Need-to-Know Basis

If you’ve ever worked in a factory-paradigm setting, you’ve probably heard that phrase.  “This is on a need-to-know basis,” a Former Power used to say years ago, “and they don’t need to know.”  By they the Relevant Power normally meant students, and sometimes their families, and by need, the Power really meant “I don’t want them to because it might Cause Problems.”  In other words, telling That Particular Truth at the “wrong” time might upset the steady, predictable flow of the day, week, or month which That Power firmly believed would be possible, if only people knew what they needed to know and were kept from what they didn’t need.

I’m sure you can think of lots of examples of things a Power might decide you don’t need to know – things that you, by contrast, might feel quite certain you did need to know.  And that’s one of the many problems with operating on a 20th-century-style need-to-know basis: there’s always a possibility for serious conflict when different people see those needs differently.  “Why did you lie to us?” someone will ask, and someone else, aggrieved, will insist they didn’t lie, they just didn’t tell you everything.  Taken to extremes, the need-to-know basis breeds suspicion and distrust. “They lied to Us,” people think, and the group we label as them thinks the same.  And as the distrust spreads, they are ever more likely to keep stuff from us on a need-to-know basis, and we are ever more likely to reciprocate, in an ever-widening spiral of deceit and deception.  And depression.  And suspicion.  And decreasing productivity in a setting where productivity (however that’s defined) is usually a primary goal.

When I woke up this morning, I wasn’t expecting to write about need-to-know basis, but then I saw an angry post on one of the many email listservs for Latin teachers from a colleague who’s irate that Some Publisher makes an Answer Key to their textbook available.  This colleague was mad that it was available at all – shouldn’t teachers know the language they teach well enough that they don’t need an Answer Key? he asked.  But he was also mad that students could obtain it – students who, he clearly believed, would just mindlessly copy the answers and turn them in and not learn anything.  And if you operate in a factory paradigm, that makes complete sense.  Information (like those answers) is always held on a need-to-know basis, isn’t it?  And they don’t need to know until after they’ve done the work … do they?

There isn’t an Answer Key to the Tres Columnae Project materials … mainly because there aren’t answers in the 20th-century sense.  There’s no “published translation of the passages” of the textbook variety because nobody is “grading” users on written translations that they “do” and “turn in.”  And if there were such a thing, it would be available to all users … because the answers are less important than the process, and because hiding stuff just makes it more attractive.  And because teachers in the age of hyper-abundant information who send their students home to “do a worksheet,” then complain because the students found the answers on the same website where the teacher found the worksheetneed to know what they’re doing and why it won’t work.

Or at least that’s my perspective!  Obviously theirs is different.

Regular readers know I’m deeply suspicious of the need-to-know basis, especially in a world of hyper-abundant information.   But let’s be fair.  Nobody is completely truthful all the time, and there are plenty of things I neither want nor (at least from my perspective) need to know.  And that’s just as true in a joyful community as it is in a factory-mindset setting … and it’s also true, in both joyful communities and factory settings, that my perspective about what I want and need to know can be radically different from yours.

When you build a healthy, sustainable community, it’s possible to talk openly about your norms and expectations, and I guess that’s one way to handle those clashing perspectives about need-to-know.  And if that community operates, as communities do, in a larger context, sometimes the larger context establishes its own paradigms for what people need to – or can – be told about.  But when there’s stuff you can’t know or shouldn’t know, it helps to know why you can’t know it.  Openness can be painful and difficult, but in the end it’s a lot less painful in the end than the burden of deciding, all by yourself, what somebody else needs to know.  Is that why, in the stories the upper-level class is reading this week, the true nature of the secret mission does get revealed after the ius iurandum is given?  Is that why so many Latin I students chose the ending for Lectiō XII where Vipsania Caelii does listen to her sister-in-law’s advice about rearing children?  Even in a need-to-know basis world, a world where half-truths and self-deception are routine, there’s still a desire for honesty and openness … and even in a need-to-know basis world, if need and know are defined clearly, honesty and openness might just be possible.

I wonder what new insights about needing and knowing, about learning and community, and about other important things await us all today!

Published in: on December 13, 2013 at 11:41 am  Leave a Comment  

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