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Managerial attitudes are slowly taking over our lives and putting us to sleep

By Peter Sellick - posted Wednesday, 3 March 2004


My university recently published its calendar of staff development courses. Among the courses on IT, project management, teaching and learning there is a course on Managing Your Career, which is introduced by the words: “Careers don’t evolve, they have to be managed”. These courses include things like “Applying for an Internal Position”, and “Practice in Facing Selection Panels”, and “The Written Application”. What academics used to do out of their own intelligence and imagination must now be taught. But it is the idea that careers do not evolve but must be managed that made my blood run cold. It conjures up a host of ambitious professionals positioning themselves for the next step up the ladder in order to reach their goals set before, no doubt in a workshop on “goal setting”. Where does independent thought find a place in a modern university that is intent on professional training? Not in the chosen subject of the academic but in the process one must go through to be a success.

I disagree that careers do not evolve if by “evolve” we mean that they take unexpected twists and turns and do not stick to some game plan that has been set at their beginning. Careers do in fact evolve because they constitute a journey into an unknown future and they rely upon the learning that goes on during that journey. Anyone who takes on an unfamiliar task will be a different person at its completion and may not wish to stick to a goal previously set. Indeed the whole of life is process and flux. Any attempt to manage it will suffocate imagination, spontaneity, chance and serendipity. It denies that the greatest challenges come to us via hazard, the event that throws all of our plans into disarray.

My other objection to this kind of managerialism is that its focus is firmly set on the desire of the individual. Its egocentricity denies community. One does not discover one’s talents and then ask how they may serve the community. Rather one is encouraged to discover one’s talents and then how to best use them for personal advancement. The corporate rat race has come to academe. Nothing is left to chance; the future is to unfold in an orderly fashion.

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The managerial attitude has seeped into most aspects of our lives in the way it works towards maximum efficiency, continuous improvement and accountability. We are told what food is good for us - in fact food is beginning to take on the properties of medicine - what our attitude to life should be, how much exercise we should have, what sort of parents we should be and how we are to approach retirement and aging etc. All of this is promoted by experts in their field; all of whom promote their cause. Such advice has been elevated to a form of morality and those who choose not to listen are deemed morally deficit. The one aspect of life that is not caught up into management is death.

Attendant to all of this is the culture of blame that comes out of the management concern with accountability. It proposes a world in which nothing goes wrong. Everything must be someone’s fault. Pity the brave gynaecologist, or surgeon or public official responsible for footpaths. Our society has decided that hazard is unacceptable and we now expend much energy ensuring that it is eliminated entirely from our lives. What happens to a society that lives under the banner “Safety First”? Would we have achieved anything if this were the standard of our actions?

I know we have all read about the granny state and the coddling of our children and the general lack of adventure of modern life and the insane insurance claims. Part of this has come about in the shift between community and justice to the individual and his or her rights. Part also comes from our experience and expectation of progress. Nay-sayers like me are felled to their knees by the catalogue of not only helpful but lifesaving improvements to everyday life. Doing battle with this bit of secular idolatry is like being against the family. Common sense is the best defence. But I want to rage after Jeremiah:

Thus says the Lord: “Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength …The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse – who can understand it?”

The curse of modern life is that we have become our own project and that PROJECT is perpetual improvement. We not only live under the banner “Safety First”, we are bidden to recite the mantra; “every day, in every way, I am getting better and better”. This is the root of Don Watson’s trouble with public language. It is all subsumed under the PROJECT and the result is the death of public language - but more crucially it is the death of the imagination. Managerial double-speak just means that we have nothing to say. The outcome is the ubiquitous Mission Statement composed by a committee and meaning absolutely nothing. “We will strive for excellence.” Who would strive for mediocrity?

The problem with the PROJECT is the same as the holiday that will cure all our ills. We take ourselves with us. For the PROJECT assumes some things about human nature, that all of the hearts desires are equally good and worthwhile, contra Jeremiah. The image that the PROJECT has of humanity is that we are all well-intentioned, shiny-faced men and women ready to give their best and expect the best. Where did this optimistic view of humanity come from particularly after one of the most blood-soaked centuries ever? Does it come from humanism or the human potential movement or the manager’s urge to simplify a unit of production? Wherever its origin it is a tragic refusal of the darkness of the human soul. Malice, envy, disappointment, anomie, fear of death, narcissism, dread and anxiety have no place in the PROJECT. We are all framed as nice little bunnies who want to better themselves and live a better life. The cost is a terrifying shallowness of soul.

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It is expected that we become our own project now that God has been erased from the scene. This is just another lurch towards the Promethean spirit in which we snatch fire from the gods or build a tower with bricks toward the heavens. In the sermon on the plain in Luke 6:17-26, the crowds press around him wanting to be healed, wanting to touch him, wanting a piece of him. They thought they had found their hearts desire. But what do they get? “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” This is not the heart's desire or the affirmation of excellence. “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.

How does this fit with professional development? Is this not the inverse of managerialism? We want to be loved and included and liked and spoken well of and you can be sure that this is an aspect of those courses that the university runs. For that is how one gets on in life. “But woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep”. These are the words of the prophet that are meant to discomfort us. For the gospel tells us that our hearts are not to be trusted, that if we would have our lives we will loose them, that whenever we grasp after the things we desire we will strangle them. Life is not to be lived as the managers advise. It is to be lived at a remote as if we did not desire, as if we were not ambitious, as if the present form of the world is passing away. That does not mean that we do not take things seriously but it does mean that we allow a space for the hazardous and the surprising.

In an earlier age we could have spoken about the unexpected acts of God. It was God who spoiled the plans of men. Now, the phrase “God willing” is a joke; then it was a real consideration. Now that God has been erased, or so we think, there is nothing to come in the way of our hearts desire. But the words of Jesus are an act of God that indeed spoils all our plans for control and security and self-righteousness and a bright future that we are intent upon making. We may have removed God as first cause from puttering around the universe but the words and life of Jesus remain.

It is a pity that the cross has become a symbol of death. For the cross was originally the symbol of the demise of human hubris. We were given this lovely man and in our grasping after what we thought were right, all we could do was to kill him. One of my favourite Charlie Brown cartoons shows Charlie trying to fly a kite and no matter what he does it gets caught in a tree or a tree falls on it. Trees are the enemy of kites just as the cross is the enemy of human self-creation. Without this symbol of what happened all those years ago “nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them”. The road to perfection is a dull road. It does not look like evil, indeed it is clothed in all the best intentions but it will bring a slow death that will creep into our souls and gently put us to death.

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Article edited by Ian Miller.
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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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