"A system cannot fail those it was never meant to protect." W.E.B. Du Bois
They say the political system in our country is broken because it produces nothing but partisan bickering and legislative gridlock. They say our tax system is broken because it demands too much (or too little) from Group X and spends too much (or too little) on Cause Z. They say our education system is broken because…well, for all sorts of reasons, depending on who’s talking. Educators are addicted to faddish reforms, or educators are hopelessly resistant to change. Whichever side you pick, the headline is the same: the system is broken.
We used to see ourselves as a country of engineers and tinkerers, mechanics and inventors, and yet we can’t seem to fix the systems we complain about. Why is that? Have we become hopelessly inept? During World War II, we had the ever-resourceful, wisecracking rabbit, Bugs Bunny, as our cartoon icon. He could outsmart any foe and solve any problem. Now we have the hapless dunderdead, Homer Simpson. Does that really reflect who we have become?
I don’t think so. We are still a resourceful, inventive, curious nation, eager to try new things and tinker with the old. I think our problem is that we’re trying to fix things that aren’t technically broken. Our systems work fine. In fact, our systems are perfect.
I know that sounds impossible. Allow me to explain.
What’s in a Name?
Some definitions of the word “system” include:
· An assemblage or combination of things or parts forming a complex or unitary whole;
· Any assemblage order of correlated members;
· A coordinated body of methods or a scheme or plan of procedure; organizational scheme;
· Any formulated, regular, or special method or plan of procedure
Common to all of these definitions is the idea of a coming-together of disparate parts or pieces into something sensible and whole. A system is not a random lump; the pieces are combined, correlated, coordinated, and arranged for some purpose. Whoever or whatever does the combining or coordinating has a plan in mind. A system is built to do something. That’s what makes it a system.
Our bodies are composed of a variety of systems which have developed over thousands of years. We have a skeletal system, a nervous system, a pulmonary system, a cardiovascular system, and a digestive system. Each is made up of different elements that work together to perform steps of a complex task. Genetic mutation and environmental pressure have shaped and changed these systems to do exactly what they currently do, for better or for worse.
We like to think that our human-created systems, like schools and governments, are born of more precise planning, engineering, and construction, but they have evolved over time, just like our biological systems. Sometimes, we may feel as though time and pressure have warped what we have built beyond recognition. But however clumsy and jerry-rigged our systems may appear to us, they do still perform a function. They lead to a particular result. And if they deliver that result in a consistent and reliable and predictable fashion, we can’t really call them broken. They work. They work quite well. They have become efficient machines for producing…whatever it is they produce.
Machines Define Themselves
Case in point: if our Congress is now a place where compromise has become impossible and compromisers have become unelectable, then Congress has clearly become a system that produces gridlock. That is what the machine does. If it produces gridlock in a consistent and reliable and predictable fashion, then it’s an efficient gridlock machine—maybe even a perfect one.
We claim we don’t want the gridlock and intransigence that Congress is mired in, but is that true? The environmental pressures that have mutated the system haven’t come from famine, or war, or an ice age. They’ve come from us. Everything we’ve done to tinker with this system over the years has deepened the inability for representatives to compromise with each other. We’ve done that. In my lifetime, we’ve gotten gridlock down to a science. If we don’t like the result, why have we adapted the machine to be so good at delivering it? Are we just stupid? Or are we not being honest with ourselves about what we want?
Sometimes our problems with systems don’t come from the evolutionary adaptations, but from the original designs. Our public school system has been changed and tinkered with relentlessly over the years, but the machine still adheres closely to the original blueprint. We often forget what the machine was meant to produce. Our schools were developed, based on a model imported from Prussia, to process immigrants into citizens and citizens into workers, to drive the new, industrial economy. Our school system was built to be our country’s E Pluribus Unum machine: take the Many and turn them into the One. Take the children of the loud, chaotic rabble and teach them how to sit still at a desk, all in a row, and speak only when called upon by the teacher. Free spirits, both real and fictional (hello, Tom Sawyer) have always identified school as the enemy of freedom, and they haven’t been completely wrong about that. Freedom was never the point of school. Induction into adult society—specifically the 19th and 20th century industrial economy—was the point. And it has delivered a fairly predictable, consistent product—so much so that a major issue of the Civil Rights Movement was ensuring that all children be allowed to participate in the system and emerge from it on a par with their peers, regardless of color.
Now, we can complain that our schools don’t do enough to develop critical thinking, personal autonomy, and creative expression. We can complain that they don’t help teachers differentiate and personalize instruction to meet the individual needs of an increasingly diverse student body. We can complain that they should be laboratories of scientific innovation, or that they should focus on creation of authentic products rather than the mastery of standardized tests. We can even complain that the kinds of workers we need today require a different kind of processing machine. All of these things may be true and important and wonderful, but the complaints live firmly in the world of “should.” Our schools, by and large, do not do these things, because that’s not what they were built to do.
