The power of mythology

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Among the more aggravating verbal firefights plaguing the U.S. countryside is the question of how history should be taught in the public schools. Don’t worry – we’ll get to how this relates to you in a couple of hundred words or so. Patience, please!

On one side of the controversy we have those who advocate including only those episodes in our past that reflect when our forebears were at their best. On the other we have those who, at the extreme end, propose that unless we render an account of every wart and blemish in our country’s past … and that’s wart and blemish according to our current-day standards … then we’re lying to our children.

Just my opinion (stay patient – we’re almost there): Our grammar schools and middle schools should adopt the former view. It won’t really be history. Call it American Mythology. It would present the best of our past – those episodes in which America lived up to its finest aspirations. Its purpose would be to help children understand the core values of what America stands for, doing so through the powerful mechanism of storytelling.

High school is when students should start to discover the complexities and nuances of our nation’s past. Not an everything-we-ever-did-was-awful account – that would accomplish little. What it should help students discover is that circumstances are always more complicated than they appear to be on the surface; our nation’s leaders weren’t cardboard-cut-out saints (or sinners) but were complex human beings with all that this implies; that sometimes we lived up to our aspirations and sometimes we succumbed to our worst tendencies.

What on earth does this have with running a large organization?

More than you might think.

Over the past couple of weeks we’ve been discussing the challenges of leading a largely remote workforce. While challenges abound, perhaps the most challenging of all the challenges is the challenge of establishing a widely adopted business culture – a shared understanding of what we stand for and how we do things around here. Call it “cultural engineering.”

When your workforce is small, leaders can engineer the culture through frequent interpersonal interactions. When it’s dispersed and remote, though, cultural engineering leading by example loses some of its effectiveness for the simple reason that employees aren’t in a position to see leaders leading by example.

One possible starting point is an often neglected but potentially potent leadership tool – the old-fashioned company newsletter.

Quite a few years ago I watched my then employer make use of this tool to remarkable effect. The format was uncomplicated – a short (~500 words) email. In addition to company news, it included a discussion of one of the company’s core values, and … and this was the not-so-secret sauce … it related a recent effort on the part of an employee or team that showed the company’s values in action.

The newsletter explained a desired cultural characteristic, illustrated it through storytelling, showed every employee that management noticed such things and valued them, and encouraged everyone to do something that would put their team in a future newsletter.

Having watched it in action I can testify that it worked. I also watched as a new management team axed the newsletter. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the company slowly lost its culture, substituting financial engineering as the single core value that supplanted the culture that had come before.

Bob’s last word: Peter Drucker stated that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” While he neglected to explain whether it would do so more effectively if served with bacon and hash browns, he certainly had a point.

I’ve told the joke about the man who had a dog with no legs too many times by now. Every morning he had to take the dog out for a drag, which describes how management has to do its job in the absence of a strong company culture.

Cultural engineering is hard. But it isn’t a hard as managing without it.

Bob’s sales pitch: As long as I’m spouting off about one politicized policy issue, what the heck – here’s another: Am I the only one who agrees with the constitutional scholar Linda R. Monk that we should stop arguing about whether to include “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, drop the Pledge altogether, and in its place teach children to recite the Preamble to the Constitution?

Comments (21)

  • I love the idea of replace the Pledge with the Preamble!

  • Amen.
    Principles eat allegiance for breakfast.

  • I think you under estimate the ability of younger persons (middle school for sure and maybe late grammar school) to deal with complexity. I know that my children were exploring their political side in middle school. I grew up Jewish in New York. The narrative I was learning in “hebrew school”, probably from about the age of 10, about the part the US played in not stopping the Holocaust and turning away refugees that were within sight of the lights of New York, conflicted with the “the greatest nation ever” narrative I was being taught in school. Don’t get me wrong, the hebrew school narrative had its agenda, e.g., “Israel right or wrong”. Add to that the mess of the early seventies/late Vietnam war era and the resulting cognitive dissonance was a setup for a lifetime of distrusting authority. It’s no different for today’s children/youth. They see all the realities of life in the media they are immersed in. Schools that don’t help prepare them for that complexity just help cement our national polarization and a distrust of our dominant cultural message, i.e., hopefully a vision of “better”.

