Opinion: A Thought Experiment – There Are No Villains


Photo: Steven Millet for Flckr. (CC BY 2.0)

Michael Greenebaum

I awoke this morning to news of Ben Herrington’s resignation from public life in Amherst.   I read Ben’s Facebook statement and I am deeply sympathetic with the need to create distance from Amherst governance right now. I have been there and I have done that.  I took early retirement from my position as principal of Mark’s Meadow School in 1991 because of the awful toll that standardized testing was taking on our understanding of learning, education and schooling.  It still is taking that toll, and it easy for me still to find villains responsible for MCAS.

But when I find villains I become part of the problem, and that is where we are in Amherst right now.  I find a whole lot to disagree with in Amherst but disagreement is so disagreeable that I use old age and COVID as excuses to retreat from the battlefield.  Like Ben, I find other activities – teaching history and poetry and leading a book group – satisfying and, thanks to zoom,  opportunities for networking.  But, unlike Ben, I feel that I am abandoning a responsibility; if I truly believe in democracy and truly feel that disagreement – and its resolution – is the foundation of democracy, then my retreat is irresponsible.  Perhaps Ben will feel that some day;  I hope so.

I will never stop mourning the loss of Town Meeting because representative town meeting was based upon the triple foundation of advocacy, dissent, and vote.  Interestingly, the second iteration of Town Council seems to have restored that foundation, although with far fewer participants.  There were problems with Town Meeting and there are problems with Town Council but that essential triumvirate – advocacy, dissent, vote – is providing town politics with an essentially democratic foundation.

This understanding – perhaps primitive and naive – is the result of trying hard not to see villains in Amherst.  Just as we need people like Ben Herrington in local governance, we need to create a political climate that encourages them to participate in it.  And that “we” is all of us.  As I engage in this thought experiment I realize that there are some things we can all do: think about the language we use and think abut what we can do to prevent disagreement from degenerating into vilification.

Among the words that I would like to see disappear from public debate “accountability” has pride of place.  Taking action or making a decision with which one disagrees is not criminal or malfeasant. Criminality and malfeasance are real; let’s reserve accountability for their occurrence.  People take actions and make decisions which many feel are mistakes.  Let’s not cry “off with his head.”  Save that for Wonderland.  But some mistakes require tough actions to make reparations or resolve otherwise unsolvable issues.  These actions themselves will often be controversial and lead to vilification.  Calls for transparency sometimes sound like “off with his head.”

In fact, transparency is another tricky word which should be used with caution and care.  I will use the current school situation because calls for transparency have been strident while the miasma has been getting worse.  If we call for transparency from the School Committees, administrators and staffs we have to be willing to exercise patience while they all work their way towards possible decisions and solutions.  Boards and Committees are caught between a rock and a hard place.  Open Meeting laws require them to be a little bit transparent but when individuals and their reputations are involved let them do the important work in executive session. 

How should the Regional School Committees be acting right now?  It almost seems as though they are welcoming the fog.  The Title IX investigation is foggy and interminable, the superintendent’s leave and return were both foggy and inexplicable, the statement accompanying the superintendent’s resignation/firing was super foggy, telling us that it was not the result of any wrongdoing on the part of the superintendent, who was identified as one of the authors of the statement.  And now, the Chair of the Regional School Committee has resigned with kind words for his colleagues.  Understandably, Jennifer Shaio, on whom so many of us have depended for clarity, has not recently been blogging.  “And we are here as on a darkling plain/Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

My recommendation to elected Boards and Committees:  don’t see Amherst voters as villains, whatever their opinions about your decisions and actions. 

Ask for advice and help.  My recommendation to critics of and commentators about our elected Boards and Committees: don’t see our Boards and Committees as villains but be vigorous and clear about your disagreements with their decisions and actions.  Perhaps more importantly, be patient while they work out their positions if they are doing so transparently.  And offer advice and help.

Back in the day when I was teaching courses in organization studies to would-be school and college administrators I would offer what I called “the perilous epistemology of leadership:  I believe my (decision, action) to be right, but my belief may be wrong.”  In this difficult and complicated time in Amherst I would offer to our governors and to their critics a similar paradoxical stance: let’s cherish our strong opinions but not trust them.  Let’s help each other.

Michael Greenebaum was Principal of Mark’s Meadow School from 1970 to 1991, and from 1974 taught Organization Studies in the Higher Education Center at the UMass School of Education.  He served in Town Meeting from 1992, was on the first Charter Commission in 1993, and served on several town committees including the Town Commercial Relations Committee and the Long Range Planning Committee.

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10 thoughts on “Opinion: A Thought Experiment – There Are No Villains

  1. I see Mr. Greenebaum advocating for a kinder and gentler approach to the town’s problems and its governance. The relevant words are “reasonable people can disagree.” When do we start?

