Paul MacNeill on Perspective

Eastern Graphic publisher Paul MacNeill’s column this week is a well-worded call for humility and humanity in journalism and politics both. Paul writes, in part:

Weekly I have the luxury of picking a topic and, more often than not, railing against some government action or lack thereof. When compared to e-gaming or PNP it is obvious not all controversies or scandals are created equal. This space has been far ahead of the curve in arguing for strong measures to deal with our fiscal issues and capacity, educational excellence, regional cooperation, size and focus of government and rural integrity and the demographic challenge we face.

Could some of the arguments be more nuanced or subtle? For sure. But many, if not all of these issues, enjoy a higher level of public awareness in small part because of these ramblings.

Fifty years ago former Island Premier Alex Campbell said in an address focussed on regional cooperation that “such complex concepts as these are very easily simplified, and even more easily promoted; but they are awfully difficult to translate into specific forms of co-ordinated action.”

Those words hold true today. Complex topics can be dramatically simplified in 600 words. PEI is still a leader in promoting regional cooperation. Wade MacLauchlan is doing everything he can to move the file forward, but winning change has as much to do with the willingness of your dance partner as anything else. If Nova Scotia or New Brunswick don’t want to dance, maybe it’s time we look for another partner.

I appreciate, particularly, the invocation of Alex Campbell’s advice, advice that essentially boils down to “ideas are easy, implementation is hard.”

One of the things I encounter frequently in my work in the non-profit world, is the lack of recognition of this fact: there is a common belief that if something is “right,” it should be implemented, and that any barriers to its implementation are barriers introduced by people who simply cannot see the “rightness,” or, worse still, are actively supporting things that are “wrong.”

No more so is this true than in public education: I’ve had scores of one-on-one conversations with teachers, principals, public servants and politicians and, almost universally so, their take on public education is significantly more progressive and enlightened than the education system we have on the ground would suggest. It is not for lack of ideas or inspiration that this is the case: it is because the public education system is a complex system, and we’re not very good, collectively, at changing complex systems. Systems thinking is a rare skill; there are not many who can see the forest for the trees, and even fewer who have any skill at convincing others that there is, in fact, a forest.

At this week’s meeting of the Learning Partners Advisory Council one of the members used the metaphor of “steering the ship” by way of suggesting one way of characterizing the council’s role in learning in Prince Edward Island. I suggested, as an alternative, that we regard learning as a flotilla not a single ship, and that our influence could, at best, be seen as an ability to nudge, not steer.

I think that’s what Alex Campbell was saying, in a different way, 50 years ago, and what Paul MacNeill ruminated on this week: in the grander scheme of things, being convinced of the rightness of your cause is insignificant compared to the challenges of understanding the point of view of those who disagree with you, and understanding the interplay between the components of the system you hope to change.