System Effects

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 practically-minded 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 in regard to the latter three.


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