Masters in Machiavelli

My graduate school teachers say group projects are where we learn to work with others in a collaborative, innovative environment. In actuality, group projects are where Machiavelli learned to conquer weaker-willed foes. The Prince is gone, the CEO lives – and he’s got all sorts of ticks up his sleeve. Here are the ones I’ve witnessed:

Hard ball: To play hardball you have to hold all the cards. If you’re holding all the cards, why are playing a game? Name your price and get on with it.

Charm: Sure, it’s important to know your audience in order to charm them into complacency. But more important: your silence. Silent enthusiastic agreement is a bridge builder. Say too much and you can set someone off. Silent? You might be thought wiser than you are. May that be the worst thing to happen to you.

Phantom: People don’t like you? Not a problem. Have someone they like talk to them. Even better, explain that a number of people have been suggesting – not you of course, you’d never think to question them – and you want to know how we, as a group, can best incorporate those suggestions. Best to try this one on a day when the sole beloved member of your group is absent.

Planting the seed: The people don’t hate you, yet. Play on their good graces, and make them think your idea was dreamed up by them. Phrase your idea as a question, and when they repeat it, jump on it as though you’d never thought of it. To seal the deal: praise their insight.

Prompt: Skip the planting and go straight to harvesting. Start the conversation by saying that you want to follow up on the group’s earlier idea. Who is going to deny having an idea once you’ve professed how its brilliance won you over – and would they be able to weight in on how you think it could maybe be expanded?

No alternatives: If you can all agree there’s a problem, you’re halfway there. Tell them there are a finite number of solutions, and propose truly horrendous ideas with no redeeming value. Remember, zero redeeming value, because people will fall on a weak idea like it’s a saving grace. Then, make the last option the only palatable one.

Booster club: If there’s a group project and you need a certain number of votes to go your way, cheer the influencers in inconsequential things. “Your hair looks amazing!” “Where did you get that coat? It’s divine.” “You led the last meeting with such a sense of command and insight, could you do so again?” When it’s go time, you’ve already made it clear that the two, or more, of  you are on the same team. You’re halfway there before you start. All that remains is to present your idea as building on something they’ve implicitly agreed to.

Scored earth: Tear down everyone else’s plans by any means necessary. It’s messy and potentially bridge burning. Do so only if the alternative is French occupation of invaded Russia.

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Out first job as Democrats must be not to do any more harm. True, we have to remain vigilant in getting rid of programs that don’t work. But as Democrats, we have to be prepared to truly believe that education is not just a headache we’re stuck with. In my opinion education and health care are national investments, as important to our national security as nuclear bombs, planes and armed forces.

-Rep. Charlie Rangel from And I Haven’t Had a Bad Day Since: From the Streets of Harlem to the Halls of Congress

I tell them I can yield on a lot of in which my district is not particularly emotionally involved. The liberal part of my party might have an ideological problem with some of these concessions, but if you can exploit the glaring need for decent education and employment opportunities, I’ll take the hit as the price of politically practical consensus. Because as long as Republicans keep saying that education is not an issue for substantial increased federal funding, then I believe that it’s in the best interest of business to step up to the challenge of providing for an educated, productive workforce, because it will serve to increase their profitability, productivity and competitiveness.

I, for one, want American business to have a fair advantage over foreign business, so they’re not going to have a great problem with me on matters of trade. I’m ready to give something up, but they’ve got to give up something for the larger good in return.

-Rep. Charlie Rangel from And I Haven’t Had a Bad Day Since: From the Streets of Harlem to the Halls of Congress

I Have a Dream…

Writing prompts are what is destroying American education. Sure, you could make the argument that standardized testing, abysmally low pay for teachers, or the lack of parental-involvement is the actual cause of the deplorable state of America’s educational system. But all of those are hypothesizes, and the writing prompts are real.

The theory behind the practice of writing prompts is that if children are lead by the nose to copy good ideas – be it grammar, arguments, or deep thoughts – they can become connoisseurs of good ideas. At this time of year, teachers across the country are forcing children to write essays, poems, and free form word-play with the prompt “I have a dream.” Teachers, and the public, hope that exposure to the idea of having dreams will teach children to dream of a better of future. Then, having imagined a future better than their present, they’ll work hard to create it. I know because I had one of those teachers.

Miss Sekeras was nice. She was creative and fun. But she fell into the trap of thinking that if you teach people to emulate great thinkers, you can turn them into great thinkers. She would force us to write prompt after prompt – each for a different reason and in a different style. But what I learned from her is that if you follow directions, even ones which result in a nonsensical and insensible paragraph, you’ve won.

Rather than forcing us to copy writing prompts of thinkers like Martin Luther King, Jr., our teachers would do better to tell us what they did – their failures as well as successes. King dreamed of a day when all Americans would have freedom from oppression and poverty – as well as racism. His goals were greater than having children of all races take the same bus to the same school, which is why is told the world of his dreams at an event he titled the March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs. He didn’t want the march to be another rally at the capital, but rather a cataclysmic event which would reshape society and bring prosperity to the whole country. Today, as the economy continues to recover and the battle against senseless hatred and inbred prejudice is ongoing, King’s dreams have yet to be realized.

I am no expert on social movements. I can’t say where this onslaught of change weakened to a whisper. But I know that forcing children to copy what their teachers have written, rather than giving them the knowledge to have their own ideas and build those into something greater – perhaps into something beyond what the teacher dreamed – is not the way to make it right. First we must end writing prompts, and then we need to teach children how to think again. We must educate them about the struggles that have come before them, their cost in dignity and lives, and where they went wrong as well as what they did right. Maybe we can start here. But no matter where it starts, such change cannot end there. Because only once the children leave the classrooms can change begin and the future be made a better place than the present. Then, I dream, freedom will ring – from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire, the mighty mountains of New York, the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania, smoke-capped Rockies of Colorado, the curvaceous slopes of California, and every place in between.

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day