While studying the past seems, from one perspective, to be an exercise in autobiographical discovery none the less it generates other benefits or problems. My school is currently involved in what has become known in the larger world of consultants and pundits as a “transformational change.” The experts confidently present data that indicate at least 30 percent of an organization’s company will leave by the time the change is complete. Thirty percent casualties! According to at least one accounting the British Army fighting on the Western Front in WW I sustained 43% casualties. Napoleon’s Army suffered approximately 35% casualties at Waterloo. The U.S. Army and Marines sustained less than 20% during the capture of Saipan in WWII. So we beg the question first posed in the movie What Price Glory? “What price glory now, Captain Flagg?”

Does the past help us decide what price we should be willing to pay for change? Death Valley, Saipan, Northern Marianas, July 2005, sixty-one years after my father and his comrades ran, crawled, and prayed their way through the burnt sugar cane, tangled bush, and Japanese projectiles I search for the answers to unknown questions. In that instant I realize that my father’s experience was extraordinarily costly.When members of the 295th JASCO attached to the 106th Infantry of the 27th Division were told to take the Valley “regardless of cost” they faced an unspeakable reality: many of them would never witness another sunset over the Philippine Sea. Yet, in a larger sense they knew why they were spending their lives in that little corner of hell. Their sacrifice would buy the security of their families, friends, and descendants. The cost was high but so was the value of their purchase. Losing their lives and health for a known, believed-in, yet unrealized outcome meant you dealt with the horror by trying to keep the man next to you alive.

Paying the price for the benefit of those who suffer with you brings an emotional and psychological foundation that would otherwise be inaccessible in the midst of uncertainty, deprivation, and loss. Conversations and interviews with veterans in combination with post-war research indicates that most combatants stay and endure the absurdity of battle out of sense of obligation and concern for the man next to them in the fray.

If transformational change involves high casualty rates,  who are the beneficiaries, and what are the outcomes which justify the losses? Presumably the necessity of transformational change is found in the future. But whose future? In business it is inevitably the stockholders who are supposed to derive greater returns from the process. This logic is neatly sterile in that few stockholders watch their relatives lose their jobs as the corporation becomes lean and mean. The stock price jumped; all is good. Schools on the other hand are not in the business of improving the price of their stock. Ask any teacher, there is no money to be made in the profession. Again, who benefits from 30% casualties?

If the 30% are to be validated  their loss must be the students’ gain, not merely the institution’s. Here in lies the pain and the doubt for those in the foxholes. Most teachers would like to believe that a better school means a better experience for the students, but in the heat and dust of change the process is not always reassuring and the outcomes seldom certain. So how to cope with the demise of valued programs and the departure of long-term colleagues who are friends?

Focus on the students. What will their world be like if we never change? Deal with the present and support colleagues in the midst of the fray rather than trying to understand the absurdity of the language and the process. The men in Death Valley could not afford the luxury of questioning the present; they had to make it work so that they could have a future. To hold ground was to die. Honor those who stay as well as those who leave. All have made the present possible. No matter what you do you cannot predict the outcome.

Thus the past can help us evaluate the price we are willing to pay and to understand it in a larger context. The analogy may not be precise, but much that is educational lacks certainty. So we ask; so we learn.

Still searching and scratching in the Valley.



  1. Interesting take on a difficult issue, Big Guy, but one that I think will go down better with those who are making the decisions and those faculty and staff who escape the axe. And of course it does not do much to assuage the feelings of those being cut or of those on the outside, looking in, wondering whatever happened to the concept of the “Big W” as a Christian school? However one wishes to describe the process, one would be foolhardy to attach the adjective “Christian” to the way some of those who are, um, “leaving” have been treated. I’m certainly glad I got out when I did. . . .


    • Boss,
      It was intended as a meditation rather than a defense. I cannot disagree with you on the “Chrisitian” issue. So far no one has suggested that we are “taking the cross” a la 1096.


      • Big Guy,
        I get what that what you posted was a “meditation,” and it was a fine one, especially the way you used casualty figures implicitly to compare what was at stake on Saipan and what hangs in the balance currently in 30327. I also admire what you had to say about keeping the welfare of the students in mind while the “long knives” are slashing around and after they’re finally sheathed. Sorry I came off as so negative; must have been a bad day. But I’m still glad I got out when I did; wouldn’t want to be viewed as “not a team player,” but I’ve just never liked the taste of Kool-Aid.


  2. Thoughtful analogy, with all the implications of natural uncertainty, both in terms of costs and returns. Are we in the battle now? Will we emerge stronger, with a better future? What are we fighting for (Country Joe and the Fish come to mind, just because I’m that old!)? How can we take “The Use of the Past” on the road–into the boardrooms, into the classroom, into the communal and cultural dialogue? We must: never forget “it”…use “it”…and also acknowledge that change is inevitable. One of the most obvious lessons of history. How do we make transformation both meaningful and humane? In the age of technology (I’m channeling Thoreau here), it’s that human element we need to hold most dear, on every level and for all time.


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