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Visionaries or Functionaries

John Simkin

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Over the years I have been involved in the process of selecting students for PGCE students. It could be argued that students fall into one of two broad categories. There are those that some call “romantics”. I would rather describe them as “visionaries”. These are people who want to enter the profession with an understanding that our society is deeply flawed. They have a vision of a better society and are willing to use their energies to help it come about. They know that things cannot be dramatically improved until we tackle the education system. They therefore wish to become teachers in order to change the world.

The other group, the vast majority, are fairly satisfied with the society they live in. This is especially true of their thoughts on the educational system. After all, it has helped them get to the stage where they have the necessary qualifications to enter the profession. I would describe these people as “functionaries”. They see their role as helping the education system function as effectively as possible.

Visionaries are always difficult to manage. They tend to spend a lot of time questioning the system. Functionaries, on the other hand, are great to manage. They rarely question orders. They see their role as making the approved system work. They know that the best way they can climb the slippery ladder to success is to do as they are told.

It is true that a significant percentage of the “visionaries” become disillusioned and leave the profession. Whereas some visionaries lose the energy to fight the system and become burnt-out cynics. Others become willing to sacrifice their beliefs in order to benefit their careers. These are the ones who often become passionate functionaries. Consumed by guilt, they vent their anger on those who dare to remain as visionaries. Chris Woodhead is the prime example of someone who started off as a visionary but ended up as evangelical functionary.

Sometimes functionaries reach the top and then become visionaries. A good example of this in political terms is John and Robert Kennedy. When they started their political career they were functionaries. In order that John Kennedy got the Democratic nomination in 1960, Robert Kennedy met with senior figures in the party from the Deep South to promise that a Kennedy administration would never pass civil rights legislation. During the presidential election campaign the Kennedy’s attacked Richard Nixon for being “soft on communism”. Their right-wing stance helped them win the election.

However, during their period of power, events such as the Bay of Pigs, the Freedom Summer Campaign and the Cuban Missile Crisis, turned the brothers from functionaries to visionaries. It is very dangerous having a visionary as president, especially when during the summer of 1963 he entered into secret negotiations in order to bring an end to the cold war.

John Kennedy had to be assassinated. His brother knew why his brother had been killed but decided to keep quiet about it and wait until he gained power. He was of course assassinated before that could take place. At his funeral his brother, Edward Kennedy said something that was very important. It is a message that teachers should consider:

My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life, to be remembered simply as a good decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.

Those of us, who loved him and who take him to his rest today pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will someday come to pass for all the world.

As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him: "Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not."

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Your analysis of visionaries/functionaries in education is absolutely accurate. I'd never thought about the guilt aspect. Do they REALLY feel guilty or are they people who don't suffer from pangs of conscience or awareness of hypocracy?

I am sitting here mentally putting appropriate labels on our DoE principals and bureaucrats. At the moment I think the functionaries grossly outnumber the visionaries. I think one of my favourite quotes applies here: It's better to be cynical than gullible.

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