Wednesday, March 30, 2011

"It's for the Good of the Children"

From 2003 to 2004, I worked as director of Communications for St. Louis Public Schools. It was a tumultuous time; an outside management firm had been hired to “shrink the physical footprint” of a school district that had served 100,000 students in its heyday but had an enrollment of something less than 40,000. And shrink it did – schools were closed, employees laid off, budgets slashed, services outsourced, and the first attempts at overhauling the curriculum.

There were protests, all the time. My first day on the job, the teachers had a sick-out, protesting changes that would stop the “banking” of sick leave. Protests and wildcat strikes were common. A day without protests was like a day without, well, there never was a day with some protest going on. And board members fought each other. Former board members fought with the current board and themselves. The teachers’ union fought with everyone. The Mayor’s office was involved, so everything became political. It was the quintessential urban school district – in crisis.

And everyone used the same language. In fact, everyone used the same phrase: “It’s for the children.” Or a slight variation: “It’s for the good of the children.” It took me about two weeks to learn that whoever said that really meant something like this: “Who gives a flip for the kids? This is about jobs! (Or power, or control, or a cancelled consultant contract, or getting even. It was never, never about the kids. Never.)

I was reminded of this while reading chapter two of Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, as part of the discussion being hosted by Sarah Salter and Jason Stasyszen. Lewis, continuing to answer objections about his “Law of Human Nature,” that all of us, the world over, know how to behave. He differentiates between the law and an instinct – that this idea of how we are to behave is not herd instinct we’ve learned or incorporated into our DNA over millennia.

“If the Moral Law,” he writes, “was one of our instincts, we ought to be able to point to some one impulse inside us which was always what we call ‘good,’ always in agreement with the rule of right behaviour. But you cannot…Strictly speaking, there are no such things as good and bad impulses.”

He goes on to make a rather profound yet simple statement: “The most dangerous thing you can do is to take any one impulse of your own nature and set it up as the thing you ought to follow at all costs. There is not one of them which will not make us into devils if we set it up as an absolute guide.” Consider what the Soviet Union did with the phrase “the good of the people” – tens of millions died and/or were sent to labor camps for “the good of the people.”

Just like all manner of things were justified in the school district “for the good of the children,” most if not all of which ended up hurting the very children they were supposed to help. And the surprising thing was that people who said it actually believed, or at least most of them did.

Too easily do we mask our motives. Too easily do we convince ourselves of our own idealism and the venality of those who disagree with us. And we can subsequently justify all kinds of very bad, very wrong things.

To read more posts on chapter 2 of Mere Christianity, please visit Jason Stasyszen at Connecting to Impact.


Anonymous said...

Great post, Glynn. Our biggest school district is going through the same crisis - down to 17,000 students from 70,000. There's a reason no one wants there kids in those schools, but everything the school board does is "for the children."

nitewrit said...


Unfortunately too true. I once was a budget director of a medical center and all the doctors, nurses, administrators wanted more money for their pet projects or themselves, even when there was not that much money to give, and the cry was always, "it is for the patients." No, it never was for the patients; it was always for pride, greed and ego.


Karen Kyle Ericson said...

Very insightful post. I too am disturbed by the curriculum children are being given today. It's no longer about reading, writing, and arithmetic now it's about supporting social causes. Trying to create a tolerant society, rather than educate children. Don't have a clue as to how politicians got involved. Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters are great books. I'll have to read them again. Thanks for sharing this.

Jeff Jordan said...

So true, Glynn. For me, I decide what "I" want or what will benefit "me" and then make a great rationalization as to why it's best for "everyone."

Anonymous said...

Love the perspective and insight.

Left to our own devices we focus on self and justify the means...

Louise Gallagher said...

Here in Calgary, Alberta, Canada our school boards has had to trim $67 million from their annual budget. It means... cutbacks, layoffs.

It is, they say, for the good of the province (the funding comes through the provincial government), for the good of the people.

Working at a homeless shelter, I see the ravages of lack of education every day, of poor study habits, of lack of enthusiasm for learning -- some might say, the effects of poor teaching long ago when a grown man was in his youth and the world was laid out before him for the taking.

If only he'd taken the time to stay in school.

If only we'd taken the time to create the possibility for him to learn how important it was to stay in school.

If only we'd done for the children what they needed to have a better future.

If only we'd do it now.

Thanks Glynn
I really

katdish said...

This is a fantastic object lesson, Glynn.

I'm amazed at what has been done for the "benefit of the children". In order to make sure that "no child is left behind", teachers are forced to teach kids how to take standardized tests. I get so frustrated with my kid's homework because it's an indication of a serious problem in our education system: They're not taught to think for themselves. We're giving them fish instead of teaching them to fish. I'll shut up now before I go into a full throttle rant.

Maude Lynn said...

"Too easily do we convince ourselves of our own idealism and the venality of those who disagree with us."

This is so very true. It always has been, but it seems particularly true today.

Anonymous said...

It's chilling how easily we are prone to self-deception about our motives and actions. We need the higher way, the greater guide--now and always. Thanks Glynn. Profound post.

Tom Keefe said...

The title of Lewis' book would raise the hackles of some school administrators, teachers and parents. So this blog post might be dismissed by some without serious consideration.

Look what the continuing fight to push "separation of church and state" can mean: Ignoring intelligent discourse and problem-solving regarding issues that some see as having moral and spiritual roots.

We are seeing the consequences of ignoring God's word and relying instead on man's "wisdom"--which falls far short.

Thank you for this insightful post, Glynn.

Ryan Tate said...

Wow, this speaks volumes.

Great insights that you pulled out of this chapter that applied to your experiences. Thanks for sharing. There is a lot to meditate on here.

S. Etole said...

Very thought-provoking ...

H. Gillham said...

Good word.

"Too easily do we mask our motives. Too easily do we convince ourselves of our own idealism and the venality of those who disagree with us. And we can subsequently justify all kinds of very bad, very wrong things."

So convicting.

Duane Scott said...

Thank you for making me stop and think, "What really motivates me when I follow those impulses?"

I actually highlighted some of these very thoughts, but decided not to use them.

I'm glad you did though!

Helen said...

I like how you correlated your own experience with Lewis's statement about the wrongness of setting up even the best of impulses as something which must be followed at all costs.