Education and Standards, Part IV

politicians as kingsJoseph Tainter wrote a book called The Collapse of Complex Societies about which, to be honest, I know nothing about except that Rick Saenz mentioned it, which makes it automatically one I suspect will be both interesting and confusing.  Well, happily for us or this discussion would really be going nowhere, Rick did more than mention it– he quoted at length from what he calls: ” this excellent summary of Tainter’s thesis by Clay Shirkey” and added some quite perspicacious comments of his own which you should certainly read.  Taiter and Shirkey are talking about big things- governments, nations, empires.  I’m only going to talk about small things, or things that should be small, and that is kids’ schools- schools that should be, and perhaps once were, actually for the children, but now are widely recognized as being primarily for the benefit of the bureaucracy itself.   More on that, I think, later in this post.  I’m writing off the cuff right now, and it’s one in the morning and I may regret this later (or you will).

So here are some of the things Shirkey says Tainter says about whether or not he could find any common causes of the sudden collapses of these amazing empires of the past- the idea is that for whatever reason a society finds itself with a surplus of resources, it also finds itself with a need for more complex ways of managing those resources, which is all very lovely for a little while because those complexities make it possible to grow more grain, build bigger and better barns, and do things more and more efficiently.


(Y’all do remember this is the one o’clock AM rambling rendition of a personalized paraphrase of a paraphrase, right?)


Early on, the marginal value of this complexity is positive—each additional bit of complexity more than pays for itself in improved output—but over time, the law of diminishing returns reduces the marginal value, until it disappears completely. At this point, any additional complexity is pure cost.
Tainter’s thesis is that when society’s elite members add one layer of bureaucracy or demand one tribute too many, they end up extracting all the value from their environment it is possible to extract and then some.

The And Then Some doesn’t work out very well.  The best response would be some flexibility, downsizing, simplification, removing layers of bureaucracy, and onlookers (I imagine both contemporary and historical) wonder why ‘they’ don’t do this.  Tainter (and Shirkey) says it is because this behemoth of bureaucracies simply can’t.

In such systems, there is no way to make things a little bit simpler – the whole edifice becomes a huge, interlocking system not readily amenable to change….Furthermore, even when moderate adjustments could be made, they tend to be resisted, because any simplification discomfits elites.
When the value of complexity turns negative, a society plagued by an inability to react remains as complex as ever, right up to the moment where it becomes suddenly and dramatically simpler, which is to say right up to the moment of collapse. Collapse is simply the last remaining method of simplification.

I should have mentioned the emphasis is Rick’s.  In this paragraph I would have emphasized these bits as well:
…any simplification discomfits elites.
Collapse is simply the last remaining method of simplification.

The idea that there is resistance to moderate simplifications because it discomfits the elite- does that not sound like public schools to you? By ‘elites’ I don’t mean the poor individual teachers, who are primarily the water boys and dogsbodies of the educational establishment – but union leaders, administrative departments, and those who establish the curriculum and indoctrination de jour at teacher’s training schools.

Rick says that part of the problem is the modern’s slavish devotion to efficiency.  It is the hobgoblin of little minds.  Being inefficient, I would say that, wouldn’t I?  But Rick’s point makes sense.  He says:

  We are unable to simplify because we see it (usually correctly) as introducing inefficiency, something the modern mind recoils from in horror.

This is why we no longer have small neighborhood schools where children can walk home for lunch, but we bus them great distances to the edges and outskirts of town- the small neighborhood schools were perceived to be inefficient- and so they were- for the bureaucracy.  Rick talks about meat production and slaughterhouses (and their reduced numbers and decreasing availability) as one example of this:

Sharon Astyk has a good post explaining how the shortage of slaughterhouses is really just one consequence of adopting the industrial system of food production. The industrial system does not simply provide a cheap and prolific alternative to older, less efficient methods of producing food, it necessarily crowds out those older methods. Industrial production starts with a universal claim—all food production comes under its domain—and it takes additional effort and regulation to restrain it so that the older methods can coexist with it.

To return (supposing we ever left) to the analogy of food and education, we can say as well that the shortage of neighborhood schools and the objections to free market solutions like vouchers or private in-home schools like the old dame schools is just one consequence of adopting the industrial, government institution model of education production- indeed, of thinking about education as a product instead of a lifelong organic process. We even have the parallel attempts at regulatory squeezing out of all competition.

That government (and the bureaucracy) sees education as production (and not necessarily a production for the benefit of the students as we saw in the arguments over cutting school to four days a week) is not a new or original observation.  It’s a natural first step in seeing the books as a delivery system.  Public schools are not the only culprits.  As Cindy wrote here:

It has almost seemed to me that in some ways classical education leaves the train station going the opposite direction of the modern era but ends up at the same place over and over again in a never ending loop. Classical education almost degenerates once again into a sort of Prussian exactness. This exactness is so appealing. It gives us a feeling of accomplishment and success.  It allows us to focus on classroom management rather than ideas.  We use the tools of learning as weapons against our students. We don’t give them the tools, we use the tools on them.

We use the tools on the children. This great truth is one the epic philosopher Roger Waters attempted to convey as well:

Milton's Comus, Lycidas and other poems and matthew arnold's address on miltonIt is the nature of an institution to perpetuate itself. This is how good and excellent books become merely a delivery system, a means to a strangely divised compartmentalization of ends we call ‘standards.’ It is a mystery to me why homeschoolers (including myself) and private schoolers appropriate the tools of that institution and embrace them for home use.

It’s not a total mystery- I see the attraction. As Brandy at Afterhoughts wrote in response to Cindy’s post:

There is so much pressure from all sides to measure, in some way, what we are doing, so that we have something to “show” for what we are doing. Something to put on display for others. Something to prove that we’ve made the right choice in homeschooling our children in the first place. It is SO hard, I think, to withstand that.

There are two sides, and there is a place for the easily measured topics- math, library skills, etc.
Because this side is , quicker, easier, and more obvious, it’s also more seductive. When I am not careful I notice that gradually over time my children’s school schedule fills up more and more with these nasty encroaching measurables, while the other, more important things get crowded out.

It is a constant battle.

For me, anyway, and I know better.

What do you think?


Part III
Here is part II
Here is part I

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