    • To be clear, my point wasn’t the exact ages and exact levels of nuance for shifting from American Mythology to American (and world) history. It was recognizing that American mythology is, in its own way, just as important as its history.

  • For once you made a lot of sense. But better to drop history completely.

    Like Henry Ford said all history is bunk.
    And von Bismarck said all history is fairy tales rewritten by the winner of the last war.

    • Delighted you brought up Henry Ford. To amplify your point, he suggested history should emphasize how people lived and worked in different eras and circumstances. While I don’t think that’s the only dimension of history that should be taught, I love the idea of making it a major area of emphasis.

      • With all the things that could be taught we really need to prioritize them as we do not have time to teach every worthless course somebody thinks is good but only takes time from the truly needed classes.

        Reading, Communication, Logic and STEM subjects yes.
        TouchyFeely political propaganda no. Other touchy feely classes only as options for the few who might not be smart enough for more useful subjects.

        The big picture of history might make sense if it were condensed and did not waste so much time memorizing dates and names. But the deep dive they want to force on us is a total waste of time.

  • Company newsletters are known to be propaganda. No one expects them to reflect the whole truth – just the bits management wants you to know. No one relies exclusively on company publications for their knowledge of the world – nor would any company want that. Companies want their employees keeping abreast of their competition, new technology, market conditions, customer concerns, government regulation, etc. – but their not going to put all that in their newsletters. They expect their employees to put to use what they learned in school to continue learning and evaluating relevant situations.

    And now you want to turn the entire public primary school system into a brainwashing and propaganda tool? Education is about removing ignorance, not inculcating it.

    The culture our schools should be teaching is one that values facts and honesty. Truth for everybody, not some select few who are deemed able to understand it. Do you really want employees who value comfortable illusions over facing facts?

    Educators have lots and lots of experience introducing complicated subjects in ways that young children can begin to understand. Your argument is like saying no math should be taught until high school because calculus is too complex for kindergarteners.

    Not to mention you give no credit to children for what they actually can already do – understand that people have both positive and negative traits; that choices made can have both positive and negative consequences; that truth is rarely very simple. Even young kids understand nuances much better than you seem to think they can.

    • We appear to differ on this, which is fine. Calling my approach “propaganda”? Not so fine.

      For public education I’m suggesting a change in priorities … from traditional or non-traditional approaches to relating the events, characters, and forces that comprise the historical narrative to considering what America aspires to be as the more important grammar-school-level subject.

      From a business perspective you appear to think that lying to employees is the standard management modus operandi. I am, in fact, proposing the polar opposite of propaganda – using real-world team accomplishments as evidence of management’s sincerity in promoting its desired business culture.

  • If you’ve ever wondered what white privilege is, this column is a prime example. BIPOC communities do not have the choice to ignore aspects of history they don’t like – they are still living with the effects.

    The remaining American Indian communities can’t pretend that European colonists never destroyed the existing thriving cultures and forced the survivors onto marginal lands. Blacks can’t pretend that slavery and Jim Crow never happened.

    The young children you are talking about live in the same real world that you and I inhabit. They don’t get to grow up in some fairyland bubble where history doesn’t touch them – young children experience racism first-hand. If they don’t see their reality recognized in school, all they’ll learn is not to trust school – that school is not for them or their reality.

    Is this mythologizing of the past really what you’d recommend for every country? That Germany just ignore Hitler and fascism and the Holocaust in the schools until the kids are nearly adults? Do you think they should emphasize instead all the wonderful things Hitler and fascism and concentration camps accomplished instead?

