Tuesday, November 01, 2011

The Problem Is Older Than the Factory

by John T. Spencer

"Dad, if ants are so strong why can't we just make really big machines that are built like ants and can carry heavy stuff for us?" Joel asks me.

Being a first-grader, I struggle with how to teach the difficulty of scalability.

"Sometimes things that work in small spaces don't work when they get too big," I tell him.

"Show me," he dares.

So we build a small Lego structure that works wonderfully as at four inches tall.  However when we attempt to create a human-size version it collapses.

"That's the problem," I tell him.

I don't get into the formulas involved, but he's able to grasp in a very tangible way that small things when scaled to larger spaces don't always function as well.

*     *     *
I've been re-reading Socrates lately.  I find it interesting that the same man (presumably) who had engaged in critical dialogue within the public realm had concocted a militaristic, standardized, heavy-handed, prescriptive solution for education.  When I re-read The Republic, I am struck by how benign Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind seem.

It would be easy to condemn The Republic as a dystopian fantasy for an ideal society based upon coercion and social conditioning.  However, it seems to me that Socrates crafted his vision for Athens based upon what worked for Sparta. The real issue isn't that it was bad ideology (which, in my pseudo-libertarian worldview, I see as a truth) but that it didn't fit the context of Athens.

As much of a genius as Socrates was, he failed to grasp the reality of context, models and scalability.   He assumed that what worked with one type of person or one local politic would transfer trans-geographically to a new context without any hiccups.

This has me thinking that the real issue might not be factory education and the real solution might not be as simple as applying home-school, unschool, charter school, private school, Waldorf, Montessori, KIPP, PLC, BYOD or LSD across the spectrum.   It's why, as amazing as Finland may be, I don't think the solution will be to copy them, either.  We can rail about industrial education, but culprit has less to do with the factory model as much as the reality that the model was applied top-down to all public schools while ignoring the sense of nuance, paradox and context implicit in every educational experience.

The real issue goes further back than the factory and probably further back than Socrates.  It's the idea of enforcing one idea, one system and one model across the board and assuming that it will work.  It's not so much the problem of one-size-fits-all (in a true one-size-fits-all there is room within the fitting for customization) but a one-fit-sizes-all where the "fit" is used to size up every person, place and institution that doesn't conform to a particular standard.

The real issue is arrogance*.

When I think of where to go with educational reform, I look again at Socrates - though not so much in his grandiose dream of an educational utopia.  Instead, I yearn for the Socrates of the street or of Jesus or of any other rabble-rouser who began with humility, with questions and with the notion that challenging social norms through real dialogue is the only way that sustainable social change will occur.  

*And I've often been the one laying out grand plans for what I think works in education.


  1. Disclaimer:
    I am a history geek and I know that the idea of Socrates ripping his ideas from Sparta is contentious (though not unfounded). I also know that the guy was a little creepy at times.

  2. John,
    You have hit upon major issues -- scalability and the arrogance that everyone has to do it one way. If anything should be learned from the drive for differentiation, it is that students, teachers, administrators, schools and communities also need differentiation. What works and fits in one region could be simply ridiculous for another region. We have tried to solve the problem from the macro side, when the only real solutions need to come from the micro side.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic.


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