The Bus to Abilene

I’m currently reading Susan Cain’s book on introversion, Quiet. Here, Cain quotes Colonel (Ret.) Stephen J. Gerras, a professor of behavioral science at the U.S. Army War College:

…a family sitting on a porch in Texas on a hot summer day, and somebody says, ‘I’m bored. Why don’t we go to Abilene?’ When they get to Abilene, somebody says, ‘You know, I didn’t really want to go.’ And the next person says, ‘I didn’t want to go–I thought you wanted to go,’ and so on. Whenever you’re in an army group and somebody says, ‘I think we’re getting on the bus to Abilene here,’ that is a red flag. You can stop a conversation with it. It is a very powerful artifact of our [the army’s] culture.

Anybody who has worked in a bureaucratic culture knows this well. The leader says ‘let’s do this’. Often whatever this is doesn’t make a lot of sense, but the leader doesn’t bother to entertain objections. And, it’s in nobody’s self-interest to object and explain why it doesn’t make sense. It’s less risky to just do it than rock the boat.

I’ve found that even when bureaucratic leaders say they want people to push back, they really don’t. Bureaucrats learn that fast. It’s better to be employed and in good-standing than to be right.

I was intrigued to find out that a hierarchical and bureaucratic organization like the army has a device to counter this dynamic. But, then again, they have a stronger motivation for it. It’s not just their position that could be stake, their lives could be at stake as well.

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4 thoughts on “The Bus to Abilene

  1. what do you think about the feasability of blocking cel phone usage in certain location(s) except for emergency (911) calls? lets say a typical school for example, where i know they are a continuous problem to educators. i think there should be an easy ‘software’ solution, but it seems it may take cooperation from carriers. would it take federal muscle or just cash to get them to help you out?

    o/t for sure..but i would appreciate your thoughts.

    • I personally don’t like this, except maybe while operating a vehicle. It’d be nice if texting and messaging could be shut off while driving. I see so many people do it and I know how tempting it is to look when you get a message. The texters I’ve seen are swerving worse and driving at speeds outside of the flow of traffic than severely drunk drivers

      As for schools, I’d rather teachers find ways to deal with the problem on their own. If it becomes a major problem, they can put a cell phone box on the desk and have all the students silence their phone and place it in the box. Anybody who couldn’t follow the rules would be punished however they see fit.

      As with most things, I’d rather go the route of encouraging personal responsibility and punishing folks when they don’t exercise it.

  2. it seems like it could easily be done to ‘block’ a phone that was travelling >10 mph or something. but i think there are good reasons to do it in schools. the phones are used to cheat, bully, and distract. theyre easily concealed, and a teacher has no right to ‘search’ a child. they are broken/stolen/lost. i think the children have a reduced capacity for responsibility/accountability and the real problem seems to be the parents that demand that their child have a phone. (from what i understand)
    as for the feasability of the idea, im more interested in the backend. is it possible? do you think you need to go federal (fcc) or could you pay off the providers?

    • I do agree that phones could be a pain in schools. Not sure I know the best answer there. But, I think you are getting at an underlying cause — the abhorrent behavior that is accepted at schools. We use to call kids that couldn’t follow the rules flunkies, for a good reason, the teachers would flunk them out. They had the backing of the administration and school board.

      So, their parents would either have to deal with their behavior or find and pay for a private school willing to take them.

      Now, that sort of thing is backed by the administration and board, which in many cases have become puppet regimes for administering the DOE’s test accountability.

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