How can we get pigs to fly?

The philosophical primate has some thoughts on being asked to do six impossible things before breakfast. The Faculty Senate asked for his input on a new initiative from the state legislature and board of regents. He responded to the following question:

2. Given increased enrollment and smaller budgets, how can we maintain and improve student success and retention?

That’s a good one, isn’t it. Uh…we can’t. Der. More students and less money: not the way to maintain and improve student success and retention. That’s like asking: given fewer workers and supplies, how can we get this building project finished faster and better?

The pp put it more eloquently.

The board of regents and state legislature can demand whatever they want — they can demand that faculty alter time and space, suspend gravity, and invent perpetual motion machines — but we cannot meet demands for what is simply impossible. When someone insists that you do something impossible, the only correct and sane answer is, “No.” Any response to their demands other than honestly telling them how and why their demands are impossible would simply reinforce their deluded conviction that they can create the results they want by simply insisting that the people and institutions they have power over produce them. Real-world results cannot be produced by fact-ignoring fiat, and hard problems cannot be solved by insisting that someone lower down the totem pole solve them — especially when that insistence is accompanied by a reduction in the resources available to carry out the work needed to fix those problems.

So don’t ask insulting questions. If you have to impose increased enrollment and smaller budgets, don’t ask the proles how they can do even better.

It is a fundamental principle of ethics (my field of study) that “ought implies can,” which simply means that one cannot be obligated to do something that is not in one’s power to do. Surely at some level the powers that be must be aware of the self-contradictory nature of their demands, and that those demands cannot be met — but if they are not aware, that does not obligate us to nevertheless try to meet those demands. If we are obligated to do anything, it is to make them aware that their demands are impossible, and to explain why. In other words, we are obligated to educate them — which, after all, is our calling.

School those powers that be. School them good.





  1. sailor1031 says

    “Tous est possible si vous n’avez besoin de le faire vous-meme”

    Pierre Breton, Ottawa, 1978.

    Pierre was a good friend of mine with a very sane outlook.

  2. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    There’s an old saying in the construction trades: “You can have it done fast, cheap and right. Pick the two you want.”

  3. says

    That’s like asking: given fewer workers and supplies, how can we get this building project finished faster and better?

    More like “how can we build a bigger building with fewer supplies?”

    The thing is, up to a point, you can do that. But considering the education budgets have been squeezed for decades now, there is no more slack. From admittedly anecdotal experience, it seems that most schools are only running because of the extra effort and (unpaid) hours the truly dedicated teachers are willing put in – but as a consequence, half the staff is constantly on the edge of a burnout. At this point, I think most budget cuts will result in more costs, in lost hours and substitute training due to burnouts and other health issues, than in cost savings.

  4. Matt Penfold says

    I am sure if the application was framed correctly, one could get a grant from the Templeton Foundation to spend a couple of years investigating the philosophical consequences of porcine aviation becoming a reality.

  5. says

    More like “how can we build a bigger building with fewer supplies?”

    The thing is, up to a point, you can do that.

    Yes…The way they do it in Turkey. Then there’s an earthquake.

  6. says

    Every time something like this comes up I am reminded of a story I read last year. Unfortunately I can’t find the link for it (stupid internet, it should know which article I want).

    A tiny rural school in Kentucky (IIRC) got a massive influx of money from a major corporation that had recently built a facility in the town. The school used the money properly. The result? A massive increase in student scores.

    It’s amazing what students are willing to learn when given the ability and the tools.

    Education is one of those areas that throwing money at works (provided it’s used to buy books and not football helmets).

  7. geocatherder says

    I remember a time when I was a lowly senior engineer (for those of you outside the engineering world, this basically means that you can wipe your own ass) facing down a table of managers, program engineers, and other bigwig types. They asked me if my team of 17 could accomplish some miracle. (Funny how, if you’re female, you can run a team of 17 and still be just a senior engineer. But that’s another issue.)

    I looked around the table, looked them all in the eyes, and said, NO.

    They were shocked. They were mystified. Didn’t I know it was IMPORTANT??? I did. I spent at least 16 hours of every day insuring that all three shifts of my people also knew it was important. But humans can’t accomplish miracles.

    Then I told them, in detail, what we COULD do, and I achieved more credibility than I ever have before or after. After the shock, they realized someone was telling them the truth… and they weren’t used to getting the truth. But they appreciated it, and I delivered on my promises.

    And that’s the only way I know of to get pigs to fly.

  8. Luna_the_cat says

    Where I work, “do more with less resource” is now embedded as “work people until they drop, in the confidence that the economy isn’t good enough for people to leave for better jobs.” (Except for the folks who made the decision that even being a taxi driver was a better job, of course.)

    Oh, and how to handle staff morale problems? Obvious; draw up a new corporate policy stating plainly that “a high degree of professionalism must be maintained in all communications both internal and external, formal and informal, in all available venues”, or in other words: if you post about your stress on Facebook or grouse about managers in email, you are subject to disciplinary hearing.

    That helps so much, of course.

    But our dearly beloved managers expect churn. Unlike our last set of managers, who were the last generation to work their way up through the ranks and who believed in a certain set of reasonably humane and long-term ideals, this set of managers was specifically hired as the “sharp new generation” to “increase profitability.” (Short term profit: so much more important than long-term stability and reputation, doncha know.) People get burned out, fall by the wayside, and it really doesn’t matter — we have quite a few high-tech graduates in the area, they can get new.

    This is one of the many reasons I’m quite glad to be maintaining my pseudonymity online these days. I’m sure I shall be in a great deal of trouble if they ever discover this particular identity, but in the meantime, I can freely say that we are already seeing the results of decisions which focus on appearance over substance, and too many of my new managers are quite frankly buzzword-drenched morons who should not be trusted with anything sharper than crayons. And for the people at my own level, I am reminded of slave labour building the pyramids, except that I would be shocked down to my littlest toenails if we managed to create anything so lasting and impressive out of our current desperate scramble.

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