All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.
— Blaise Pascal
Yesterday I caught myself in the act of teaching the expression ‘jibber-jabber’. It popped up in a reading text, and I glossed it, and then warned my students that they should at all costs endeavour to forget it. Instantly. It would only clutter their brains if they attempted to remember it, it was a waste of effort, they would never see it again, and if they did, they would be able to work it out from context.
By the time I was done jibber-jabbering, I had more or less guaranteed that they would remember only one expression from their entire course at OISE, and in so doing had deployed a spot of what Mats Alvesson and Andre Spicer call in their new book functional stupidity.
We are all functionally stupid, the authors contest, no matter how intelligent we may be. Put us together in an institution, and that stupidity is amplified by our capacity to mimic the behaviour of others. What we are most averse to, it seems, is any kind of thinking. Even if we’re good at it. Here is Andre Spicer, relating what he turned up over years of working in assorted institutions:
We found mature adults enthusiastically participating in leadership development workshops that wouldn’t be out of place in a pre-school class; executives who paid more attention to overhead slides than to careful analysis; senior officers in the armed forces who preferred to run rebranding exercises than military exercises; headteachers who were more interested in creating strategies than educating students; engineers who focused more on telling good news stories than solving problems; and healthcare workers who spent more time ticking boxes than caring for patients.
It is not our jobs that are dumb, it seems, but us. Give us a context in which we might do something useful, and before long we all – all – end up humming along in the stupid lane. Human converse, it seems, is 99.99% jibber-jabber.
The Stupidity Paradox: Why Smart People don’t think at work, by Mats Alvesson and Andre Spicer, is available now. If you can find a bookshop.