Benevolent bureaucracy - Maurine Blancke

Maurine Blancke on bureaucracy in educational establishments.

BUREAUCRACY, THAT IS THE SYSTEM WHEREBY the functions and relationships of the members of the system are defined and regulated by impersonal rules, is supposed to be the most efficient manner to run an organization. Some social scientists consider it the most just system in terms of employment and relation with the public because all people are judged by the same criteria supposedly without reference to race, class origins, or political views.

A well-meaning bureaucracy, that is one which supposedly exists to perform some useful economic function or regulate abstractly beneficial goals, conforms fairly well to the second standard, that of equal treatment of people connected with it, and while it is easy to damn as unjust and humanly destructive a bureaucracy, such as the Prussian military system, the FBI, or the apparatus of the Communist Party, where selection for employment is prejudiced by class origins, political views, or inheritance, and the institutional function of the bureaucracy is to maintain an unequal class structure, suppress internal dissent, or support imperialist aggression and empire building, it is much more difficult to criticise a bureaucracy, such as that of a college, or "enlightened corporation", or welfare agency, which has a "well-meaning" function.

Both "well-meaning" and "ill-effecting" bureaucracies conform to the first standard of high efficiency when it is evaluated in terms of their own aims and emphasis. If efficiency is defined in a mechanical sense — for instance, how fast criminals are caught, how many battles are won, how quickly the tests are graded — a bureaucratic system, especially when it defines "efficiency" in its own terms, is efficient. However when a larger perspective is employed other than the mechanical one employed by many observers of and participants in the bureaucracy, often the same system which appeared administratively and mechanically efficient, appears humanly and socially inefficient.

"Ill-meaning" bureaucracies have been condemned for years as destructive to some aspects of society. However, "well-meaning", bureaucracies nearly always escape criticism because their apparent function is so worthwhile, and the manner in which individuals and groups are abused by them are often subtle and the nature of their results ambiguous.

To take a case in point, there are the public and private colleges in the United States. Colleges, as for example San Francisco State college with which this writer is acquainted, possess excessively large and structured bureaucracies and use impersonal bureaucratic methods all out of proportion to their needs. They are rationalized by the excuse that they facilitate the administrative function of the college; the recording of grades, the granting of diplomas, the recording of courses, and the keeping track of students, etc. easier. Things are done faster, and therefore more students can be admitted and pass through the college machinery, and thereby the manna of education spread wider through society.

While on the one hand, college presidents at official ceremonies, utter great round words about "gaining in wisdom" and "partaking in the broad humanistic culture of our civilization", and so forth and so on, the primary function of most colleges is to create bureaucrats, and so their own bureaucracy rationalizes and pigeon-holes the student into an easily definable commodity, whose mind and evident accumulation of skills and knowledge can be placed at some point on an administrative ladder. More important, as the bureaucracy and its demands intercede between teacher and student, the intimacy of learning and teaching is destroyed; the dialogue between the waking mind and the educated mind is destroyed, is, one could say, muffled out by reams of forms and papers. The student himself is reduced to a passive participant in the process; he is herded through lines by fellow students with loudspeakers; he fills out forms with single word answers; his rationale is constantly offended and his time wasted by the unrelenting carrying out of the bureaucratic process; he is reduced to a few holes and squiggles on a IBM sheet.

Originally, I suppose — though I am perhaps flattering the authoritarian motives of the initiators — students were given counsellors to — keep them from making stupid errors in judgment, like taking advanced calculus when they couldn't do arithmetic, or taking "Literature in Italian" when they couldn't decipher lesson 5 in the first year course. Nowadays however, counsellors and advisors are not counsellors and advisers; they are names. Names which must be scribbled on the appropriate place before a student can register, add a course, drop a course, change a section. Though the counsellors are mainly indifferent or vaguely sympathetic to the students, and rarely perform anything other than informing the student of requirements already available in the school catalogue, and scribbling his name in the appropriate blank, each student is required to have one, required to have his programme passed on by one. Counselling is a mechanical procedure each student must go to, rarely useful and often wasteful in terms of time; another whack in the bureaucratic gauntlet.

