Some ideas from a recent post by Clay Shirky have been running around in my head for more than a week, although I’m not sure have enough of a grasp on them for this rant to make complete sense.
He starts with a book by an anthropologist and historian titled The Collapse of Complex Societies in which the author theorizes that past civilizations collapsed because they became too complex.
Complex societies collapse because, when some stress comes, those societies have become too inflexible to respond. In retrospect, this can seem mystifying. Why didn’t these societies just re-tool in less complex ways? The answer Tainter gives is the simplest one: When societies fail to respond to reduced circumstances through orderly downsizing, it isn’t because they don’t want to, it’s because they can’t.
Shirky sees a direct connection between those collapsing societies and some of the complex organizations with which he consults, particularly media companies that are largely in denial about the collapse of their traditional corporate models.
The focus of his entry is business, of course, but I wonder if Shirky’s thesis could also apply to public institutions that grow too large and inflexible to respond quickly to changes.
Like American education, an increasingly complex system that seems to define the concept of “too inflexible to respond”.
In discussing bureaucracies, Shirky notes that “it’s easier to make a process more complex than to make it simpler, and easier to create a new burden than kill an old one”.
That observation might very well apply to our overly-large school district, where we seem to spend a lot of time trying to write regulations to cover every possible contingency while discouraging individuals from experimenting with new ideas.
So, am I being too pessimistic in thinking that our educational bureaucracy (both local and not) is fast approaching that point where it’s too large to re-tool in less complex ways?
Have we grown too big not to fail?