Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Competence and Morality

On my understanding of the Sufis, the path to fana’ (annihilation in Allah) begins with ensuring all actions are in accordance with the will of Allah. I’m always finding excuses for turning away from this path, a human folly ably allegorised by Farid Ud-Din Attar’s Conference of the Birds.

There are innumerable desires and illusions that conspire to defeat my quest for islam, but I believe Allah has provided an important tool to defeat them, one which is also a byword of contemporary culture - competence. Competence – by my definition, at least - is about knowing how to get a job done.

Competence demands that a task be completed in accordance with objectively defined standards and/or aims. Competence is therefore measurable, if not always measured. At the simplest level, if an electrical appliance isn’t working, the best person to fix it is someone trained to fix electrical appliances.

Yet despite the obvious benefits to electrical appliances, not to mention the efforts by governments and others to measure competence when vetting potential employees or inspecting public works, the phenomenon of incompetence continues to pervade our society – from the highest echelons of government down to the DIY dunce.

The causes are easily observed – people aspire to positions they are not competent to do for reasons of social status, self-esteem and even self-delusion. Moreover, we frequently judge people as competent for all the wrong reasons – their social charm, their good looks, the ability to ‘work hard’, their gender, ethnicity, and so forth.

There are also people who claim the competences required to do their job are simply not measurable. Some teachers in England hold this view. This probably reflects the fact that Trade Unions were able to protect teachers from appraisal until relatively recently. A fool is a lonely figure. They seek refuge in numbers.

I find dealing with incompetent people extremely difficult. I get very angry. I am only too aware how incredibly damaging a few well placed incompetents can be. I was recently reminded of this when a local educational charity I am familiar with announced it was having ‘problems’ with its support network.

The real problem is that most parents have very little faith in this group, although it does do some things quite well.

For many years, the group was managed by a small group of closely knit friends who were personally ambitious Their groupthink and their personal ties prevented anyone who wasn't of a like mind from getting involved. Consequently, improvements to services tended to reflect their aspirations and were sometimes little more than cosmetic. There were other problems, too.

Key members of the group were too close to the service providers they were lobbying. This included a teacher who believed teaching was not a measurable competence. Thus in securing additional services provided from the Local Education Authority (LEA), the group failed to ensure newly appointed teachers would be properly accountable.

In short, our LEA developed a new service without a service manager. This effectively opened the door to applicants who, by any measure, should not be practicing independently.

For example, one of the new teachers presents external inspectors with bogus paperwork, which does not reflect what he actually does in his classroom. He gets away with this because no one else really knows what he is doing. He is an extremely manipulative individual. One parent volunteered to work with him because she genuinely feared for her child.

Parents new to the group quickly learn the committee is unwilling to pass on parents’ complaints, except in an extremely dilute form. One professional who remains at the centre of group works alongside some of the teachers who are the subject of continuing concerns. Clearly, this is not someone who is going to participate in getting rid of them.

Competence is, I believe, close to morality. The parent-professional who previously dominated the charity claimed to be a dervish (though he is not a Muslim), at the same time as having an adulterous affair with another member of the committee. He uses social charm and his hunger for 'hard work' to convince people he was the man for the job.

It didn't take me long to discover huge gaps in his knowledge. I was then quickly perceived as a threat and marginalised. I eventually resigned from the group. I gather this is what people call 'politics'.

The issue of competence is pertinent to religion in other ways. Idries Shah once asked why people don’t study religion with the same rigour as a student doctor studies medicine. Saving souls, after all, is no less important than saving lives. It’s a question, like my experience of ‘charity’, that spurs me on to further learning.

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