Friday, December 11, 2015

Is It Politically Correct To Be Smart?

I had lunch today with a good friend who takes pride in not being politically correct. I always enjoy it.

He told me about a discussion he had with a younger colleague at the University. My friend Bruce was discussing an issue that had come up on constructing a website for a Departmental project. I think it was on a governmental contract. The problem was this: the staff had constructed the website directory and placed the files in a way that a visitor would have trouble finding what he or she wanted. They had divided up the files according to how they had divided them among themselves as they created them, but that didn't accord with the logic of a visitor. No matter the titles they made up for the sections, It's as though one folder could be called “Mindy's files,” another one “Janet's files,” etc. The path to relevant files was impenetrable.

Bruce said to his friend, “The staff just isn't smart enough to do that job. You need the professors to do it.”

His friend replied, “The staff just doesn't have enough experience in the field.”

No,” said Bruce, “they're just not smart enough. Don't be politically correct. They're staff, not professors.”

His friend couldn't bring himself to agree. For him, it had to be a question of experience. Apparently, under the current rules of political correctness, calling one group “smarter” than another is a no-no.

Well, I could agree with Bruce! Love to be politically incorrect, of course, love being a shit-kicker, but also, like to call a spade a spade.

I told Bruce about my experience when I was a two-year doc in the US Public Health Service in the later 60's. Each year a bunch of us came in as commissioned USPHS officers, Lieutenant Commanders we were, for two years not spent in Vietnam. We did bureaucratic staff work, we worked hard, and in my case it was a high point of my life. We worked side by side with the bureaucracy. We weren't seeing patients, we weren't wearing uniforms, we were doing paper work mostly, looking at the medical stuff that came through Health, Education, and Welfare. It was an eyeopener that gave me knowledge of the ordinary that I have used the rest of my life.

In my experience, the top governmental administrators are pretty smart. They have hard jobs. Imagine trying to get meaningful work out of thousands of employees who are GS-9s or 10s or 12s, who chose government work; that's who you have.

So what would sometimes happen is that a problem would come up that the staff couldn't solve. It would be technical, perhaps, it would be involved, but it wasn't at the level that the administrator him or herself could work on personally. But it had to be solved.

So here is what the savvy administrators would do. They would say, “Get a two-year officer on it!”

But this isn't medical,” the staff would say. “A two-year guy won't know anything about it!”

Doesn't matter,” the administrator would reply. “They'll figure it out.”

And they would. It was a selection issue. Doctors are smart. Some are jerks, some are smug, some are whatever people generally are. But they are smart. They had passed the tests. And they would inevitably solve the problems that the career staff couldn't solve. Because they were smart.

And so are professors. Sure, it's nice to say we're all equal. Just doesn't happen to be true. You could explain to the staff what kind of organization you wanted in the website, you could give examples maybe, but at the end, the professors might as well do it themselves. Incredibly enough, some people are just smarter than some others.

Hope that doesn't constitute a micro-aggression.

Budd Shenkin

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