In the new film Waiting for "Superman", which chronicles the collapse of the American educational system, a forlorn mother waits in a gymnasium with thousands of other parents for her lottery number to be called. The drawing will determine which students will attend a good school, and which will be relegated to a failing institution. The mother explains the gravity of the situation: "It's the difference between whether my son goes to college, or goes to prison..."
How did we allow our educational systems to fall so far, so fast? When did the welfare of our children go the same way as health care, the safety of our food and the callous obliteration of our environment? How did we allow ourselves to become obese, dependent on antidepressants, and willing to wage inhumane wars over oil, land and beliefs?
Something is happening. Everyone knows we are leaving a worse world behind for our children.
Up to this point, we have been looking at these problems as separate issues. Would it surprise you to know that there is a dangerous commonality emerging -- an intricate interconnectedness between our seemingly intractable problems?
In The Watchman's Rattle: Thinking Our Way Out of Extinction, I describe a context, a framework, an explanation for our inability to address our greatest threats by going straight to the source of the problem. The book points to the fact that our most challenging problems have one frightening characteristic in common: they are so complex, so difficult to get our arms around, that they may be beyond the capabilities the human brain has evolved to this point. After all, there is a limit to what our brains have physically evolved to fix.
In the book, I explain that complexity is a condition where there are many more wrong choices than right ones. So over time, we become "incompetent pickers" who can't determine which solutions will work.
When complexity makes it impossible to obtain facts and proceed on a rational basis, humans have a history of conveniently substituting facts with unproven beliefs. This substitution preceded the collapse of every great civilization before our time: it happened to the Mayans, the Romans, the Khmer, and the Egyptians. The powerful, pervasive beliefs and behaviors we adopt in lieu of facts are called supermemes (named after Richard Dawkins' 1976 discovery of memes; described as an idea, value, or pattern of behavior that is passed from one person to another by non-genetic means).
Which supermemes currently prevent progress in education? The Watchman's Rattle describes five universal behaviors that inhibit solving the problem once and for all:
1) Irrational Opposition: This occurs when people are more comfortable rejecting remedies rather than advocating solutions. If every solution that is proposed can be found to be flawed, then none will be adopted. Simply put, across-the-board opposition results in gridlock.
2) Counterfeit Correlation: When we hastily determine the relationship between a cause and effect(s), this leads to an incorrect diagnosis of our problems. We are left to pursue one ineffective remedy after another, all the while wasting precious time and resources as the problem continues to grow in magnitude. In the case of education, we have sited everything from outdated textbooks, the eradication of physical education, poor school lunch programs and low teacher salaries as the culprit -- but how many of these quick fixes are based on valid scientific studies?
3) Personalization of Blame: As soon as we hold each individual accountable for debt, obesity, and depression, and other such issues, society is off the hook. Blame the parents for the fact that they aren't more involved in their children's education and the systemic problem doesn't have to be addressed.
4) Silo Thinking: In tackling complex, multi-dimensional problems, it is crucial that nations, organizations, and individuals work in tandem. Adopting a territorial mindset greatly impedes progress. In the case of education, why aren't neuroscientists who understand how the human brain learns part of the discussion? Does it make sense to fix education without first understanding how the brain loads content, solves problems and retains information?
5) Extreme Economics: The financial bottom line becomes the unilateral litmus test in determining which solutions are valid. Economic considerations drive decisions for everything, from hospital care, immigration policy, to whether each child needs a locker, computer or physical education. We begin to speak in economic terms such as "investing in our children's education." Really? Since when was education an investment? It was supposed to be a "right."
It must be obvious by now that reforming the education system is a complex problem that cannot be solved by simply raising teacher salaries, increasing parental participation, or providing schools with the latest technology. Quick fixes don't make a dent when it comes to highly complex problems. The solution to complexity is to launch a wide variety of rational, progressive and innovative solutions in tandem. Some will succeed, some will fail, but we avoid the problem of trying to pick the winners from the losers when we no longer have the capability to. If we launch solutions aimed at overcoming all five of the supermemes that stand in the way of progress, there will no longer be any need for worried parents to sit in a gymnasium and hope they get lucky.
When it comes to education, here's the bottom line: In the battle between Superman and the Supermemes, who comes out on top?
And the time to decide is now.