    You might consider seeking some education yourself, before you go making recommendations that are clearly far far out of your range of expertise.

    • Perhaps you should re-read my column. I never suggested we ignore the unsavory episodes in our history. I suggested we talk about these after we talk about what we as a society and nation aspire to.

      And in fact, I’m not clear how we can do a decent job of providing an accurate interpretation of U.S. history without talking about what we want our country to be first … including the times and situations where we did live up to it … to provide a context within which our failures may be better understood.

      I’d also suggest you refrain from exemplifying Godwin’s Law. But if you insist, using Germany as an example … yes, I’d suggest that the lead story in teaching German history to third-graders should not be Naziism and the concentration camps.

      And in fact, when the time does come to talk about the Final Solution, students would be better equipped to deal with the subject if they do understand what constitutes the best of Germany’s contributions.

  • Thanks for a great article, one of your best.
    1. I like the idea of a pledge to the Constitution.
    2. I agree with Ms. Wassserman on almost everything she said. But, as a black former Oakland CA substitute teacher, I was surprised and disappointed when I noticed elementary and middle school students of color resistant to even the best teachers introducing elements of American injustice to blacks and Native Americans.

    My guess is that these students don’t yet have the neurological development (see Jean Piaget) that they will have in senor high school needed to appreciate this information.
    Yet, whenever we teach about the Revolutionary War and the Civil Ware, we need to also teach about the Indian wars and slavery. And, our ability to acknowledge and learn from our mistakes.

    Our generosity, fairness, kindness, and a desire to do the right thing, even when it seems unorthodox, are core to the American mythology and this should be taught to all. There is much to be proud of in the cultures of Native Americans, the persistence and accomplishments of women, the courage and resourcefulness of blacks, and yes, the accomplishments of white male Americans.
    We’ve all made the country great. Together.

  • History can & should be taught at age-appropriate levels, not as “fiction” but using an allegory or parable form to enable students to comprehend the factual foundation concepts & results. Our national “heroes” simply did what they believed was right given the information and resources available. Second guessing their motives is as useless as the perspective of Monday morning couch potato quarterbacks to the outcome of a game. Our country owes its exceptional success to the diversity of its population given the freedom to succeed or fail and experience both the rewards or suffering as appropriate to their outcome.
    Above all, keep what is taught in history in lower levels factually accurate (Simply omit the complex details second guessing motives). By doing so, you no longer need to “unlearn” what was taught but build on that foundation. Stick to the what until they have a comprehensive understanding sufficient to discuss the why. History should be taught like science taught in grade school at a simplified level. Is it a lie not to fail to tell them that there is a thing called friction that alters the outcome of the observed phenomena? No!

    • But history *IS* fiction.
      It is all fairy tales re-written by the winner of the last war – von BismarckCRYR

      • It’s a clever quote, but if it’s accurate, how do you account for the extent to which historians disagree about nearly everything?

  • Re teaching small children the Preamble to the Constitution… this has already been done, and I experienced it personally: the “America Rock” cartoons that were shown during the Saturday morning cartoons on ABC from 1973 to 1984. And specifically, the episode of “The Preamble”.


    Because of this cartoon, I have had the Preamble memorized for decades. “I’m Just a Bill”, in which a bill sings about its hopes and dreams of how it might be passed by Congress and become a law, sure came in handy years later during high school civics class.

    We already have, or once had, a working solution. I’m guessing that the cartoon, and how it is broadcast, could be modernized without too much difficulty. (Though “without difficulty” is not the same as “without controversy”.)

    Other cartoon episodes depicted other parts of American history — in simplified and cleaned-up form, of course. Various YouTubers have produced their own versions, in a similar style, exploring the darker sides of American history; this, too, could be done, and systematically. Perhaps it could be expanded into an entire useful curriculum.

  • When you said “mythology,” storytelling came to mind. Formal (newsletter), or informal (tall tales).

    Showmanship also plays a role in this. Something blatant.That makes for a good story around the coffee pot.

