In his classic study Systemantics, author John Gall presents a compelling case for the proposition that human systems of all kinds, no matter their origins or aims, will operate in failure mode –— the overwhelmingly greater part of the time. System failure in Gall’s analysis is determined by the comparison of the system’s ostensible aims with its observable behavior and performance. His argument has many similarities to the observations of such thinkers as Cyril Northcote Parkinson, author Jerry Pournelle, historian Robert Conquest, sociologist Robert Michels, and Public Choice economists James Buchanan, Gordon Tullock, and Mancur Olson. And indeed, the available evidence strongly supports Gall’s assertion.
Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy nicely summarizes the rot at the heart of the majority of failing systems:
…in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organization, and those who work for the organization itself. Examples in education would be teachers who work and sacrifice to teach children, vs. union representatives who work to protect any teacher including the most incompetent. The Iron Law states that in all cases, the second type of person will always gain control of the organization, and will always write the rules under which the organization functions.
This can be compared to the Iron law of oligarchy.
Visible evidence of this phenomenon is all around us. I can hardly name a human system that deviates from the pattern. Yet we are constantly told by the bureaucracies’ spokesmen – and would someone please tell me why a bureaucracy should have a spokesman? – that all is well, things are, if not perfect, at least acceptable, and with time they’ll get better yet. “We’re working on it,” the spokesdroids assure us. “Just give us time…and more money.” Their programming permits them to issue no other explanation.
When we speak of the problems with education in America, we almost always have the government-run “public” schools in mind. (Colleges and universities are a separate study.) It has been plain for some time that this system is in a condition of failure so horrendous that virtually any alternative would be preferable. Yet the system, which has great size, huge resources, and enormous political clout, manages to maneuver both to retain its privileged, tax-funded position and to obstruct alternatives that outperform it.
Today I have three stories that bear upon this problem:
- Virginia teachers refuse to teach kids about communism.
- No honors classes in Los Angeles-area school district.
- Don’t you dare to protest porn in the schools!
Would any Gentle Reader care to argue that these stories don’t constitute strong evidence of failing systems, according to the criterion I stated above? Yet such developments are legion, from coast to coast. Parents sincerely concerned with their kids’ educations are furious about them. School board meetings are rife with anger and demands for change. And year after year, nothing changes.
The problem is system. Not “the system,” but system itself: i.e., the notion that a systematized institution for this purpose can remain true to its ostensible aims for more than a generation. Within two decades any such system will be infiltrated, colonized, and conquered from within by the very forces we would move heaven and earth to exclude from it. After that, it will co-opt any attempt to “reform” it by the very methods it used to suborn it.
As regards specific practices in the schools, this essay provides important illumination:
I’ve surely made it clear that I’ve very little (and by ‘little’, I mean less than zero) respect for the textbooks, materials, and purposes, employed in our schools today, but as bad as the sketchy facts, ideological spin, and lies by omission or commission (hello 1619 Project) of most educational content is, those alone don’t have the power to implant their ‘key facts’ into a bored student’s memory, or to significantly alter how they think. How such materials leave their mark on a student’s mind has less to do with what’s laid out on the page in black & white, than with what questions are asked, and how they’re expected to answer them. Schools devote a significant amount of time to drilling in the habit of how students are expected to ask and answer questions (quizzes, worksheets, tests, homework), because that pattern is what will persist in their thoughts & actions long after the ‘key facts’ and details of their more recent test scores, or total cumulative GPA, have been forgotten.
Please read it all.
The fundamental fact about the failure of the educational system is not the specifics of what’s being taught, though that’s execrable enough, but the inexorable internal dynamic that has corrupted it. Allow me to lay out a skeleton for you:
- The system originates under full local control.
- Persons with varying motivations enter its gates. Some do so out of a love for knowledge; others for the opportunities to profit in various ways. The latter group includes a few power-seekers uninterested in education as we’ve classically understood it.
- Over time, the power-seekers rise to positions of power. Thereafter, they arrange that persons of like mind will be favored in all matters over which they have sway. Over time the purely self-interested align themselves with the power-seekers; it’s their best prospect for continued gain and job security.
- The power-seekers solicit the state governments to become involved in funding, curriculum, and the rules that govern teacher advancement. The politicians are happy to comply.
- Rules proliferate that disfavor the Socratic-style teacher who strives to impart understanding, encourage critical thought, and foster independence of mind. After all, they make the “drill” instructors look bad, and we can’t have that.
- It now becomes vital that dissenters in the ranks be silenced or driven out of the system. Teachers are no longer free to follow the Socratic method; this is rendered impossible by system-wide standardized tests and methods of assessment.
- Parents and others outside the system start to notice that while Johnny might be able to read and cipher, he hasn’t learned to think in a logical and organized manner, and is without any idea how to go about researching a matter in which he has not been drilled. Attempts by persons outside the system to investigate the reasons for these deteriorations are thwarted or deflected by a variety of methods.
- Those within the system focus ever more narrowly on ensuring that it will serve their own interests. Political forces are led to cooperate with their efforts through various incentives.
It’s the way of things in the American education system and has been so from John Dewey, if not even earlier.
It would do your kids little good to recur to “private” schooling. Those institutions are about as far gone as any element in the government-run system. Even Catholic education has been greatly degraded by the developments of the century and more behind us. The emphasis on standardized tests composed of multiple-choice questions gradable with an “answer key” is to blame – less work for the teachers and their aides, right? – and little can be done about it.
This time around, there is a Last Graf: Keep your kids out of the system if at all possible. To those who operate the system, your children are bargaining chips with which to squeeze money and other perquisites from you and from local and state governments. Any notion you might have to the contrary will be shouted down at the very least. At the worst, you could find yourself under the crosshairs of the FBI, like Terry Newsome and others. Verbum sat sapienti.