Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Art of Triage

Winning doesn't mean not losing

I used to love watching M*A*S*H*. As a kid I'd sit on the brown, short pile rug in our TV room, back against the sofa, watching reruns. Hawkeye and Trapper, elbows deep in surgery, would make jokes about hot nurses, stupid generals, or bootleg martinis-- whatever really-- and, by the end of the show, make some sincere point about how awful war is. They were flawed but honorable people, stuck in a terrible situation and with awfully limited resources, trying to keep people alive.

My favorite thing about the show was how the members of the 4077 stayed human despite how bad things got. You had to laugh to keep from crying.

I learned a word watching that show: triage. In the world of MASH, it meant that some people might have to lose a kidney or a leg in order to live. It also meant that some people wouldn't die while others would. Everything would hang from the surgeon's choices based on impossibly limited options.

Triage is built on a deficiency model. What DON'T I have? What CAN'T I do? People working within it must make the most of what is available. There is one bottom line. Survival.

It's the model at work in most of our public schools.

Surviving, not thriving
We live in a country where it somehow makes political and economic sense to have a high pressure, under-resourced school system. Teachers work in a constant deficiency model, focusing on boundaries instead of goals. Instead of focusing on growing fantastic students, pushing them to heights not yet known, we are busy with saving academically sick and dying students.

When you are a public school teacher, picking what and how you teach has almost nothing to do with what you WANT to do. It's all about what you CAN do given your many immutable limitations. It's not “no child left behind.” It's more “try to screw the children over as equally as possible.” No matter how much I want to like it, there's no “race to the top.” It's only “make sure you're not stuck at the bottom.”

Our slumping education system is preoccupied with not falling apart. We are playing like a team trying not to lose by too many points. We aren't teaching like champions; we are sawing off limbs.

The Art of Triage. It's the construct of war refugees, natural disaster victims, battlefront surgeons, and public school teachers.  

The next time someone tries to tell you that we need to spend less on education, don't argue.  Just tell them about triage.

I think I'm going to make myself a martini. Do we have any olives laying around, Hawkeye?
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1 comment:

  1. You've got it right: not simply about education but about everything the middle class has fought for. We've drunk the Cool Aid and seem grateful for the scraps they're throwing at us. (By the way,when did we stop using 'social contract' and begin calling them 'entitlements?') The attempt to do away with public education is part of the master plan of creating a fundamentalist state under the guise of politics. Triage? We've got leeches all over us. Soon there won't be enough of us to care. Or to fix. Make mine an onion, Houlihan.