Steady As She Goes: Why Education Is Durable

Steady As She Goes: Why Education Is Durable

In dire perpetual crisis, education must change, and it will change because it's really different this time around -- or is it?

The Steady As She Goes scenario reflects how formal education has pretty much operated for centuries: slow, incremental improvement of education with very gradual substantive change, punctuated by occasional fits of quick reform -- the introduction of mass education, the GI Bill, the community college explosion, etc.

It seems like most everyone wants to "fix" education -- Free Market Rules advocates want more business-driven solutions; Free Learning Rules proponents want more learner-centered solutions; Cyberdystopians want to halt the march of technology and restore more “human”-centered approaches. Not to mention the chorus of other voices who have been singing educational change for centuries. Calls to fix education tend to have this in common: the crisis is perpetually dire, and the need for change is always urgent.

And yet, if past history is any indication, the Steady As She Goes scenario is the one to bet on. In this scenario, education will continue to evolve slowly but steadily; there will be some bumps along the way, but they will be manageable, and relatively little substantive change will occur. This scenario may be the most difficult for some to imagine in this time of tumultuous change, but in many ways, it is the one most likely to occur most often. Ideas for change come and go, but education endures. Calls for radical change remain strong, but this too shall pass.

On the one side, we have the forces of change. There are the ones which occupy lots of attention on the surface here in the U.S. -- the financial/affordability crisis, the so-called "failure" of education, the need to be Number One in college graduation rates again. Then there are the deeper forces of change which I'll talk more about in later posts: the redefinition of knowledge, the redistribution of access, and the renegotiation of authority. The key question is, what driver or confluence of drivers will cause change this time around?

On the other side, we have education's remarkable durability. Although other commentators describe education as "conservative" or "obstinate" or worse, I prefer the word "durable" because, even though education is rightly noted for its stasis, resistance, and at times hostility to change, thinking of it as "durable" is more useful. Education is durable because it is a complex system which performs many vital societal functions. In his 1971 essay wishfully titled "School Is Dead," Everett Reimer recognized education’s remarkable capacity to endure even as he advocated for far more radical change. Reimer identified four principal functions of primary and secondary school, in descending order of importance as follows:

  1. custodial care
  2. social-role selection
  3. indoctrination
  4. cognitive learning

That sounds about right to me from a systems or Maslowian perspective. In Reimer's view, the custodial function is the primary one, as it "has a priority claim on school resources." Custodial care is the most basic; without it, school's other functions cannot be fulfilled -- not to mention that the US and other developed nations' economies utterly depend on dual-income families, which in turn utterly depend on this function of school. Education (specifically schools) remains the chief mechanism by which society socializes its young. While this role is now somewhat shared with popular culture (television et al.), economic participation (the mall), and now the Internet, the fact remains that America’s young still spend more of their time in schools, usually segregated in age-specific (and to some extent socioeconomic class-specific) environments. Primary and secondary schools are still society’s only “official” formal socializing mechanisms.

Since the disappearance of in loco parentis, higher education’s custodial role has largely diminished, although we are reminded that campus safety and security remain a basic issue when it is breached by tragedy, as in the Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois shootings. However, a college degree has become nearly indispensible for future employment prospects, and the traditional undergraduate collegiate experience retains its socialization function as a ‘rite of passage’ for millions of American young adults. Higher education also provides a multitude of other important social functions.

The complexity of education as a societal institution also contributes to its durability because any changes, even those which would improve learning, have multiple ancillary effects which must be taken into account. For example, granting in-school access to social networking tools such as IM or Facebook is not just a learning issue, but also a resource, classroom management, information technology, school policy, custodial, and socialization issue. Who’s going to be responsible for making sure that the school has adequate bandwidth? What liability does the school have if a student is assaulted by an online bully while in school? How to manage the seamless transition between learning and socializing which social networking tools enable? Advocates of change tend to overlook these considerations as they focus solely on the perceived learning benefits from a technological or other innovation. Educators actually in charge of making changes often struggle with the complexity of making changes in education, with one result being that changes often don’t happen; the status quo wins out, attesting to its durability.

Education’s durability is a double-edged sword: it protects to a large extent from destructive changes, but also has the same effect on constructive change. However, education is not impervious to change, although it is not particularly open to it either. As a result, education’s durability manifests itself in many varieties: resistance, stasis, and incremental change. More on those in the next posts...

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