As, in any good bureaucracy, responsibility is diffuse and unfindable, the objects of the bureaucracy have little recourse if mistakes are made and injustices done. Most of these, such as the following illustrations, are minor events in a person's life, but each one adds to a self-concept which is passive, to the damage to the ego of impersonality, affronts to it, and the subjection to bland but insistent authorities of an irrational and uncommunicable nature.

If, say, a student's records are lost, the victim cannot pinpoint who did it, at what point they were lost, why they were lost. A counsellor neglects to sign or initial some tiny part of a form and the student must spend half the day looking him up again. An error occurred at the college of the writer's attendance, and the hapless student had to take a whole semester of administratively lost courses over again. A student at Stanford couldn't graduate because a "D” was recorded instead of an earned "C". Another case occurred where one branch of the administration lost the course and grade records of a student for all four years and naturally the student did not receive his degree. Though eventually, after frantic prodding, on the part of the student, a search was made and the records recovered, and the student received his diploma — a year later. Another student had the class card of one required class lost and never found, which merely meant that be had to postpone his graduation for a whole year until the course was re-offered again the next spring. A similar occurrence happened to a future teacher who had to hold off her entrance into the profession because of one lost unit. Many new students cannot take classes in their entering semester, because their old college forgets to send their files to the new college, though notified weeks and even months in advance.

The previous sorts of events, though hardly helpful to a person's self-respect and hardly in the spirit of education for wisdom, might be excused on the grounds that, for the benefit of thousands, occasionally a few must be (accidentally) sacrificed.

Another kind of event, where often conscious injustice is rationalized on the basis of an implication of bureaucratic rule, and where the coercion to conform is disguised behind "necessity", occurs in the teacher training programme.

Three students, personally known to this writer, one blind, one partially sighted, and the other crippled are being ejected from the teaching programme, and thereby from the teaching profession, not openly, but by means of the sly device of preventing them from taking practice teaching. Practice teaching is a course required by anyone who, would become a teacher in order to get the credential which is necessary in order to teach in California schools. Whether a student can take the course is up to the education department itself, which simply means that a future teacher's fate lies in the hands of several old ladies, and gentlemen, whose objectivity is often tinged with a certain bureaucratic sadism, put into the position of censors by the education department. The blind girl was told, though she commuted by bus from the city by herself, that she wouldn't be able to get around an average high school. She'd gotten "A's" and "B's" in all her courses (thereby showing competence on the system's own terms), but wasn't even allowed to try the practice teaching course in order to prove her ability, but was censored out in advance. The partially blind girl, who in addition to being quietly insulted by the education department and receiving saccharine pity and "consideration" from instructors, is told she couldn't get around in a school (she can see large objects and get around the city by herself), and is too "unstable" to teach, though music teaching is what she most wants to do in life and is the only thing, at least now, which can save her from a meaningless, unproductive, and charity-ridden existence. The crippled girl, who manages to get around — albeit with difficulty — on crutches, is being denied the practice teaching course on the basis that she can't get around in a school, and because "we can't take the responsibility for an accident." I imagine they would prefer to see her out with a tin cup, than risk an accident.

Other students, though this is even more difficult to pinpoint than the previous examples, are cut out of the teaching programme on the basis of instability, bad character, or inability to be accepted by the children. For most, the reasons are rarely given; it may be anything from divergence in dress, "unsociableness", (a girl in San Diego was told to join a sorority — to broaden her social life — by the educationists), erratic grades, not enough of a disciplinarian, political activity of the wrong shade, eccentricity. But common to all of these, is that the refusal as told to the student is vague and general; the student has no access to records or the processes of making the decision; the school and the education department are both immune from any accusations of injustice from the student, because they have a briefcase full of precedents and general demands, nor can it be proved that one or another instructor or counsellor was the precipitating factor, though the student is free to surmise helplessly all he wants to. Within the system the student can do nothing, for all these rules and statements come down from some board which is centred somewhere else or from ambiguously extendable regulations made long ago in Sacramento (California's Capital).

