In 1942, Progressive educator Paul Diederich wrote “The Light Touch: 27 Ways to Run Away from an Educational Problem” for Progressive Education. He wrote this piece after being part of intense discussions with hundreds of teachers during summers in the late-1930s when the Eight Year Study was being implemented in 30 high schools across the nation.*
Like Diederich, I have participated in thousands of discussions with teachers, principals, superintendents, board of education members, researchers, and policymakers over my half-century in public school work. I might be able to add one or two but Diederich does a fine job, in my opinion. When I think of (and listen to) current debates about problems like inequality, racism, and poverty as they influence what teachers do, how schools operate, and effects on students, I recall many times when I heard and saw school board members, superintendents, principals, teachers, and parents engage in what Diederich lists below. Here is what he wrote in 1942.
“Most educational problems become, sooner or later, a desperate attempt to escape from the problem. This is often done clumsily, causing unnecessary embarrassment and leaving the group without the comfortable feeling of having disposed of the problem. Educational leaders long ago worked out adequate techniques for dodging the issue.
The following list, of course, is a tentative, partial, incomplete, a mere beginning, etc. but it should give group leaders a command of alternative modes of retreat and enable them.
1. Find a scapegoat. Teachers can blame administrators, administrators can blame teachers, both can blame parents, and everyone can blame the system.
2. Profess not to have the answer. That lets you out of having any answer.
3. Say that we must not move too rapidly. That avoids the necessity of getting started.
4. For every proposal set up an opposite and conclude that the “middle ground” (no motion whatever) represents the wisest course of action.
5. Point out that an attempt to reach a conclusion is only a futile “quest for certainty.” Doubt and indecision promote growth.
6. When in a tight place, say something that the group cannot understand.
7. Look slightly embarrassed when the problem is brought up. Hint that it is in bad taste, or too elementary for mature consideration, or that any discussion of it is likely to be misinterpreted by outsiders.
8. Say that the problem cannot be separated from other problems. Therefore, no problem can be solved until all other problems have been solved.
9. Carry the problem into other fields. Show that it exists everywhere; therefore it is of no concern.
10. Point out that those who see the problem do so because of personality traits. They see the problem because they are unhappy— not vice versa.
11. Ask what is meant by the question. When it is sufficiently clarified, there will be no time left for the answer.
12. Discover that there are all sorts of dangers in any specific formulation of conclusions; of exceeding authority or seeming to; asserting more than is definitely known; of misinterpretation by outsiders— and, of course, revealing the fact that no one has a conclusion to offer.
13. Look for some philosophical basis for approaching the problem, then a basis for that, then a basis for that, and so on back into Noah’s Ark.
14. Retreat from the problem into endless discussion of various ways to study it.
15. Put off recommendations until every related problem has been definitely settled by scientific research.
16. Retreat to general objectives on which everyone can agree. From this higher ground you will either see that the problem has solved itself, or you will forget it.
17. Find a face-saving verbal formula like “in a Pickwickian sense.”
18. Rationalize the status quo; there is much to be said for it.
19. Introduce analogies and discuss them rather than the problem.
20. Explain and clarify over and over again what you have already said.
21. As soon as any proposal is made, say that you have been doing it for 10 years. Hence there can’t be possibly any merit in it.
22. Appoint a committee to weigh the pros and cons (these must always be weighed) and to reach tentative conclusions that can subsequently be used as bases for further discussions of an exploratory nature preliminary to arriving at initial postulates on which methods of approach to the pros and cons may be predicated.
23. Wait until some expert can be consulted. He will refer the question to other experts.
24. Say, “That is not on the agenda; we’ll take it up later.” This may be repeated ad infinitum.
25. Conclude that we have all clarified our thinking on the problem, even though no one has thought of a way to solve it.
26. Point out that some of the greatest minds have struggled with this problem, implying that it does us credit to have even thought of it.
27. Be thankful for the problem. It has stimulated our thinking and has thereby contributed to our growth. It should get a medal.
*I thank Laura Chapman for bringing the Diederich piece to my attention. There are differences between the piece in Progressive Education and the document that historian Robert Hampel included in his collection of Diederich articles. I relied on Hampel’s source.