Cargo Cults and College Strategic Plans: Simulating Success and Forgetting Results

[Note: this is not an academic paper or publishable article because it is designed to teach students to adapt a theory and its methods to a given cultural system.  Do not cite or quote statements from this web page as my personal opinion, especially as my personal opinion about Goucher College's strategic planning cycle.  To do so would betray a faulty sense of how to read academic argument or teaching materials in a theory/method course.  However, the statements below are reliable to the degree that I have been able to identify a cultural mythology in the world of liberal arts colleges.]

        In the late nineteenth-century, European contact with Melanesian civilization produced a crisis in the cultural stability and confidence of South-Sea islanders because of the relative contrast they saw between the sizes and contents of their own vessels, a common cultural indicator of status and identity, and the sizes and contents of the vessels outfitted by the Europeans for world navigation and trade.   This helped make possible what the Anglo-European anthropologists first called "cargo cults."  First one prophet, and then whole ritual cults, taught that their society would prevail and White European culture would be swept away by the arrival of their own ancestors in a vessel like that of the Europeans, bearing great wealth forever.  The first "vessel" was to be a steamship, and the contents, trade goods like those in the desired European vessels, so the cult may have had the effect, though "Nativist" and anti-European, of emptying the society of its respect for its traditional cultural products.  (This is the subject of considerable debate in Post-Colonial, New Historicist thinking.)  World War II brought airpower and the cultists took to building mountaintop "airstrips" with "airplanes" and "control towers" to lure the ancestors' vessels to land.  Sometimes, damaged or malfunctioning cargo planes did crash near such sites, producing vast outpourings of faith in the "cargo cults."  However, months and years in which the cult produces no "landings" will not diminish faith in the ancestors' impending arrival because the cult's behaviors are a self-sustaining enterprise.  Their leader, John Frum, lives in a volcano and will return one day with the cargo they seek.  Until he does, they maintain the "airfields" as some other religious faiths maintain their own rituals of anticipated theophany (manifestation of the god).  According to modern anthropological studies of cults' responses to failed prophecies, they believe because they do it, rather than doing it because they believe.  Failure of the cult to produce landings has no effect on its practices other than to stimulate more vigorous "airport" construction, and successes will cause redoubled but identical efforts.

        Colleges' "five year strategic plans" can be understood as a "Modern American" equivalent of a cargo cult.  Vast simulations of courses-to-be-desired are constructed in the hopes that great students willing to pay high tuition will "land" on campus, accompanied by alumni/-ae willing to donate huge sums to the endowment.  However, the decisions made by students or alumni/-ae in the next five years are not causally connected to the "five-year strategic plans" devised to attract them.  Without rigorous testing of the plans' outcomes, even if the student and alumni/-ae outcomes are realized, faith in the plans amounts to the "post hoc ergo propter hoc" fallacy (sequence as cause).  Both students and alums are looking at a universe of factors affecting their choices, factors which may not value the colleges' demonstrations of "strategic thinking."  One factor never considered by "strategic plan cultists" is the long-term stability and continuity of these colleges' curricula.  Nevertheless, nearly all colleges participate in the "strategic plan cargo cult," so the students and alums are seeing many schools doing different things and calling them all "strategic" and "innovative" and "unique."  The fact that all these "plans" differ from one another in specifics, while maintaining the same claims, suggests strongly that it does not matter what the plan says.  Colleges just believe in them.  Because I have worked to implement a previous five-year strategic plan and have been involved in the development of the current one in progress, and because I have talked with colleagues at other schools which worship them, too, I know them well enough to describe their mythemes, their constituative bundles of structuring rules. 

        The basic sign is "the curriculum," diacritically inflected by changes to campus buildings and to department or program names.  Colleges can decimate functioning departments to produce the new curricular enterprises and destroy revered campus features to construct the totemic structures which manifest the plan and its attractiveness as "real."  The plan mandates changes according to whatever current ideas seem exciting to the existing administrators, faculty, and students, with no attempt to test the concept on the prospective students and alumni/-ae the plan allegedly will "attract."  The plans at all schools always claim nearly the same things, no matter what they do to the curriculum, buildings, programs or departments.  New freshmen must be "exposed to the diversity of intellectual inquiry at the college" and to the "strong regional advantages of the college's location."  Alumni/-ae must be persuaded that "faculty salaries and the quality of student life" will be improved.  "Capital campaigns" will be conducted to siphon funds toward the college, and the money will disappear into the general fund.  Any money collected will be taken as a tribute to the "strategic plan," regardless of whether it "crash landed" by accident or intentionally "landed" for some other reason (respect for the institution's past, etc.).  Plaques will be inscribed and installed on buildings and trees and gardens, and speeches will be given at ceremonies.  All involved will congratulate themselves on the "strategic plan"'s success.  Then they will do it all over again.    The past performance of any previous "strategic plan" never enters into the decision. 

        The controlling ideology which motivates the radical reconstruction of the curriculum and campus every five to ten years is not really capitalist consumerism, since few people at the college (other than consultants) will make much money doing this, so a strict Marxist interpretation would yield little insight.  However, the Old Historicists' belief in the inevitability of progress, and the identification of "change" with "progress," and the belief in the perfectibility of human systems like the liberal arts curriculum, may be at the bottom of the "strategic plan cult."  The cultists also appear to share with the Melanesians a sense of inferiority, which I think undeserved, about their own cultural system, so they borrow from capitalist industry and from modern state-politicians the myth of the cultural crusade or jihad against its imperfections.  The notion that liberal arts learning might have reached a kind of ecological equilibrium with respect to its ability to attract students and donors never is considered.  The long-term benefits of participating in such a system-in-equilibrium, including the vast savings of time and capital if chimerical "strategic plans" are not constructed, also are taboo subjects.  More than anything, the decades-long drama of imaginary rejuvenation seems more important in itself than any tangible products which might "land" as a result.  To that end, even skeptical participants tend not to question the necessity of the rituals or the cult, itself.

Related References

Boyer, Paul S.  When Time Shall Be No More : Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture. Cambridge, Mass. : Belknap P of Harvard UP, 1992.

Melton, J.G.  “Spiritualization and Affirmation: What Really Happens When Prophecy Fails.” American Studies.  26  17-29.

Raffaele, Paul.  "In John They Trust."  Smithsonian Magazine (February 2006), available online at

Tumminia, Diana.  “How Prophecy Never Fails: Interpretive Reason in a Flying-Saucer Group.” Sociology of Religion.  59:2  (Summer 1998).  Available from WilsonWeb.  1/28/02.