Of course we get outliers from time to time—exceptional students, iconoclastic teachers, trailblazing schools. Every bell curve has its outliers. But the anomalies do not define the machine; the core product does. And the core product has been sameness for many years--well behaved, employable sameness. The machine has been quite effective at churning out that product. The problem is not that the system is broken. In fact, the system seems pretty indestructible.
Fixing the Washing Machine
So here is the challenge. We have to decide what we want, and then assess whether the system we have is the right system for delivering the end-product we desire. That’s what we need to do, but it’s not what we tend to do. We tend to start with the system that’s already in place, assuming it’s a permanent, necessary part of our lives. It’s always been there; it’s always going to be there. It’s inescapable. And so we try to wrangle and mangle the system into new shapes to meet our changing needs.
With some systems, that’s a sensible course of action. Some systems can accommodate change better than others. The United States Constitution has a built-in process for revision and updating, which is one of the reasons it continues to serve us. If Congress as it currently functions is not serving our needs, there are mechanisms for fixing it. We do not need to break it and create something different. All we need to do is agree on what we want. If that is more than we’re capable of doing, it’s a reflection on us, not the system. The system’s intransigence reflects our ambivalence.
That may be what’s happening in our public education system, as well. Perhaps it is wonderfully open to change, and we simply can’t agree on what we want to do with it. If that is the case, then our challenge is finding consensus…which would be a serious challenge, given our recent experience with adopting the Common Core State Standards.
But I think there’s another problem, beyond consensus. Some systems are just not well-designed for change, and when we try to monkey around with them, our adaptations can create more havoc than good. Even if we have universal agreement on how we want to change a system, we may find that the original, historical design is now so divorced from our needs that it can’t serve as a useful platform anymore. The base of the structure remains unchanged, but we tinker with everything built on top of it, until the entire structure becomes patchwork-y and unstable. And when the structure of “reform” finally collapses, it’s the solid base—the original design—that remains. You can’t change the top if you don’t change the bottom. That’s what I think is happening in our schools.
Here’s a perhaps-clumsy analogy. The washing machine is a simple and straightforward machine. We know what it’s good for, and what it can do. But if you need a dryer instead, do you take your washing machine apart and try to turn it into that dryer—something it was never meant to be and is ill-equipped to be? Or do you go out and buy what you need? I think even Homer Simpson would know which choice was more logical.
It’s not rocket science. A system built to do X will always want to do X. It’s good at doing X. It’s happy doing X. The more you try to pull it away from its original function, the ricketier and more unstable it becomes. Sometimes, starting from scratch just makes more sense. Why spend your life fighting against something’s primary essence and definition?
Is American public education becoming one of these monsters? I wonder. Can we take the traditional school house and school schedule, subdivided into discrete rooms and discrete class periods, each in a particular place, run by a particular teacher, designed for the particular purposes we discussed above, and transform it into a place of individualized and collaborative, project-based and mastery-based learning? We’re certainly trying our hardest. Sometimes we even succeed. But let’s be fair: it’s not what the system was built for, and there will always be a tension between what it was designed to do and what we’re trying to make it do. The way the school is built makes it easy to separate students and separate subjects and use class time to do one thing at a time, driven by the teacher who stands at the head of the room and performs for her audience. It is a perfect system for doing that. We can force it to do other things, but it’s always going to be a challenging. It’s always going to be an uncomfortable fit. We will always—always—have to place ourselves between our reforms and the system’s original function, holding the reversion-to-form at bay with brute strength.
I don’t believe the only way to effect change is to live in that eternal tension—keeping systems from doing what they were designed to do. I think if you need a clothes dryer, you should go out and get a clothes dryer. And if the machine you need doesn’t exit, then maybe you should build one. Starting from scratch isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
What if we could start from scratch? What if we could build a school that reliably, consistently, and predictably produced the kinds of young adults we say we need in the brave new world of the 21st Century? What would such a place look like? How would it function? If we could (just for a moment) forget about the systems we’ve inherited, the buildings we’re stuck with, and the behaviors we assume are inevitable—if we could pretend that we were inventing the idea of School from Day 1—tabula rasa—what would we dream up?
Bugs Bunny used to stare down the barrel of a shotgun, stick his finger in the hole, and say, “What’s up, Doc?” And either his adversary pulled the trigger and had the gun blow up in his own face, or the sheer audacity of Bugs standing up to him made him stand down and lower his weapon. Bugs wasn’t just smarter than everyone around him. He was also courageous, optimistic, and—even when facing the shotgun barrel—good-humored. That’s why our fighter pilots used to paint his picture on their planes.
I say it’s time to start channeling Bugs again. I say it’s time to stop reacting to everything that’s wrong with a hopeless slap on the forehead and a Simpson-esque cry of, “D’oh!” What defined this country in its infancy was a refusal to accept the inheritance of history as inevitable—an insistence on re-looking, re-thinking, and re-forming all systems to create a truly new world. Whatever the problems before us, I believe we can figure out how to answer the question, “What would it take…?” But first we have to ask, “What if…?”