Managerial Meta Language

David Brooks fills the William Safire chair at the Times. That means he fills the role of “good conservative”, as imaged by the Left. That means he will disagree with orthodoxy, but always avoiding anything that may vex his paymasters. His job is to put a little shine on their otherwise dreary conventional liberalism.

Since most of what’s important has been ruled off-limits, Brooks has to root around for something about which he can write in a non-liberal way. I don’t think you can call Brooks a conservative. He’s more of a faculty lounge elitist. He may think his coevals are nuts, but he’ll take them over this guy any day.

Last week he had this up and for some reason people were discussing it. Here is the opening graph:

Several years ago, Doug Lemov began studying videos of excellent teachers. He focused not on their big strategies but on their microgestures: How long they waited before calling on students to answer a question (to give the less confident students time to get their hands up); when they paced about the classroom and when they stood still (while issuing instructions, to emphasize the importance of what’s being said); how they moved around the room toward a student whose mind might be wandering.

This is classic Brooks. He starts with a reference to some obscure guy tickling the feet of managerial class types. Then he touches on the high points so you believe he has spent a lot of time on the subject and then it is off to the usual stuff about the usual stuff. That means lots of catch phrases and new age word combinations.

The managerial class is adopting their own meta-language. I blame the MBA schools for most of it, but it has an internal momentum now. For example, later in the piece he writes:

Since it is easier to think deductively, most people try to turn cloud problems into clock problems, but a few people are able to look at a complex situation, grasp the gist and clarify it by naming what is going on.

Such people tend to possess negative capacity, the ability to live with ambiguity and not leap to premature conclusions. They can absorb a stream of disparate data and rest in it until they can synthesize it into one trend, pattern or generalization.

I have a 1% IQ and I have no idea what he is getting at, at least with any certainty. Maybe he means that some people are big idea guys and others are “make the big ideas work” guys. The phrase “negative capacity” is a phrase without meaning, at least in English.

We can all think of many other skills that are especially valuable right now:

Making nonhuman things intuitive to humans. This is what Steve Jobs did.

This is classic signalling. We’re suppose to believe that before Steve Jobs, we were all staggering around like zombies, banging into one another.

Purpose provision. Many people go through life overwhelmed by options, afraid of closing off opportunities. But a few have fully cultivated moral passions and can help others choose the one thing they should dedicate themselves to.

I’m at a loss as to what this is supposed to mean.

Opposability. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” For some reason I am continually running across people who believe this is the ability their employees and bosses need right now.

I doubt Brooks knows many plumbers or computer programmers. In fields where there is a tangible work product, holding the right answer in mind is what the boss needs right now.

Cross-class expertise. In a world dividing along class, ethnic and economic grounds some people are culturally multilingual. They can operate in an insular social niche while seeing it from the vantage point of an outsider.

Is it possible for someone to be more insular than David Brooks and his coevals at the Times? Even monks in a monastery mix it up with the hoi polloi more than the trust fund babies at the Times.

When I started this post, I was going to riff on the general crackpottery about new ways of thinking, but the weird use of language got me side tracked. If you are ever in a room with these people, it is like being the one zebra without stripes. But, that’s the point. You’re not supposed to feel like you belong unless you belong.

We are in the consolidation phase now. The managerial class is closing ranks and blowing the bridges and tunnels connecting them with the rest of us. If you find yourself on the wrong side of the river when the bridge is blown, you’re left behind. That’s why the people who read David Brooks read David Brooks. They need to know which way the herd is going. Maybe the Canadians have the right idea.

5 thoughts on “Managerial Meta Language

  1. It’s hard to stay right of John F. Kennedy and still remain inside today’s Overton Window.

  2. And here I thought opposability was the the ability the touch the tip of one’s thumb to the tip of one’s pinky.

    You hit the nail on the head, Z-man. There’s a reason why Neo-Platonism was the cool, hip philosophy throughout late antiquity, eclipsing Stoicism, Cynicism, and Epicureanism. It gave the Roman ruling class the ability to babble to one another in a psuedo-intellectual manner without really saying anything and without really learning anything. It created barriers to entry to outsiders. Looking good absolutely and decisively trumped being good.

    Don’t believe me? Go read one of the Neo-Platonist influenced gnostic gospels on the web. If you can figure out what any of that crap means, then you are probably at home in the world of TED Talks, Malcolm Gladwell and David Brooks.

  3. The Bosslady ended her career as a grade school principal at an inner-city Cleveland elementary school. She was adamant on the need to “see and be seen – and engaged”.
    Never felt the desire to be management after being a sgt in the USA – I made less money but stressed less also being the “technical expert” and managed to keep the “eltees” from self-destructing…

  4. UKer, funny, my wife and I were just recently talking about the poorly run institution she is currently working for and she indicated the Principal, never visits the classrooms under her command. Teachers exhibit all kinds of improper teaching or non-teaching methods / discipline / classroom management. By not “managing by walking around” the principal is unaware of the deficiencies and the faculty, students, taxpayers and society suffer from the neglect. How rarely one encounters a real manager of human resource. Seems most managerial positions are filled via quota, agenda, nepotism or other non-qualifiers.

  5. A word about ‘managing by walking around’ as done by teachers. When I did my bit of teaching I would not profess in the slightest to be good at it, but surprisingly if you are in a room with thirty students (of varying but mostly limited intellectual capacity) you start to make all sorts of allowances and on-the-spot evaluations. I used to keep an eye out for the slackers but more so for those who were struggling to try and do something. They were worthy of help; the slackers could piss off as far as I was concerned because they had already made their choice to do nothing.

    I used to be manager once and managing by walking around was pretty valuable: not only did it show you were interested and concerned, etc, but also that you were still among the living. The same extended to teaching. Interestingly, adopting a position of power and authority was vital. I used to stand about four feet to one side of the whiteboard/screen if I could depending on the size of the room and about five feet out from the wall behind me. That became my ‘position of authority,’ from which I could see the class and they could see me. They also could see if I folded my arms that was my gesture of irritation at someone wasting time. Yes, I folded my arms a lot with some of them.

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