At the heart of many of our problems today—and at the heart, too, of trying to understand them—is what I will call “system effects.”  The term has various meanings.  By it I will mean instances where the larger system in which an activity or institution is embedded severely effects or constrains what happens at the level of the activity or the institution.   System effects mean that studying something or intervening in something within a system is likely to be ineffective or misleading without due consideration to the larger system and its effects at lower levels.

A good example of system effects is school.  We have known for a long time now that the effects caused by poverty and family practices outweigh and constrain (though, of course, not entirely) the effects we can achieve by good teaching and good school reform practices.  Nonetheless, a great deal of research in education ignores the systems of societal inequality and family and community practices and relationships within which schools are embedded.

System effects raise deep problems.  If we ignore system effects we are kidding ourselves and, worse, perhaps, trying to hide realities we do not like behind claims that we can change things we cannot.  On the other hand, we often cannot change systems in radical ways.  And when we do try, things can go seriously awry in terms of unintended effects, since systems evolve in history through social trial and error (coupled with greed, power, and self-interest).  Bad as a system may be, it is often hard to do better than history has already done through contestation and tinkering through many years.

This dilemma is at the heart of what constitutes “liberals” (progressives) and a “conservatives”—historically and intellectually speaking, not in terms of our current, often embarrassing, politicians and politics in the United States.  Conservatives believe that it is risky to try to change large parts of systems or whole systems all at once.  Human intelligence is often not up to the task that it took history many years to accomplish.  Unintended effects can lead to worse systems and, historically, at the level of whole societies, have often led to tyrannies in the name of utopias.

Liberals believe that the effects of systems are often so unjust—and the proponents of these systems so corrupted by status and power or historical inertia—that systems must be changed and changed pretty drastically.  Otherwise people go on suffering, the rich get richer and the poor poorer, and we fail to really make any significant progress.  Today, liberals may well point out that times have changed so much, and are changing so fast as we speak, that many of our systems are badly out of sync with our current circumstances, problems, and demands.

Conservatives faced with social and political problems want to tinker carefully.  Liberals want to socially engineer new systems or transform significant parts of them.  Sometimes large-scale transformation makes things worse.  Sometimes tinkering is an excuse to leave things as they are because the status quo advantages the tinkerers; sometimes tinkering leaves morally unforgivable degrees of suffering in place.

There is no once and for all solution to these problems.  Open, critical, and practicallyminded discussion and argument between tinkerers and engineers needs to go on in the name of solutions and not ideology alone.  But this is something our politics has been incapable of for years now.

Work in educational research and in research in the social sciences more generally is vacuous if it does not deal directly with system effects and the deep dilemmas to which they give rise.  There has to be critical discussion between tinkerers (and they have to admit they are tinkering while people continue to suffer) and engineers (and they have to admit they may be proposing large-scale transformations whose effects they really cannot predict).  I see no such critical discussion happening in the educational literature, by and large.  I suppose this is in part because both educational liberals and conservatives are largely in the game for publications, tenure, status, and ideology, much like our politicians regarding the latter three.



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March 29th, 2018

The Interpreter System (7)

Let’s return to our diagram of a human being (or, “an enviro-human system”).  I want now to look just at […]

March 27th, 2018

Joint Actor Systems (6)

The diagram I used in the last post is misleading in that it makes things look more contained and bounded […]

March 26th, 2018

A Human Being (5)

Last time, we raised the question: “What is ‘Jim”?” (substitute your own name for “Jim” here).  We think of ourselves […]

March 25th, 2018

Jim and Identities/Discourses (4)

When we make a choice, who is making the choice?  We have already seen that there are lots of things […]

March 10th, 2018

Alternates (3)

When we make a choice about ourselves often that choice is vastly undetermined by the information we have available.  Say […]

March 7th, 2018

Flourishing (2)

It makes little sense to see a human being (or any other animal) as an individual making free choices.  In […]

February 25th, 2018

Free Will (1)

Note that the question of free will simply does not arise for animals.  We think that, even for intelligent species, […]

October 29th, 2017

The Principle of Charity

October 8th, 2017

Character Education

Recently, the College of Education at Arizona State University—where I work— received funding from the Kern Family Foundation to make […]

June 15th, 2017

Neoliberalism Part 6 (The End)

What killed people’s sense of mattering was the growth of very high levels of inequality.  What caused such high levels […]

June 14th, 2017

Neoliberalism Part 5

Many of us tend to think of history as a march forward and upward. So, we tend to interpret the […]

June 14th, 2017

Neoliberalism Part 4

The Catholic Church declined in three stages. The same was true for many other institutions.  “The Sixties” (roughly from 1963 […]

June 12th, 2017

Neoliberalism Part 3

Today, we have among the highest levels of inequality we have ever had.  Drug addiction, environmental degradation, flows of climate […]

June 11th, 2017

Neoliberalism Part 2

The British economist John Maynard Keynes and “Keynesian Economics” were foundational to the Bretton Woods Agreement and to the world […]

June 10th, 2017

Neoliberalism Part 1

Though neo-liberalism is the “usual suspect” for the miseries of our institutions and society, it is not nearly as relevant […]

May 30th, 2017

Main Points from My New Book

Teaching, Learning, Literary in our High-Risk, High-Tech World: A Framework for Becoming Human (Teachers College Press, 2017). Ignorance We humans […]

April 17th, 2017

The Importance of Discourse Analysis:
Step 10 The End

Neither love nor liking is necessary for the sorts of critical discussions among different frameworks that might lead to shared […]

April 15th, 2016

The Importance of Discourse Analysis:
Step 9 Interpretation

Goodwill.  What could possibly encourage people in a fractured and inequitable world to have goodwill?  I, for one, do not […]

April 14th, 2016

The Importance of Discourse Analysis:
Step 8 An Example

I want now to give an example of two different frameworks that certainly appear incommensurable.  My purpose here is make […]

April 12th, 2016

The Importance of Discourse Analysis:
Step 7 Discussion

We are at a critical juncture now in our attempt to understand why frameworks can cause us humans such grief.  […]