Teaching with Wampeters and Developing Pockets of Excellence

“A ‘wampeter’ is an object around which the lives of many otherwise unrelated people may revolve. The Holy Grail would be a case in point. ‘Foma’ are harmless untruths, intended to comfort simple souls. An example: ‘Prosperity is just around the corner.’ A ‘granfalloon is a proud and meaningless association of human beings.’ –Kurt Vonnegut’s introduction to Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons. (Concepts also found in his novel Cat’s Cradle)

Although they’re an odd couple to recommend, Kurt Vonnegut and Jim Collins make surprisingly good companions for high school teachers who are trying to go the distance as effective long-term educators.

Vonnegut’s often irreverent, sardonic wit x-rays the ways that institutions and cultures can become absurd. But beneath his curmudgeon persona, Vonnegut covertly operates from a deeply compassionate concern for humanity and more humane approaches to flourishing.

Vonnegut’s notion of a “wampeter” strikes me as an echo of Rilke’s (and Palmer Parker’s) focus on the “grace of great things.” For Vonnegut, such great things can bring us together as diverse human beings, inviting awe, mutual appreciation, and gratitude.

Too often, our automatic habits and institutions become “granfalloons.” These are unhelpful and often inhumane automatic habits and intuitions that slowly suck the life and sense from our better pursuits of human flourishing.

Meanwhile, concerns about such empty and absurd habits in our institutions are often waved off by various “foma.” Insert the sloganeering and shallow pop psychology phrases of choice into a conversation in which someone is trying to get to a meaningful sense of purpose and healthy function, and you’ve got “foma.”

A complementary balance to Vonnegut’s keywords for teachers comes from Jim Collins’ Concepts that characterize Good-to-Great Organizations:

  • Disciplined People
  • Disciplined Thought
  • Disciplined Action
  • Building to Last

In Collins’ Good to Great and the Social Sectors, he discusses “pockets of excellence.” Realistically, Collins knows that many of us are unlikely to have our organizations on the same bus, headed toward excellence in terms of his key concepts, but we can still work in our areas with others to promote the kind of excellence that lasts.

So, to bring Vonnegut and Collins together for teacher encouragement, there are times when we’re trying for excellent, wampeter experiences and practices, but the granfalloon pretensions get in the way. And rather than offering our fellow, excellence-seeking peers some sort of foma, we can work respectfully as counter-culture agents who are trying to deliver and promote learning that is built to last.

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