building new knowledge (by thinking outside the box of conventional scientific wisdom) he knew that his imagination was the critical process tool to constructing that new knowledge.

My (hopefully not bastard) corollary of Einstein’s statement is that “Process is more important than content”, and if you think that is totally whack, think about it some more.

No I’m serious… think about it some more… I can wait… it’s that important.

In a republic like ours featuring the democratic process, where the decision-making (or at least the choosing of the decision-makers) is intended to be based on collective wisdom, the whole point is having an effective process to divine that wisdom. What that collective wisdom is at any point of time can vary with the swings of the proverbial political pendulum. And that’s how our republic has survived for over 200 years, because changing times, circumstances and citizenry can lead to significant changes in the laws while keeping consistency in the process.

I have found that once I started focusing on the process in group situations rather than the content, my perspective on things changed significantly. Not sure I can put in words what that difference is.

I have seen people come into a meeting angry or frustrated anticipating a controversial item that is going to be discussed and “loaded for bear” as it were. But if I or whoever is facilitating the meeting does a good job giving everybody a fair chance to be heard (even if time constraints force you to limit everybody to a couple minutes to speak their thoughts), it amazes me sometimes that people will be satisfied, even if the final decision is not what they wanted. It makes me appreciate how powerful a thing it is being heard.

Then it also amazes me how good the decisions are if good process is followed. This is the gift that the Quakers and the Iroquois tried to give to the world with their consensus process, which can effectively divine collective wisdom and give a hearing and due respect to those with concerns or outright opposition as well. Most people who run meetings or otherwise facilitate group decision making can go only so far as Robert’s Rules of Order, which is the time honored process of majority rule in ours and other democratic republics, and more simply practiced in group decision-making at every level.

To the extent America’s founding leaders focused on establishing good process in their Constitution, I think it is a mark of the brilliance of their imaginations. To the extent that we ignore process in our contemporary institutions, I think it is a mark of the failure of ours.

I keep thinking about the endless debate and analysis in the educational media (like Education Week) about the content of what is taught in schools while mostly ignoring what I would say is the more important process and governance piece of education, in both the classroom and the staffroom. What discussion there is about process in the classroom, seems to revolve around whether to use scripted teaching methodologies like Open Court, rather than really looking at what sort of process among teacher and students might best facilitate that full engagement of all in the education process (instead of the current sad levels of student engagement, see my post).

But I am heartened to see more discussion about educational process creeping into the debate. I was gratified to see an interview in Education Week with educator, education writer and “educrat” Diane Ravitch (who was an initial supporter of No Child Left Behind) calling out the need for good collaborative governance process in schools, at least in the staffroom. Said Ravitch…

The leadership should collaborate with teachers and should not coerce them. It should not force changes that the teachers think are unwise. If the people who are in the classroom with children every day become alienated and disaffected and say that you’re making them do something that they don’t think is right, it’s not going to work. Forcing people to do something they think is wrong is not a successful tactic. If you’re going to be the general, it’s a bad idea to turn your heavy weaponry on your own troops.

Bravo and well said! Why would it make sense to have an authoritarian governance structure in schools that help prepare our youth to participate in a democratic society? How effective can disengaged teachers be working with youth?

Of course I would encourage adult school staff, in the name of good and appropriate process, to take this less hierarchical more partnership orientation one significant step further. Someday I am hoping to hear an “educrat” argue that…

The teacher should collaborate with students and should not coerce them. Teachers should not force changes that the students think are unwise. If the students in the classroom every day become alienated and disaffected and say that you’re making them do something that they don’t think is right, it’s not going to work. Forcing people to do something they think is wrong is not a successful tactic. If you’re going to be the general, it’s a bad idea to turn your heavy weaponry on your own troops.

We definitely aren’t there yet, but when we get there it will be a great day, at least in my opinion.

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