Education reform is impossible.
You can reform particular organizations—a university or a department—but you cannot reform education as a whole. Why? Because education is a spontaneous order.
The term “spontaneous order” was coined by the economist F.A. Hayek to describe the market economy. He meant that no one designed the world of market exchange; it developed spontaneously as people sought to achieve their goals by coordinating with others in ways that they discovered over time.
But the term is broader. It refers to self-organizing networks of relationships that do not have a formal design—that interact according to the value of the components to each other—attracting and repulsing, cooperating and competing. We can find self-organizing networks in the molecular networks of living cells, the neural networks of brains, our social networks, the Internet.
For example, as the brain wires up, the neurons that fire together wire together. Any connections not used are trimmed. In early brain formation, the neurons compete with one another in order to cooperate with other neurons—the neurons that connect and cooperate are retained. Fortunately, the resemblance between neural spontaneous orders and markets is not perfect, since in the brain neurons that do not connect to many other neurons die off; humans just go look for another job.
Spontaneous orders are scale-free networks rather than hierarchical networks. That is, they have the same structure no matter how many parts they have; the parts participate equally and the connections build themselves from the bottom up.
That does not mean equal outcomes. If Bill Gates and I walk into a store and we each only have $10, we will get equal treatment in the market; but Bill Gates is a billionaire and I am not because Gates has engaged in far more economic interactions than I have. He has more links than I do. But his money is no more nor less green than mine.
Hierarchical networks, on the other hand, have unequal parts and are designed from the top down. If I were an employee at Microsoft, I would have to submit to Gates’ goals (actually, his successor’s goals); in the market, we each pursue our own goals, independent of each other.
Reforming education from top down with changes by regulation or legislation is impossible, just as socialism is impossible. You cannot make a spontaneous order do what you want it to do by imposing order from the top. In socialism, for example, top-down efforts may cause the interacting parts to act differently but not the way the power at the top wants them to.
Even reforms of a specific organization are going to have unforeseen and unintended consequences. Small changes can spread through the system rapidly, while large changes are just as likely to have little to no effect.
To illustrate, consider the move away from “standard grammar” when teaching English composition in college. In 1972, the Conference on College Composition said that students had a right "to their own patterns and varieties and language." Students were encouraged to write more expressive essays, and teaching students how to write was replaced by teaching the writing process—prewriting, drafting, revising, and editing. This took the pressure off high schools to teach grammar; soon, they too moved toward teaching the “writing process.”
This development took pressure off of middle schools, and the same pattern followed. In the past few years, teaching the writing process has even hit our kindergartens. The long-term result is that students enter college not knowing grammar, not knowing how to write, and with no idea they cannot write. All because some modest reforms spread quickly throughout the higher education spontaneous order.
Most reformers think of “education” as a hierarchical network—they focus on the organizations that conduct teaching. In their view, these can be reformed because 1) they were formed in the first place, and 2) being goal-directed, they can be redirected. In theory, this is possible. But given the size and complexity of most universities, even this is often problematic.
Organizations as large and complex as universities (let alone university systems) begin to look like spontaneous orders in structure—that is, one part affects another in a seemingly random pattern, as the components seek to benefit themselves. Since universities are actually goal-directed organizations, they can never actually become spontaneous orders; they will only be nodes in the network. But changes in them can also have unintended consequences—as with writing.
Further, revolutionary changes typically do not work well. The people involved have to buy in to the changes, and that rarely happens when there are radical breaks with the past. Consider the aftermath of the French Revolution (and all revolutions inspired by that one). People reacted so violently against it that there were mass murders eventually followed by a strict, ordering dictator more monarchical, in many ways, than the overturned regime. The American Revolution, on the other hand, was an evolutionary process. If anything, the American revolutionaries revolted because they wanted to maintain a more British tradition, which the English government was taking away. We can then see the gradual establishment, over many years, of what came to be our federal government.
As Hayek warned, for changes to take hold there has to be an evolutionary process in which what is new fits in with what has traditionally been in place, each negotiating with the other until change is realized.
What this means is that you have to get people to change their beliefs in order to reform education. Unfortunately, this has historically proven easier said than done.
This was demonstrated recently by David Prindle, a government professor at the University of Texas at Austin, speaking at a recent Association for Politics and the Life Sciences conference. Dr. Prindle taught a class called “Darwin and the Politics of Evolution.” He admitted his goal was to see if he could change his students’ minds from creationism to evolution by teaching about the controversy, which many proponents of evolution have suggested as a strategy. He polled his students before and after the course, initially finding the class about evenly split among supporters of evolution, creationists, and those who did not know. The class did a close reading of The Origin of Species, followed by a discussion of controversies among evolutionary biologists, followed by a discussion of evolution vs. creationism and intelligent design.
The result? He not only did not change any minds from creationism to evolution, he in fact lost students from the “don’t know” position to the creationist position. He even lost a few who had originally believed in evolution! The position of greater certainty proved more attractive, and students entrenched in that belief system did not move.
So what will change people’s minds to make social and institutional reform possible? Consider the changes in attitude toward gays and gay marriage. They did not come about from liberal professors preaching gay marriage in front of their classes. More important were such factors as the television sitcom Will and Grace, which featured two gay men as main characters. Empathy-creating stories created the soil in which change could spring up.
And it will be empathy-creating stories that will create the conditions for education reform. But we need to discover which kind of stories.
At the conference mentioned above, Hyo Jin Kim, an instructor at Texas Tech, spoke about the difficulties facing the government of South Korea as it tries to shift its focus from emphasizing economic growth alone to creating a culture that supports scientific discovery. But their efforts to create a science-loving culture through teaching science have failed.
There is, however, a subculture of South Koreans who are increasingly interested in science: science fiction fans. Fans of television shows like Dr. Who and Star Trek are taking it upon themselves to learn more science. This, Kim suggested, is where the science culture is likely to grow fastest in South Korea.
Similarly, the TV show The Big Bang Theory has resulted in increased interest in physics in the United States—even while our government’s increased emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) has had no visible effect. The number of STEM degrees has remained flat, even declining slightly. But the number of those going into physics has gone up considerably—17 percent for physics and 40 percent for astronomy—since The Big Bang Theory began.
In the end, if we are going to reform education, we must change people’s beliefs—and one changes beliefs through good stories. Spontaneous orders only change from the bottom up. Change the people’s beliefs, and you change the organizations, and you change the institution.
That is the only way education reform Is possible.