Pull Here

There were two or three good moments this week, moments when I felt like I knew how to do this job.  And there was one that made me wonder. 

First, the good stuff.  In the senior capstone we were exploring the question of whether we want our leaders to be fully straightforward and honest or whether we only think we want this.  The students in the seminar had read a chapter by the law professor (and sometime novelist) Stephen L. Carter, who argues that leadership with integrity requires politicians who are forthright, steadfast, committed and compassionate.  Politics without trust, he argues, is just warfare.

The students had also read sections of The Prince by Machiavelli, who maintains that warfare is precisely what politics are.  Always have been, always will be.  Consequently, we only think we want honest people in leadership.  In reality, we want leaders who will do or say what it takes to maintain our lives, fortunes and the rule of law.  We want winners.

I deliberately pit Machiavelli against Carter because I want the class to come to grips with two diametrically opposed views that--given their foundational assumptions--are faultlessly correct.  Carter assumes politics can improve if people act with integrity.  Machiavelli assumes that this will never happen, so leaders who act with integrity foolishly imperil the very state or enterprise they have been empowered to protect. 

When I'm sure the class understands both thinkers, I ask them to take sides.  Literally.  I ask them to get up and go to a designated Carter or Machiavelli side of the room.  The good moment this week was finding a large number of students who were frozen in the middle.  They couldn't decide.  They liked what  Carter had to say, but Machiavelli also made sense.  A few of them said, almost in painful hesitation, "I just don't know" or "I can't decide."

I always think of these moments as seams or popped threads. When students get caught between two equally valid ideas, they are just about to unravel some previously unexamined idea, which is a necessary precursor to knitting together a new, more complex one.  Those who make up their minds quickly are often just going on impulse or unreflective preference.  It's the ditherers that matter.  And I had a good number.

The other great moment came when a couple of students groaned at me, "Why don't you just tell us the answer?"  You know it's working when you come across this little popped seam because the question is actually a complaint.  In translation it means, "Do I really have to start knitting something here?" 

Uh-huh.  That's what I'm looking for.   Make me some socks.

And then, the lousy moment.  It came when I rather ham-handedly made a good colleague's job a bit more frustrating.  She's been working hard to get a simple thing done and I fear I just made it a more difficult for her.   Ye gods, that's the last thing I intended. 

So a couple of good things and one regret.  Eh, I've had better weeks.  Had worse too.

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