Sep 1, 2018

Drinking the MSF Kool-Aid

Every two years, the Minnesota MSF program requires instructors to attend a “Professional Development Workshop.” Yes, it is as painful as it sounds. Like a lot of the corporate educational fools in the US, the MSF is a big proponent of “scientific teaching” and that is demonstrated sadly and badly in their instructor “training.” So, in August of 2013, I slogged my way through another of these silly exercises in turning energy into random motion. Every time I go through this experience, I think “Maybe I’m too old for this shit.”

After a momentary period of educational creativity in the early BRC years, the MSF has settled back into its over-bearing, drill sergeant tactics. Instead of talking to students like an instructor, the MSF now tells us just to read the corporate material to our “students”: I suppose that is because we’re too dumb to be teachers and the students are too illiterate to read this crap by themselves? The justification for the “read the cards” harping pretends that the MSF has “scientifically audience tested” the pigeon English in their illiterate 1970’s-era technical writing and that those poorly-written phrases magically turn rookies into Valentino Rossi just by their pure scientific magical-ness. “Keep knees against tank,” “keep feet on ground, not on footrests,” and “at double cones, downshift to 2nd gear, easing out clutch while in straight path” are examples of that genius literature. If I could manage a half-decent Pakistani taxi driver accent, I could deliver their script more authentically. The best I can do is a lousy 1950’s-era Charlie Chan hack-job and that is more offensive than funny. Reading this drivel with a straight face is just embarrassing, so I’m working on the taxi driver bit. So far, I’m more inclined toward the “You talkin’ to me?” sort of taxi driver, though. Reading the cards, without editing on the fly, is awkward and embarrassing. Once you’re involved in trying to fill in the missing pronouns and articles, you might as well paraphrase the whole performance.

Even though we often have a dozen riders with a dozen different skills, temperaments, listening abilities, and mental impairments, the MSF pretends that it’s possible to keep all riders in sight at all times while providing individual instruction to anyone who needs it. “”Never have running motorcycles behind you,” is one of the MSF mantras spoken by those who have never taught a class, paid a lick of attention to struggling students, and possesses an infinite supply of energy. A collection of insane and useless coaching positions are pitched to us as having magical powers in that regard. The fact that most of us see with the eyes in front of our heads rather than our backs appears to be new information to the academic geeks who run the MSF. It is possible that those pencil necks can’t swivel far enough to increase their visual horizon more than a couple of degrees, but most of us can cover a lot of ground from one location just by turning our heads and staying mobile. Go figure.

The chief instructor/trainer-trainer’s catch-all rebuttal is “It’s safer.” Like the conservative’s “think of the children” chickenshit come-back, this is a tough-to-beat argument in a typical classroom situation. It’s not like you can effectively argue against safety. However, like several other sorts of irrational debate tactics, no evidence of that safety improvement is offered or proven. In fact, claiming a tactic is safer without proving that point with statistics is just noise intended to stop discussion. The safety of an instructor’s style, range position, and technique is directly related to how that instructor conducts the class. A “universally perfect position” is an impossibility imagined by someone trying to create a defensible position liability-wise.

Likewise, the argument “If the chief instructor does/says it, it must be right” is about as worthless. The basis for “selecting” chief instructors has turned into accepting anyone who is silly enough to pay to haul his ass to one of the MSF’s training locations and obtain that certification. With that as a basis for selection, it’s a credential no more credible than an inheritance. At one time, our chief instructor was one of the best riders and instructors in our system. Now, the three chief instructors are just three guys who paid more money than the rest of us to do this thing. This is just one more example of failing leadership in all things American. Contrary to popular belief, there is some value in having excellence at the top of an organization

Pulling back from the early days of allowing instructors to find their own style and methods is a mistake, but it’s a popular mistake in the US. Everything known about teachers and teaching has found that instructor autonomy is crucial. All positive education outcomes are derived from creative, inspired, empowered instructors who give a shit about their students. The “read the cards” mantra is a No Child’s Behind Left Untouched holdover that came from the Reagan years’ public education sabotage and it drives good instructors from the system while reinforcing mediocrity. If the reason for recitation instead of teaching is because the MSF is requiring conformity, I’d say that would be a powerful reason for abandoning the MSF program for a state-managed system like Oregon’s. If the reason is liability, I’d say the state needs better lawyers. Reading the cards is something the best instructors do when they are being monitored by our “newspeak chief instructors,” but hardly anyone who knows what they are doing has that habit in an actual course. The upside is that reading the damn things is easy enough to do when we’re pretending to believe in the MSF magic. The downside is that doing that reminds us that we’re supposed to be marionettes, not instructors.