  2. Richard Morse – reasonable people can disagree, they can make mistakes, they can be caught up in webs of complexity from which they feel there is no escape, their hearts can bleed, they can despair, they can blame “the other”. I think all of this is in play in the current school situation. In my thought experiment I can imagine that all the players thought they were doing the right thing and were thinking of what’s best for children. But it is much easier for me to get angry, especially because it seems evident that children were harmed. And reasonable people can get angry, I don’t think I called for a kinder and gentler approach to our town’s problems (and I don;t think I said that reasonable people can disagree, for that matter). What I think I was doing was suggesting some modesty in asserting our own virtue, and perhaps doubting our own certainties. Since we are all others for other people, let’s give “the others” some room to admit their uncertainties and even mistakes.

    When I was a school principal I sometimes joked that I would answer the phone by saying “Hello, I’m sorry.” Sometimes parents were upset, students were upset, teachers were upset. But we talked to each other. Where we could, we continued to disagree. But when it was necessary to find a common resolution we did that too. And we always had tea together on Friday afternoons.

    Bennett Hazlip – thank you for commenting but I’m afraid I don’t understand the comment. I would be happy to respond if you care to clarify.

  3. I like your “there are no villains” philosophy, Michael, and try to subscribe to it. But while patience is a virtue, mistakes usually don’t correct themselves.

    As an Amherst school parent for the past 12 years, I can appreciate the pain and anger expressed by families who have experiencd bullying and transphobic behavior. I also find common ground with those who have pointed out Mike Morris’s good qualities and accomplishments during his seven years as superintendent.

    It is a fact of life that people don’t like to be ignored, marginalized or disrespected. When these conditions persist we can expect to see in living color why Amherst is known as the place where only the ‘h’ is silent.

  4. Thanks for your comment, Jeff. I called my piece a thought experiment because I am trying it out as a way for disagreement to be more productive in Amherst. I don’t think that the anger and despair I am feeling right now can do much more than generate more anger and despair. Maybe, to use your words, one thing I am trying out is creating an environment in which people can admit mistakes and participate in rectifying them. I admit that in these litigious days, that may seem like a pipe dream.

    The villainous narrative claims that trans and gay students were deliberately harmed, that administrators knew about this and either approved of it, winked at it or looked the other way, while the RSC engaged in a cover-up. If any or all of this is true it is indeed villainous and should be treated as such. But I know schools and school systems well enough to know that there are other possible narratives which raise other kinds of questions about the behaviors involved. None of these other narratives is particularly praiseworthy; they suggest mistakes of inattention, awkwardness, embarrassment, timidity, bureaucratic inertia, fear of litigation and so forth.. Such mistakes are common in school systems, especially when not making waves and avoiding litigation are the highest values. But they are often not villainous and with courage and compassion these mistakes can be acknowledged and rectified, and over time confidence in the school system restored and strengthened.

  5. Michael, Thanks for your thoughtful comments. i must say it has become very discouraging to see the level of vitriol and personal attacks. Your piece brings up for me Loretta Ross’s concept of “calling in” as opposed to “calling out.” It seems some people’s instinct when disagreeing is to shame and blame. Ross describes her approach and useful tools for learning how to ‘call people in’ to discussion about differences and conflict in this Ted Talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xw_720iQDss.

  6. Thank you, Michael, for this thoughtful piece. If we could learn how to be in community while disagreeing on issues, but not demonizing each other, the problems might not all get resolved, but we might sleep better and enjoy being in public spaces together more often.

  7. Thank you for this. I suspect many of us have observed the last few months unfolding with some degree of surprise, horror, and disgust at the way people have chosen to interact with each other.

  8. A child of the sixties I absurdly believe we can evolve beyond our centuries (millennia) of war, domination, colonization and suppression behaviors, so deeply entrenched in our genetic and cultural heritage. Personally I find it so unpleasant to be angry and hateful, that I intentionally cultivate a practice of listening and compromise. I often fail. The feeling of being affirmed, listened to, respected, appreciated, and loved is welcome and sought after. But even that has an element of ego, and the separation of the me and you. Dissolve into the we and feel connected to the greater fabric of creation of which we are a part. Thank you Michael for the thought experiment. These idealistic imaginings do suggest real world behaviors. Think video games, challenges, traps, and hidden enemies. But in this game there is no killing. There is transformation and play. There is problem solving, connection, community and love. I cannot solve any of these issues, it must be a we solution. Thank you Michael for suggesting we try.

  9. There’s a bit of a chicken and egg issue here.

    Are officials [and people more generally] afraid to admit to the lesser sins of “mistakes of inattention, awkwardness, embarrassment, timidity, bureaucratic inertia, fear of litigation and so forth”, because they don’t wish to be criticized by the public [and other people more generally] for these errors? Or, is the public critical, because officials too often fail to acknowledge ANY error, and instead respond with defensiveness?

    I’m with you, Michael, in that I generally never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by incompetence (or other “lesser” failures). But I’ve been repeatedly frustrated, locally, by an unwillingness to acknowledge any room for improvement, lessons learned, or anything other than a general attitude of “you critics keep screwing things up and we hate you for it.”

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