The Epistemological Ecosystem and the Great Lie in Education
There is a great lie that has become accepted as “truth” in modern education. Educators and public school systems require a set of standards in order to know what they are to teach and when to teach it. Within the span of my career, the politics and profession of education has moved from local decision-making about curriculum to accepted state-sponsored, mandated-by-law curriculum in the form of standards measured by standardized tests. While we argue politically from left to right about the content of state-mandated standards and standardized tests, we are no longer even debating the validity of their very existence, or any unintended consequences of such mandates. This is Mother Culture at its finest, quietly whispering in our ears, telling us that this is the way it has been and shall be.
To explore the potential impact of this let’s conduct a thought experiment to use what we know about the evolution of biological systems to examine the evolution of the collected knowledge (what I will call the epistemological ecosystem) of a society to be passed on from one generation to the next. Living systems evolve as the genes of a population are modified in response to changing environments. The epistemological ecosystem of our collected knowledge also evolves as a response to changing stimuli and environmental pressure. Where nature selects traits to be passed on, society selects ideas to be passed on. Richard Dawkins called them memes, a term which has now been co-opted by internet kittens.
So here are some questions to drive our thought experiment. Can a democracy survive if the natural evolution of the epistemological ecosystem is interrupted? Will the next great leaps of knowledge which might allow the epistemological ecosystem to respond to changes in the environment (both social and natural) occur if the end goal of the discovery of the process of learning is written into law? Why have we accepted this truth that what is to be known about a given subject can be properly written into law and then properly transmitted to the next generation?
This is the great lie in education. What does history tell us about the stability of social systems or biological systems when the system itself is not allowed to evolve and respond to change? Can a society be stable if the very essence of that society’s story is allowed to be controlled by a select few? Continuing with our comparison of the epistemological ecosystem to a biological system, in the case of education and the implementation of standards, this creates a situation analogous to a biological system in which the genome is artificially manipulated and engineered. In the biological systems this can work (to a point), but you have to know what the end goal is for which you are artificially selecting traits. Therefore, this does not allow for adaptation to the unknown. In fact, artificially selected sub-species, such as the domesticated dog, are no ill-equipped for survival in the ecosystems from which they originally evolved. Might the same be true for our “artificially selected” epistemological ecosystem?
My colleague calls the implementation of standards and the engineering of the landscape of ideas and knowledge through the legalization of education standards as the “eminent domain of ideas.” Can an education system such as we have today—when the answer to the very questions we are charged to pose and investigate are written into statute eventually produce the next Galileo, Newton, Einstein, Shakespeare, Plato, Gates or Steve Jobs? Would the very state and democratic system of freedom to pursue happiness envisioned by minds such as Franklin and Jefferson come to pass from today’s education system? I’m almost afraid to ask the question because the answer might undermine everything I do professionally.
This could be the crisis of perception we face in education. This question is of course asked from my perception of an educator who has spent an entire career (so far) within the system I now question. The conversation of what to teach and what knowledge to transfer from one generation to the next has been a constant in education and certainly in American education, but I believe (though not completely confident) that it is within the span of my career that it has become a state-sponsored, mandated set of ideas. Prior to that, the content of what was taught was subject to the “natural selection” of those ideas within the ecosystem of the greater story we told as a society. This of course meant that the story could change and evolve as the ideas changed and evolved. Just as life on earth changes and evolves on the earth in response to the earth and in turn the earth itself changes and evolves, so too is the relationship between the story a society enacts and the memes that make up that society’s story evolve together. And it is that co-evolution that has produced the amazing achievements of our species—and also the catastrophic achievements of our species.
But having a predetermined set of state-sponsored ideas removes the possible organic evolution of those ideas within the epistemological ecosystem in which they reside. This is the same as removing the pressures of natural selection from a biological population, which then results in stagnation of that genome and species.
And what does the natural system of this planet tell us happens to a species that lacks the genetic capability to adapt and evolve? Can a species survive with a fixed genome? Can a society survive with a fixed “memome” (as gene is to genome, meme is to memome)? We may still produce better widgets in this predetermined education system, better workers, better citizens at compliance, but if the story we enact no longer is evolving, are we just building a better mousetrap within which we will be continually caught and then stagnate?
Seriously, I’m asking. I don’t know, but I think we need to purposefully engage in this question before we pass one more state-mandated standard and write one more state-sponsored test.
Here is what I do know. I am glad we live in a society where I can safely ask these questions, and that it even occurs to me to ask the question. At what point will it come to pass where it isn’t safe to (legally or simply for career security) ask these questions? Or worse yet, at what point do we become so fixed in what we know and teach, that it would never even occur to me to ask the questions. At that point we would have truly halted the evolution of knowledge and ideas. And then, at that point the epistemological ecosystem collapses.
One thought on “The Epistemological Ecosystem and the Great Lie in Education”
Thanks for posing the question Tim. It is a really important one. As an educator I remind myself to think about this question: “What is education for?”