Monday, February 1, 2010


Here is a chapter from And Gladly Teach, my satirical look at life at a prep school. This is Chapter 5.
And Gladly Teach was published in 2001. It's set at St. Lawrence Academy (SLA), an entirely fictional location.

As part of the opening week’s meetings, the faculty was introduced to Dr. Rodney L. Glennis, the founder and president of the firm of Broad Horizons, Inc., educational consultants. SLA had hired Broad Horizons to study all aspects of school life and to recommend ways to attract more students, reduce expenses, and, in general, make more money. (As a non-profit organization SLA was naturally very concerned with making as much money as possible.)

What is a “consultant”? The dictionary says, “an expert who is called on for professional or technical advice,” but a far more comprehensive definition might be “someone who is paid a lot of money to figure out things you ought to be able to figure out for yourself.” Another definition, apt for the sort of consultant the educational world produces, is “someone who, not liking to be a teacher or an an administrator, now makes more money than either by telling them how to teach and administrate.”

The world of education teems with consultants, it seethes with them, it is lousy with them. There is probably no school in the country whose substance has not been drained by at least one of these academic lampreys. It is not easy to say why communities consisting of well-educated adults, with decades of experience in every aspect of their profession, shell out thousands of dollars to these self-proclaimed experts. But they do. In the private school world there are even consultants to whom parents can go for the purpose of finding the “right” school for their child. This is a particularly lucrative field, since parents driven to use such services are so desperate to get their kid(s) out of the house that they will pay any amount to find a school which will take them. Such consultants, with just a computer, a phone, a copy of the Bunting & Lyon guide, and a knowledge of which schools are in financial trouble, could place Jack the Ripper in a private school, for a suitable fee.

Dr. Glennis (exactly what he was a doctor of was not clear, but the title engendered confidence in his clients) was a tall, gaunt, balding man in his late fifties, with bushy brows and bright brown eyes. He had arrived with a staff of three and several suitcases full of charts, tables, graphs, and overheads. He spoke for two solid hours. He painted an unnerving picture of the future. He explained how American teenagers were with each passing minute becoming stupider, lazier, and more undisciplined, how their parents were becoming less and less competent at raising them, how independent schools would soon be inundated with these creatures, and how any school which hoped to survive would have to develop “new and innovative programs,” “a clearer vision of viable objectives,” and “a distinctive cachet to proclaim itself unique among the profusion of similar institutions.”
All the while he spoke, his aides were busy flashing transparencies on the screen and whisking them away before the squinting audience could deduce their meaning, if indeed they had any. One chart was displayed upside-down, but that really made no difference.
“Broad Horizons has been conducting an in-depth study of SLA, which will be concluded shortly. We will then be in a position to make further recommendations as to how you can improve recruitment and retention. You have already taken a great step forward by energizing your hockey program, as I recommended to the Board two years ago.”

“So it’s his fault,” whispered several of the teachers.

“SLA cannot rest on its academics. Remember, parents take for granted that every independent school has an excellent teaching staff, superb courses, unlimited individual attention, and fine college preparatory opportunities. That’s a given.”

Now many teachers were glancing at each other. Was this true? Were parents really that dumb?
“What you must have is a further extra-curricular, I mean co-curricular, ...” Dr. Glennis’s volubility momentarily stopped. The word he had almost used, “gimmick,” didn’t seem elevated enough. Then he went on, “... dimension. which will individualize your identity. You must not be thought of as a ‘plain vanilla’ school, but rather as a Neapolitan one, a sort of tutti-frutti, which offers things unique, distinctive, sui generis!”

The teachers didn’t clap, partly because they were mostly appalled, and partly because they did not know he was done. But he was done, for the moment.

In the back row Mr. Vetter turned to Mr. del Rey. “But I like vanilla,” he whispered plaintively.
Mr. Jones, the European History teacher, a crabbed and reactionary man who had a particularly low tolerance for consultants, and indeed for innovations in general, looked at his schedule and noted with regret that tomorrow another speaker would appear. Mr. Jones often wondered who did this scheduling. He thought it was done by the Senior Staff, or SS, at its weekly meeting. The term SS did not mean--as one might think--those members of the faculty who had been at SLA for the longest time. No, the SS was an ex officio group which did not include any full-time teachers. Exactly who it did include was hard to say. Mr. Jones had never seen any list which specified the members of the Senior Staff. The SS exercised power anonymously, like the Venetian Council of Ten, the Neapolitan Camarilla, and the Illuminati. Perhaps the members had a secret handshake or a special tie clip. At any rate, these ghostly councillors seemed to be responsible for bringing to the campus the succession of quacks, mountebanks, and assorted humbugs who periodically bedevilled the busy teachers with their crackpot theories and impractical advice.

