Power and physics in politics
I’d planned on writing this week about the Eagle County Schools strategic plan and updating our community on the exciting and positive direction in which our schools are headed.
However, at every event and function I’ve attended during the past couple of weeks, the subject of what’s happening in our state’s second largest school district invariably comes up — and I’m always asked for my professional opinion.
The details around the actions the Jeffco School Board has taken related to a curriculum review effort, and the accompanying reaction from students, parents and teachers in the Jeffco community, are well documented.
From local Colorado newspapers all the way to CNN and The New York Times, no one can seem to get enough of what’s happening in Jeffco. Here in Eagle County, my fellow Vail Daily columnist Jack Van Ens wrote a very insightful piece detailing the American historical notions of respect for authority, protest and inequality that are present in this debate.
Rather than tread again over these well covered areas, I will focus on what I think is an even larger matter — the concept of political power, and its limitations, that are central to this edu-drama.
POWER, INFLUENCE AND THE FALL
Political power, very simply, means the ability to influence the behavior of others. Conversely, if there is no influence, then there is no power.
Power comes from many sources. Some of these are obvious and quick to identify: Things like having a formal title or position with some authority (such as being the governor, or the boss, or the member of a school board majority). Another obvious source of power is the control of resources — money talks.
Other sources of power are somewhat less obvious, such as being recognized and respected for one’s wisdom, knowledge, or valor — reputation is a form of power and influence. Yet another less obvious source is holding key relationships or connections that can be activated into influential coalitions.
Still other sources of power are darker in their nature, such as the ability to dole out rewards, punishments or threats. And, of course, human history is filled with stories of those who rose to power through the subjugation of others through violence.
While the sources of power (and influence) are multiple, all of them share a common Achilles heel. That weakness is hubris — a puffed-up position of pride, arrogance and false-superiority that has been the downfall of practically every former holder of power.
Those with power would always do well to realize there is a difference between the authority they hold and the authority they should actually use.
Put more simply, there is a difference between what you can do and what you should do.
NEWTONIAN PHYSICS AND POWER
In some ways, Sir Isaac Newton’s laws of physics apply to political situations. Newton’s first law is a concept known as inertia — things in motion tend to stay in motion and things at rest tend to stay at rest. Newton’s second law tells us that the bigger the object, the more force is required to move that object. And Newton’s third law is that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.
In the case of the Jeffco School Board, they certainly have the formal authority (force) to revise the curriculum however they see fit, to foist a new compensation system on their employees without taking into account the views of those employees, or redirect public funds from their community’s kindergarten programs.
The majority members of the Jeffco board seem to understand the first two of Newton’s three laws. Whether an accurate perception or not, they see the Jefferson County School District as an object at rest and they intend to apply a massive amount of force in order to make it move in the direction they desire.
What they forgot is Newton’s third law — that all of the energy they have expended to force Jeffco schools, teachers, students and the community to move in the way they want is now roaring back at them in equal proportion.
The members of the Jeffco board majority are feeling it in waves — student walk-outs, teacher sick-outs, protests lining miles of Denver-area streets, calls for election recall and bearing the brunt of national scrutiny.
In politics and physics, there is no such thing as an action without an equal and opposite reaction.
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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