    You are spot on. that is how culture is transmitted through the organization

    A favorite gem from the glory day of HP:

    Don’t lock the lab-stock room

    “It was not unusual to find Bill in the plant on weekends. Perhaps he was working on an antenna for the fly-in airstrip on the ranch he and Dave owned in South San Jose. On one weekend evening, he was working on a radio antenna, and needed some parts from Lab Stock.

    “It was the late 1960’s and division management was on a cost saving initiative, which came and went in cycles. Some manager or bean-counter decided that open lab stock was a license to steal, so the lab stockroom door had a padlock on it after working hours and on weekends.

    “Bill called a guard to open the tool room door in the facilities department, to bring him a bolt cutter tool. He cut off the padlock, got his parts, and left a note on the stock room door to the effect, ‘Don’t ever lock this door again,’ signed Bill Hewlett. Guess how many years that that note prevented lab stock doors from being locked? Such action gets around — everywhere!

    “Bill’s attitude was that we hire expensive design engineers to create new products. At the same time, many have hobbies, such as ham radio or audio system design, which teach them new design tricks, useful in their regular HP job. Bill was willing to accommodate the use of HP parts from the lab stock to assist the engineers in their off-duty hobbies.”

    –from “Inside HP: A narrative history Of Hewlett-Packard from 1939–1990” by John Minck Sr. http://www.hpmemoryproject.org/timeline/john_minck/inside_hp_03.htm

  • Another ‘legless dog joke’ that could serve as a metaphor for a lack of company culture might be:

    Q: What do you call a dog with no legs?

    A: It doesn’t matter, they won’t come anyway.

  • I like the idea generally. Mythology sets the vision for what you can or aspire to. It’s like a vision statement. Then of course reality sets in and you do what you can or have to do.

    I would quibble that the early stuff shouldn’t be pure whitewashing, but vision preceding mission is generally a good sequence.

  • I agree with all of you who have said this may be the best KJR yet. I also agree with some parts of what many of you have disagreed with it about. In short, the column and the responses have prompted a lot of thinking in my mind.

    This is a case where I wish Bob and the commenters could move this event to a discussion space.

    A few of my responses:

    First, Bob’s proposal drew solid lines (before and after middle school) and I think we would all agree that the lines should not be that hard. I agree that the early years are the place to teach the good, partly because little kids need a safe place and too much bad coming in from outside is hard for them inside.

    At the same time, I agree with the commenters who said kids are ready for different stuff on their own timeline. One of my ten-year-old nephews read Undaunted Courage, but I wouldn’t want it on the reading list for 5th grade. I haven’t gotten up the nerve to read it yet.

    Second, a good myth can tell the story honestly and at a level that works for many ages. The Bible is an excellent example of telling some pretty dark stories in a way that is remarkably safe for little children, and so attractive to their parents that they come back to it throughout life.

    To Sara Wasserman: all school exists and reinforces the brainwashing and propaganda that binds a country and a culture. A few recent books argue that human reason developed to help us rationalize, so that we violent creatures developing complex thoughts could live in groups. I am mulling that as an intriguing thought. Schools also offer the means to learn tools such as reading and math and the basic structures of knowledge. These structures give us the places to hang and store our knowledge throughout life. Schools would do better to surface the whole idea of this structure, which matters as much as reading and math. School adds some of the fill-in bits, often poorly.

    As an example thank you, David Teleki for bringing up Schoolhouse Rock. We need to teach in school what that program did. I had to teach university librarians how a bill becomes a law so they could answer reference questions about it.

    Sara, I see from your comments that you would like to see more attention to both the history and the lived lives of students. We have been systematically erasing this from schools for over a generation now. At first it was the “we are all alike” fiction and now it is a violently active suppression.

    Again, thank you Bob for raising such interesting ideas. And Gregory, thank you so much for your citation to the HP history. I will read the whole thing.

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