On the morrow, the latest speaker turned out to be some sort of child psychologist, an adolescent development “expert.” His presentation was so bizarre that many of the teachers wondered if it was an elaborate practical joke, similar to the one at a convention some years before where the keynote speaker, billed as Margaret Thatcher’s educational advisor and the youngest pilot to have flown with the RAF in the Battle of Britain, turned out to be a comedian. Certainly the clouds of jargon which befogged the room had about them an aura of comic implausibility.

First came something called the “Optimal Environmental Conditions” (which made Mr. Jones think of seventy degrees and low humidity,) which were engendered by a teacher having “Congruent Anticipatory Sets” with his students. This led, somehow, to “Cognitive Behavioral Change.” Intervention in student discipline would succeed, said the speaker, only if “environmental conditions” were “appropriate.” One had to “assess the lethality” of a situation so that one could provide “value-added opportunities” which students would “buy into.”
With everyone reeling from this barrage, the speaker--Dr. somebody, they were always “doctors”--physician, heal thyself--went on to the topic of “Gaining a Meta-Perspective.” A “teacher-student interaction” was something which happened on the “subjective level.” When the teacher then discussed this “interaction” with one or more colleagues, he gained a “meta-perspective.” A discussion of this discussion furnished one with a “meta-meta-perspective.” And ...
Mr. Jones quietly got up and went away. He knew that he might be reprimanded for this desertion, but he thought that a reprimand would be preferable to being jailed for murdering the speaker, which, given his state of mind, was his only alternative to departure. On his way home he marvelled, not for the first time, at his colleagues’ patience in tolerating these verbal assaults. He knew that SLA was not unique. All over the country, probably all over the world, these “experts” were going to and fro in the earth, and walking up and down in it, chanting their incomprehensible mantras to captive audiences at conventions, school openings, and faculty meetings, and being well-paid for doing so.

At least, thought Mr. Jones as he entered his apartment and sank into his easy chair, this guy hadn’t had us “break up into little groups.” That was a favorite technique of those people. The faculty would be divided into squads of five or six and sent hither and yon to discuss some problem concocted by the speaker. Often each group would be instructed to write its collective thoughts with a magic marker on large, poster-sized sheets of paper. When the faculty reconvened, the speaker would pin up the sheets of paper all around the room, so it resembled a kindergarten, and then everyone would compare the various ideas and try to find “congruence.” After it was found--and it always was--the now-congruent teachers could go home, the speaker would gather up the posters and throw them away, and no one would ever hear or speak of the matter again. This was called a “very productive meeting.”

Looking at the school calendar, Mr. Jones saw that in two weeks the faculty would hear from a firm of architects. He smiled wryly. This would be the third or fourth architectural presentation in about as many years. The Headmaster and the Board were always coming up with wonderful plans for renovating the dorms and classrooms, erecting new buildings, and generally modernizing the campus. This led (of course) to hiring a consultant, who, in return for a few tens of thousands of dollars, would produce plans of striking beauty and marvellous utility. These beautiful plans would be displayed at a faculty meeting and explained by a voluble expert who would make it seem as if paradise would come as soon as the school built the magnificent structures so carefully delineated on his expensive charts.

Mr. Jones recalled the plan for the huge field house connected to Laud Hall by an aerial walkway; the completely-renovated boys’ dorm, with its suites and lounges; the new main entrance to the school, which would have made coming to SLA an experience similar to that of arriving at Versailles. Ah, yes, they were all so wonderful...

The only problem was that none of them was ever built. SLA had barely enough money to perform the routine maintenance required to keep its existing buildings from falling to the ground. Starting work on the architects’ plans depended on a successful Capital Campaign, and this campaign, for which (of course) consultants had been repeatedly hired and paid more tens of thousands of dollars, never started. It never started because the consultants said that one does not start a capital campaign until after half the money has already been raised quietly and behind the scenes, so as to convince prospective donors that the whole amount would indeed be collected, and so far the SLA Board and alumni who were solicited had not promised enough.
And so the architectural plans remained, insubstantial and fairylike: pleasure-domes decreed but never built, until replaced by other, newer, ephemeral drawings and evanescent figments of imagination.

Mr. Jones reflected that if the Headmaster and the Board could remove the opium pipes from their teeth and come down to planet Earth, they might take all the money spent on these consultants and just do something useful with it, like repairing the scandalously decrepit boys’ showers. In thinking this, however, Mr. Jones was merely demonstrating that he would never be a Headmaster, because he lacked “Strategic Vision.” Strategic Vision is the ability to ignore mundane realities completely and to immerse oneself in a world of dreams. All great educational leaders have it.

As for Mr. Jones, well, he really felt, after being exposed to all these consultants, advisors, and experts, that a school in need of guidance would be better off if it hired an astrologer. The fees would be less, and the advice every bit as reliable.
From the back cover:

And Gladly Teach is funny, sarcastic, poignant, outrageous, light-hearted, serious, and more realistic than you would wish to believe. It is also short and has a happy ending. It is highly recommended for reading on long plane rides, at the beach, and at dull faculty meetings (as long as you sit way in back so the Headmaster can't see you.)

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