Digging in

Even car designers are slipping into a defensive mode

Issue: "Saber savior," May 22, 1999

Before taking up my present line of work 22 years ago, I had the hardest job in the world. I was a school headmaster.

I loved the students, and I loved the entrepreneurial challenge of helping a fledgling institution survive and make its mark. But to tell the truth, I did not enjoy many of the things school administrators should be good at. I didn't like details. I didn't like curriculum. I didn't like lesson plans. I didn't like attendance records and transcripts and grading papers.

But the thing I liked least of all was having to decide whether or not any particular day was a snow day. When snow was predicted, I'd set my alarm for 5:30, go out on the highway, and make my best judgment. "Too slippery; no school today," I'd decide. But then, as soon as the announcement was on the radio, the weather changed, and by bus-time at 8:30, the sun was out, the roads were clear, and mothers were upset that they had to find childcare for the day. But, of course, if I was a bit adventuresome at 5:30 and decided to risk it, those same moms wanted my neck for jeopardizing the lives of their kids.

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I resigned. Letters to the editor-even angry ones-are easier to take than moms who think you made the wrong call about snow days.

But now the hardest job in the world has become ever so much harder. The snow day conundrum is child's play next to the kind of moral challenge dozens of administrators have faced over the last few weeks since the shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. The school phone rings, and it's a bomb threat. Is it real-or a hoax? Should the students be evacuated, but thereby perhaps encourage the perpetrator to try his stunt again tomorrow? Or should everyone hunker down and get serious about the day's work, and then face horrible responsibility when the bomb actually goes off?

A quarter century ago, you worried about whether your kids would be safe on the icy roads to school. Now you worry about whether they'll be safe once they get to school. That evidences a sobering transition for our society-and the marks of the transition are increasingly all around us. We are digging in. We're all shifting from offense to defense.

We've been pretending for a while now that we live in a free society, but the cost of maintaining that pretense keeps escalating. Home security continues to be a booming business. Head for the store, and a hefty part of every dollar you spend goes either to protect the inventory or to replace the part of it that has already been pilfered. Travel by plane, and consider how much the ticket price could be reduced if someone weren't standing guard at every juncture. Your car is already full of security devices no one needed a couple of generations ago. And who even heard of a password when you were young, except in childish games?

Yet until now, we've managed to keep much of that security blanket away from the surface and pretty much invisible. But suddenly, something like Littleton comes along-coupled perhaps with a war against a third-rate dictator in Europe that seems like it should have been over by now-and folks hustle to reinforce their barricades.

Wealthy, yet still fearful. No more apt picture of America was published last week than that of a new minivan to be released next year by DaimlerChrysler. Created to fill still another niche market, the PT Cruiser is as carefully focused and nuanced in its design as the enormous resources of the newly merged international automaking giant could make it. It looks for all the world like the big sedans Chicago gangsters drove in the 1920s. Designers reportedly started with big hatchback windows on the back, but those gave way in focus groups to tiny oval openings that announce: "We want to be protected from whoever you are back there." In fact, focus group participants reportedly wrote stories contrasting "a dangerous outside world with a secure interior of the car." "It's a jungle out there," researcher G. Clotaire Rapaille told a Wall Street Journal reporter; "it's Mad Max. People want to kill me, rape me." So the consultant told the car designers: "Give them a big thing like a tank." And the designers bulked up the fenders and aimed at making the vehicle more tough looking, "more like a bulldog."

DaimlerChrysler is betting big on the fear market. Their accountants can see how playing defense might well add to the company's bottom line. For school administrators, faced suddenly with whole new layers of capital and operating budgets to make their defenses more impervious than ever before, the bottom line doesn't look nearly as attractive. Right now, they've probably got the hardest job in the world. And the rest of society may not be far behind.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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