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Friday, September 16, 2011

The Cuphineous Debate

It all started at a staff meeting several years ago.   Something was being discussed and somebody was getting upset about something that seemed very important to them at the time -- which is what happened in most of our staff meetings -- and my good friend slipped me a note (you would think we wouldn't do things like that since we spend our days trying to keep others from doing the same, but we do) that said: "There is not a word in existence that truly captures the uselessness of this meeting."   She was right.  

For those not in education, you must understand that the only group of people teachers dislike more than administrators is other teachers.  Putting us in a room together and letting us talk freely can bring about UN quality frustration and resentment.    We, as a species, tend to be petty and competitive (and the higher up the educational ranks you go the worse it gets.  At the university level, educator toxicity is the stuff of legend), and we can't stand hearing each other whine about things that we are sure wouldn't be an issue if they were just not them. 

My friend and I discussed it on the way home.  Sometimes, even with the 750,000 words that already exist in English and the millions of potential adoptees from other languages, we still need a new word and this was one of those times.  

The word: Cuphineous  [Kew-fin-ee-us] (adj): An idea or a concern that is peripheral to the real problem but is dressed up in fancy clothes and trotted out for discussion instead of the real issue in order to preserve the feelings, work, ideology. or hidden limitations of the participants.

It seemed to sum up so much of what we sat through every week.  We would spend an hour discussing why students were "out of control," when the real issue was that some teachers weren't in control.  We would spend an hour listening to colleagues explain why they couldn't possibly do lunch supervision or patrol the sidewalks after school while losing sight of the fact that our students were currently unsupervised and getting into all sorts of shenanigans.  We would spend days preparing the school so it would look good for a site inspection from the district overlords instead of finding ways to make our school functional every day.  

Our discussions were cuphineous and cuphineous discussions are intended to be unproductive.  They are alluring distractions designed to protect the frightened.  It's so much easier to talk about something that is cute, containable, and easily identified than it is to talk about the deeper, more personally threatening issue underneath, so in a room typified by a lack of trust, cuphineous conversations were the norm.

The word began to seep into my colleague and my outside lives, too.  Cuphineousness was present everywhere vital conversations were being held and nowhere was it more present than in our national dialogue.

It's been years and not a day goes by when I don't think to myself, "cuphineous," as I listen to a news broadcast or read the newspaper or sit through a staff meeting (They're better where I am now, but we still have a tendency to cuphineate when things get too sensitive or too big) 

Any broad discussion of our current economy in the media is bound to be a cuphineous one.  Nobody wants to talk about the real issue because to talk about the real issue is to hit up against the unresolveable and immovable flaw in market-driven capitalism and the attendant political economy it creates.

Which is easier to get huffy about:  Federal Deficits or the concept that a market driven economy must forever expand into new markets in order to keep from collapsing and, when no new markets are available, it will inevitably contract or create an unsustainable bubble?  Federal Deficits have a number attached and if enough people think they care about it, we can probably make it smaller.  The tragic flaw of capitalism has no such simple solution.  So we cuphineously discuss the dangers of Deficits.   

As a species, we drift towards the cuphineous because they are the discussions that allow us to feel like we are getting somewhere without actually moving.  They are the discussions that we can drag out forever so we don't have to change.  They are a valuable defense of the collective ego and they protect the status quo, often long enough to prevent any possibility of promethean response to the real problem, creating a crisis that can only be resolved with a patchwork of reactive action that is then passed off as a solution.  

TARP, the stimulus, and the debt compromise come to mind as examples on the national level.  At our small school, the crisis usually presented itself in a 911 call or a threat of charter revocation.  And in each case, the discussors of the cuphineous then held up the crisis response itself as an example of the flawed thinking of those who tried to discuss the real issue that spurred the cuphineous chaff.

It's really enough to make one's head explode.  It helps to have a word, though, so the next time you find yourself getting worked up in a discussion about something and then you think to yourself, "why in the hell are we talking about this?!"  Just say to them, "This is all cuphineous to the real issue at hand."  They won't know the word and in the moment of confusion you'll create, if you move quickly, you might be able to get back to the real issue before they regroup.

It's worked for me in staff meetings.

Though I haven't had much luck with anybody who is convinced that the real problem of our time is federal spending.

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