Tony Judt, the Politics of Collaboration, and Learning

Often lost in complex discussions of collaboration, team-building, and other related endeavors in training-teaching-learning is a broader theme: the political aspect of all we do.

Historian-writer-professor Tony Judt’s penultimate book Ill Fares the Land, which began as a New York Review of Books essay, provides an incisive political look at collaboration. The result is a source of inspiration for those of us fostering collaboration in much smaller settings than those Judt discusses.

With a scholar’s breadth of knowledge and a writer’s flair for enticing readers into his work, he starts with a basic theme: the need for trust that is present when fairness and equality are nurtured. His entire first chapter, “The Way We Live Now,” builds a devastating case against complacence by documenting the results of inequality in a variety of countries throughout the world and demonstrating that those with the greatest success are the ones where fairness and equality are most effectively established.

After documenting in very human terms the results of inequality and discussing how this removes the trust that makes collaboration possible, Judt delivers his punchline: “Clearly we cannot do without trust. If we truly did not trust one another, we would not pay taxes for our mutual support. Nor would be venture very far outdoors for fear of violence or chicanery at the hands of our untrustworthy fellow citizens. Moreover, trust is no abstract virtue. One of the reasons that capitalism today is under siege from so many critics, by no means all of them on the Left, is that markets and free competition also require trust and cooperation. If we cannot trust bankers to behave honestly, or mortgage brokers to tell the truth about their loans, or public regulators to blow the whistle on dishonest traders, then capitalism itself will grind to a halt” (pp. 37-38).

It’s not difficult for any of us who are working in training-teaching-learning to draw parallels between Judt’s world view and what we see within the organizations we serve: inequality—even the perception of inequality—diminishes our ability to draw learners into what we offer. To ignore that problem is to miss an opportunity to increase the effectiveness of all we do; if we are not part of the process of sustaining or helping rebuild trust where it is missing, we are not rising to our potential of trainers as leaders in workplace learning and performance.

In one of the final sections of the book, “The Shape of Things to Come,” Judt turns to his belief that we “have entered an age of fear,” including “fear of the uncontrollable speed of change” (p. 217)—again, a theme he examines at a political-historical level and which is equally of interest to those of us attempting to facilitate change through the learning opportunities we provide.

As one of Judt’s colleagues observed, “No one talks like this any more” (p. 9), and Judt’s passing in August 2010 makes that comment even more poignant. Perhaps it’s time for more of us to be reading works like this one and carrying on the conversation so that what the author left us isn’t lost to those who follow.

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