The predictable end result of the MSF’s style of instruction was summed up by this report from someone who took the ERC on a military base, “I also passed the ERC this summer.  The card was good for an insurance discount, and some of the slow speed instruction was valuable.  Other than that, the way this course was taught by the instructors I had was very thin...they did what was in the MSF Rider Card booklets, and that's it.  Mediocre instructors teaching minimal curriculum.  Most of the attendees at my course were military active duty, military retirees, or contractors on military bases all needing the card for two-wheel base access.  It is too bad the military is drinking the MSF Kool-Aid.

All of this is just another example of the same mismanagement that has driven real work underground in the US. The only talent American management has consistently shown is an ability to make any kind of work as miserable as possible. The average teaching career in the US is eleven years, but even more important is the 25% of beginning teachers who leave the field after four years and the 50% of urban teachers who abandon their careers after five years. The kids aren’t the problem. Management is. About ten years ago (2003), Pat Hahn produced a list of Minnesota MSF instructors with their “length of service” information. I did some Excel sorting on that data and found that the average (mean) instructor career was about three years. There were some significant outliers (15-24 years) in the group, but the overwhelming majority were short-timers. I know more than a few ex-Minnesota MSF instructors and none of them regret quitting. At the time, I wondered how it was possible to make riding the state’s motorcycles for money unpleasant. Now I know.

I know in a couple of ways. For a dozen years, I taught recording engineering and applied acoustics at a private music college. For about eight years, that job was so much fun I would have done it for free. (In fact, I did do a lot of work for nothing other than the pleasure of working with the kids and the school’s great musicians and instructors.) Eventually, the school was overrun by academics and “professional school administrators” and the fun, creativity, and energy was thoroughly sucked from the program. At one time, I thought I would teach at that school until they tossed me out or I died. Now, I’d rather take a bullet than teach another semester. Flipping that kind of commitment takes talent and the one thing American mismanagement has is an incredible ability to make any job as miserable as possible.

I’m writing this in early August 2013 under the assumption that by the time it hits the blog, I’ll either be dead or long out of motorcycle safety training. If not, I’m sure the MSF and the MMSC will make sure that decision is made for me once they read this criticism. It’s hard to imagine that being a big loss. The real problem in motorcycle “safety training” and licensing is that it isn’t serious enough. It’s one thing that 25% of motorcycle fatalities were unlicensed, it’s another that licensing is so easy that people with no ability can fumble through it fairly easily. A real approach to reducing the completely-out-of-line motorcycle fatality and injury numbers would require much tougher motorcycle licensing and a hard-assed approach to unlicensed motorcyclists (confiscate the motorcycle and put the asshole on foot where he/she was stopped along with a big fine). Until that happens, all of this “safety training” malarkey is just part of the sales pitch that is the real MSF objective (after all, the MSF is owned by the Motorcycle Industry Council, a “national trade association representing manufacturers and distributors of motorcycles, scooters, motorcycle/ATV parts and accessories and members of allied trades.” When was the last time you remember a trade organization being restrained in its desire to sell stuff over the safety of its customers? Yeah, that’s what I thought. If it were up to the MIC, motorcycle fatalities would be 90% of total traffic deaths and they’d just suppress the news so that a whole new batch of victims/customers would dive into traffic unaware of the hazards. The MSF is just an attempt to pretend to civic-mindedness while cranking out as many licensed customers as possible. The fact that this organization has forced the states to accept its monopoly on motorcycle safety training is all the evidence anyone should need to know this is a fact.


  1. I took a class from you and John (I don't remember his last name) three years ago at Century College. I still use some of the advice and catch phrases you told us in the class, like "they aren't out to get you if they don't even know you are there." Sorry you aren't teaching any more.

    1. Thanks for the kind comment. There were many things I enjoyed about teaching motorcycle classes in Minnesota; the students were high on that list.


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