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It's the Complexity, Stupid

The next time you hear a politician or a talking head or someone who has no knowledge of education insist on a simple answer to a complex issue about our public schools, I have a suggestion. Just say no.
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The United States has degenerated into a social order that is awash in public stupidity and views critical thought as both a liability and a threat. Not only is this obvious in the presence of a celebrity culture that embraces the banal and idiotic, but also in the prevailing discourses and policies of a range of politicians and anti-public intellectuals who believe that the legacy of the Enlightenment needs to be reversed.
~Henry Giroux

The greatest threat to our nation's future may not be terrorism -- or a bad economy. The greatest threat may be a public school system that does not service our young people so that they can be contributing members of society, lead a full and rewarding life, and understand that they are stewards of the next version of life on our planet. And, the greatest threat to our schools may be the public's compulsion for simple answers to complex issues. Our thirst for simplification arises from a myriad of psychological and social forces and is fed by feckless politicians, ill-informed corporate media and unscrupulous business people who would very much like the public to remain unenlightened.

But first, you may well ask, what is so wrong with simplifying complex issues? Well, let's use educational success as an example. How do we measure student success in our public schools? Is it graduation rates, test scores, character building, social maturity, citizenship development, service learning, artistic sensibility, love for learning, compassionate treatment of others, perseverance, intellectual potential, all of these and more?

Even if we selected only one criterion, how would we measure it? Over time? How much time? As a growth model based on the individual student or on a comparison group? Would we account for brain growth spurts, the emotional jogs of childhood, family circumstances, wealth differences, abusive histories? What about learning disabilities? First time English language learners? What about those who can only do one thing well? Say a child who is gifted at drawing but can't do math or read very well? Would you label this child a failure?

There is no simple answer to the educational success question. Any moderately intelligent person who is paying even half a mind to the subject, can subscribe to the notion that even if there is an answer to how to measure educational success, it will be complex and multi-faceted.

So how did we become "awash in public stupidity" -- leaving our common sense behind -- when we think about our schools? How have students and teachers and schools been reduced to a number? Why is the reflex always to how we score on standardized tests? How has success been so thoughtlessly narrowed?

The public comes to understand their world through the filters of individual psychology and social cues. These filters are working overtime when it comes to the public's perceptions of schooling. Those who have studied how we make sense of the world know that there are mechanisms between thought and perception which are fragile and subject to manipulation.

In his masterful work, The Mismeasure of Man, (1981) Stephen Jay Gould takes on everything from craniometry to IQ tests, making the case that humans have a long and infamous history of mismeasuring one another. Two of the main culprits, according to Gould, are reification and rank. They are worth a closer look.

Reification is

". . . our tendency to convert abstract concepts into entities . . . We recognize the importance of mentality in our lives and wish to characterize it, in part so that we can make the divisions and distinctions among people that our cultural and political systems dictate. We therefore give the word 'intelligence' to this wondrously complex and multifaceted set of human capabilities. This shorthand symbol is then reified and intelligence achieves its dubious status as a unitary thing"

And rank is . . .

". . . our propensity for ordering complex variation as a gradual ascending scale . . . ranking requires a criterion for assigning all individuals to their proper status in the single series. And what better criterion than an objective number? Thus, the common style embodying both fallacies of thought has been quantification, or the measurement of intelligence as a single number for each person"

Gould's premise seems tailor made for the obsessions we see today in our schools with the scores on tests as a proxy for intelligence and sizing up our children, teachers, and schools - even our country -- in the test rankings sweepstakes.

And then there's heuristics.

A heuristic is a mental short cut, a way of simplifying complex phenomenon that we all use to get through our day. We don't have to deconstruct each part of the whole of a complex issue to believe we "understand" it. A word or a slogan or a dismissive remark about the space program or global warming is enough to satisfy. Tversky and Kahneman (1974) may have been the first researchers to systematically examine this construct. There definition of the availability heuristic is particularly appropriate to this discussion.

The availability heuristic is:

" . . . an oversimplified rule of thumb which occurs when people estimate the probability of an outcome based on how easy that outcome is to imagine. As such, vividly described, emotionally-charged possibilities will be perceived as being more likely than those that are harder to picture or are difficult to understand, resulting in a corresponding cognitive bias"

The public has little patience for developmentally appropriate education that takes longer, or deep learning that may not be readily translatable to a score, or individual approaches that can't be benchmarked to other learners, or the unpredictable days, weeks, months and years in the life of some classrooms. Better to have a test score that can be graphed for consumption in the local paper. Now that can be easily imagined. And even discussed with neighbors.

So, to lend legitimacy to the outrageous claim that schools are best measured by a number system, the policy makers, the corporate chiefs, and the media -- all crafty at reification, rank and heuristics -- trot out the numbers and demand accountability from a compliant public made stupid. Simplicity is the true-blooded American. Complexity is the illegal immigrant. Secure the borders.

But parents and teachers and students can fight back. We can speak up. We can opt-out. We can protest. We can embrace complexity.

The next time you hear a politician or a talking head or someone who has no knowledge of education insist on a simple answer to a complex issue about our public schools, I have a suggestion.

Just say no.

Giroux, Henry, (July 22, 2013) The United States Is Awash in Public Stupidity, and Critical Thought Is Under Assault, retrieved from

Gould, Stephen J. The Mismeasure of Man. New York, NY: Norton, 1981.

Tversky, Amos, and Daniel Kahneman. "Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases." Science 185 (1974).

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