The student is made to feel foolish about simple mistakes, guilty about leaving something blank, to feel a vague fear of a vague entity — called the "administration" or "the department", to feel non-conformity may be softly revenged by a vague entity to which demands and retribution go unfelt because it is so big, and most horrible of all, made to feel insignificant, as though he were just one atom identical to others being processed. If he fails, it is on the basis of a few abstract words on papers and tests; for many teachers know the members of their class little or not at all; the human relationship between teacher and learner destroyed, dissolved in a maze of administrative demands and details.

It would be tedious to relate the little incidences, a cold and irate 'secretary brushing off a freshman near tears with confusion, a councillor not in when a student — who must have it signed immediately — needs a programme change signed, the arbitrary, unreasonable phrase, "go and get so and so to sign it for you," and the irritating phrase "fill it out again, you made such and such an error," said by a tinny authoritative smile by a frustrated clerk who drives her mechanical power to the limit, enjoying it for want of anything better to enjoy. But in the centre of it all, like a theme song or a slogan, is the phrase, "We cannot take responsibility for this," and the variations, "I am not responsible," and “I cannot afford to be responsible if such and such happens."

Thus it happens here, and analogously in any bureaucracy where the dedication to one over-riding goal, "administrative efficiency", the "ability to process the greatest number of things or people," or even "absolute impartiality," results in the brushing aside and neglect of all other human values.

The human being is denied his organic unity and is valued only in terms of this or that attribute or category. In work, as the bureaucracies grow according to Parkinson's law (the bureaucracy grows in geometrically increasing ratio to the economic efficiency of the institution), more and more people are turned into bureaucrats. Immediacy, exuberance, companionship, generosity, the association of human beings, is sacrificed to the needs of the system. The fragile intimacy of the creative intellect with his work and his fellow humans is destroyed; the result is barren, mechanically exploitive, social machinery parallel to the physical machinery of the mechanized industry.

It is not only those institutions with bad ends, who use direct coercive violence authorized or not by law and force to subdue the vitality and free spirits of mankind, but the dull "well-meaning" institutions, use the excuse of "necessity" and "efficiency" to coldly manipulate their objects (those helped), and who circumscribe the work-life of their employees to such a point that the only pleasure left in the work is petty domination. Thus are the little managers created, who enjoy the little manipulations of power as much as any police system or military system does, and as the rules and regulations pile up, the ends of the institution are slowly destroyed, and it becomes another self- perpetuating ground for martinets, mutual authoritarianism, frustrated clerks, and exploitation on a psychological, social and finally economic level.

They depress the spirit of mankind; make of him an irresponsible automaton for whom the capacity to rebel is dissipated and lost, because the source of injustice is so diffuse and abstract it finally becomes a mere anxiety rather than an impetus to revolt against it. They kill the capacity for spontaneity and mutual aid (social responsibility without whips, points or meters) and destroy the ability to enjoy freedom or even know what it is. It is a necessity and an obligation for us — as believers in the possibility of men directing their own existences and in the possibility of mankind to take freedom and make of it a call to creativity, responsibility, and fulfilment — to study and examine these benevolent bureaucracies of private and state origins; to expose their method and their destructive aspects, while, as responsible critics, sifting the beneficial from the inhuman in their structure, just as we would study the way a physical machine affects the worker as well as the production rate in order to merit its maintenance or its disuse, and offer superior structural forms in social and economic relations.

We need methods and results, in terms of human relationships, and society commensurate with our ideals of respects for the human individual and his neighbours, at least as much as we need the human efficiency and increased "production", so that the ends for which the latter are achieved (man) is not mutilated and deformed by the means.

MAURINE BLANCK, born 1941, is majoring in sociology at San Francisco State College, and has been negatively interested in bureaucracies ever since she lost her first form to fill out in the first grade.