That ‘Vision Thing’

Not the least of Maine’s glories is her coastline, thousands of miles of it, with countless harbors offering respite or refuge for her many sailors.  And experienced sailors know that, while they can find a harbor on a nautical chart, the likelihood of their arriving there depends upon a well-weighted keel and their crews’ ability to tack to ever changing winds.

Thus this Mainer was struck by Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Janus-faced complaint that the president who enabled her to become Secretary of State lacked a foreign policy with “vision,” or an “organizing principle.”  Former President George H. W. Bush could sympathize with President Obama; he, too, was blamed for lacking “the vision thing.”[1]

One of the most powerful “organizing principles” of the last two centuries has been that of the unified nation state as the driving force of history.  As a monument of German political theory in the 19th century, the idea’s most enduring consequences lay amid the carnage of two world wars.

But the ideal of the unified nation state has had a powerful influence here, too.  The preservation of the union was Abraham Lincoln’s vision when he decided to resupply Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor (April 15, 1861).[2] By contrast, the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, was a smart tactical measure–but of no less historic consequence.

The Civil War also produced this country’s only original formal philosophy—pragmatism: Sanity, in public as in private life, belongs not to the hedgehog, with its one big idea, but to the foxes, who know many things.[3] Nothing, then, could be more American than President Obama’s notion that, above all else, we should not do something stupid.

Weary of the 1970s, this country may have been comforted to hear Ronald Reagan’s invocation of the United States as “a city on a hill.”  But John Winthrop’s Puritan vision for the tiny, homogeneous Massachusetts Bay Colony no longer befits a large, heterogeneous, diverse, and generally bumptious land like ours.  To much of the rest of the world, a city on a hill bears a strong resemblance to an empire upon which the sun never sets.

“Strategic vision,” an ill-fitting combination of military theory and romantic idealism, has surely become one of the most widely hawked nostrums of modern management in both private and public sectors.  Were public administration (a.k.a. “government bureaucracy”) less a subject of general opprobrium, more of us would know of Charles E. Lindblom’s now classic essay, “The Science of ‘Muddling Through’” (1959).[4]

In it Lindblom argues convincingly that the inherently messy business of democratic politics is not such a bad thing, because “muddling through” would “assure a more comprehensive regard for the values of the whole society than any attempt at intellectual comprehensiveness.”

Which brings us to the University of Southern Maine’s costly—in consultant fees, faculty time, student distraction, and administrative overhead—groping for the single “organizing framework” or “vision” to lead itself out of its budgetary doldrums.  A university should require no management consultants and community meetings to help it identify its guiding vision for the future.  The idea of a university is the vision:  a place of cosmopolitan learning and liberation from dogmas past and present.  Attaching its fortunes to any local community is to risk its future on local values. The idea of a university is the boat’s well-weighted keel.  A nimble faculty crew, and a captain who can read the water as well as the sails, will maintain the boat on its proper voyage.

But not all of us in Maine are sailors.  For those who aren’t, there is wisdom from John Irving’s “The Cider House Rules,” set in Maine.  It comes from Arthur, head of the seasonal apple-picking crew: “know what your business is.”


[1] Time magazine (January 26, 1987).

[2] Sylvia Fries (Kraemer), “Abraham Lincoln and the Language of Sectional Crisis,” Lincoln Herald (1977).

[3] “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing” -Archilochus

[4] Public Administration Review, Vol. 19 (1959), 79-88.

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