The Pitfall of Education Utopianism

A friend of mine posted this thing on facebook the other day. It was an “education manifesto” from this guy Seth Godin:

As I read it, I of course found myself agreeing with most or all of it. Yes, the public schools have problems, and he offers some fabulous ideas for how to improve things.

But as I read it, I found myself saying, “Haven’t I heard all this somewhere before?”

Turns out that yes, I had. Similar criticisms of mainstream American public K-12 education, along with fairly similar thoughts on how it should be revamped, have been offered by various folks for years, including:

Ken Robinson

PBS’s Frontline

Ted Fujimoto

Sal Khan

Michael Moore

J.T Gatto

And, if you care to go back to the 60’s and 70’s,

John Holt

There seems to be no lack of intelligent critiques of the mainstream public school system, nor is there any lack of marvelous ideas for how to improve it.  Tens of millions of people have read these books or watched these presentations, so promotion has not been a problem.

But despite all these suggestions, there have been no major changes in the 40+ years that I have been observing the educational industrial complex.  Yes, there are pockets of changes and successes here and there, and many private schools have been doing this stuff from the get-go, but the mainstream public school “blob,” as some call it, has not changed significantly, even in the face of Finland’s demonstrated successes.  In fact, as standardized testing has become more prevalent, one could even argue that things have gotten worse, if you agree with Holt’s Tyranny of Testing.

I have a different conclusion here than what you might expect. I am starting to see a dark side to all these recurring education manifestos and TEDtalks and books and programs.

Functionally, for all their noble intentions, they are inadvertently working against their own stated goals, because by repeatedly presenting these retreaded idealistic visions of an education utopia, they are creating an illusion for the general populace that something is being done about the problem, when little or nothing really is.  This illusion feeds denial and complacency, and robs us of a much needed sense of urgency.

Well thought-out ideas are wonderful things, but, to again quote Peter Drucker: “Brilliant men are often remarkably ineffective. They fail to understand that brilliant insight by itself is not achievement.”


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