Fits and Starts

Why is it so hard to change complex systems, such as political, economic, education, or natural systems such as ecosystems? Every aspect of our lives is governed by and exists as a network of interconnected systems—from atomic structure and behavior to cells to economics to ecosystems to the entire earth system.

Systems “prefer” to remain stable, meaning they have mechanisms to maintain the status quo, even when the status quo is a system snowballing wildly out of balance toward a crash. We see this with a natural system such as the earth’s climate but also in human-made systems such as economics, politics, education, etc.

The earth’s climate system naturally goes through periods of stability and instability. Like all systems it “prefers” stability and has negative feedback loops that maintain that stability until something whacks it out of balance and pushes it so far off center it cascades out of control for a bit until it stabilizes again and reestablishes a new balance. This is how systems evolve. In fits and starts. This happened 65 million years ago when the dinosaurs went extinct due to massive meteor impact. It’s happening now due to human activity pumping greenhouse cases into the atmosphere.

Ironically, it is political and economic systems that “prefer” their current state of inequality that provide the inertia preventing us from meaningful reform in actions to quell the snowballing effect of climate change. Those economic and political systems have some significant self-correcting feedback loops preventing change because those with the most influence and power benefit from exaggerated concentration of wealth and power. While of course there are malicious, greedy, even sociopathic individuals as a part of this decision-making ruling class, in aggregate it behaves as a system that you cannot assign nefarious motives to—except to maintain itself.  Social systems will resist change if those in power within those systems came to power because of those systems. There are always individual exceptions but taken as an aggregate this is the pattern.

The economic system of the United States for the last 40 years has redistributed and concentrated wealth to an ever-shrinking upper class and pushed more of the middle class into the poor working class as well as reinforcing racial stratification of power and wealth. Along with that wealth concentration came increased and concentrated political power. When there are attempts to disrupt that system, the system has responded with feedback loops to maintain the status quo of inequity. To maintain power, gerrymandering occurs, Citizen United ruling, laws making it harder to vote instead of easier, laws making it okay to endanger those protesting in the streets, red-line policies preventing bank lending to people of color, right to work laws impeding organizing labor, laws and education standards preventing teaching all of American history and even requiring indoctrination of American greatness. What’s next, requirement of allegiance to one leader? With that litany, it’s easy to ascribe nefarious intent. Certainly, there is some, but most of us participate in that system, perpetuating that system without such intent, or even any intent or awareness of our participation.

Let’s look at a system that I think unwittingly participates in perpetuating this inequality, though I’d say it would be hard to find any nefarious intent—in fact, it’s a system that has hardly changed at all despite attempts from all political sides to change it—the education system. Why does this system, which everyone seems to agree needs changing resist change so resolutely? It’s a self-sustaining system, like the rest of our social systems because it is sustained by those that have benefited from it. I speak from experience. I was decent at K-12 school because it wasn’t that hard, or at least I didn’t make it that hard to really excel at it. I was average at best as an undergraduate, and then successful as a graduate student when I experienced teaching aligned to student-centered pedagogy rooted in constructivist learning theory.

What I see when I visit schools now is that teachers primarily teach the way they were taught. That makes sense because it “worked” for them. If you talk to most of these teachers (as I do) you find that it didn’t really work for them, but they truly learned the science, math, history, etc., that they teach by teaching it—meaning by working actively with that content and doing something with it—teaching it, studying it in grad school, etc., not so much by passively listening to someone tell them about it. It was intriguing but it wasn’t really learned until actively worked with. Yet, this passive, teacher-centered method is still the primary means of teaching, despite all the research and training to do otherwise. And the more legislators pass standards, require tests, and so one, the more it reinforces that kind of teaching.

Therefore, we teach most subjects in a manner that they are only engaging and relevant to a small percentage of the class who are otherwise drawn to that subject—so a lecture about it is interesting, something they will continue to think about, process, and make sense of and truly learn later on. The rest endure and then forget after the test. Then that small percentage become teachers of that subject and repeat the pattern. And those who successfully navigate that system to get good grades (even if they don’t really learn much—be honest about it) are gain access to the concentrated power and wealth systems.

It’s self-selecting and therefore self-perpetuating. It’s not until you experience learning in a different way that you can imaging learning and teaching in a different way. So, changing the system is very difficult, not because a select group wants it to remain that way, but simply because those in charge of the system (not just teachers, but administrators and even legislators) benefitted from that system, and therefore perpetuate the system. This is what systems do.

This can help us understand why changing an inequitable system is so difficult and in fact what we mean when we say there is systemic inequity in politics, economics, and education, systemic racism, sexism, elitism, ageism, and so on. It doesn’t mean that the individuals benefiting from such systems are bad and those harmed are good. It means it has evolved in the system which is “trying” to maintain that homeostatic state of stability—even if that state will eventually burn itself out. However, if individuals (or a society) recognizes that this is occurring in the system and then they either willfully ignore it or worse yet actively perpetuate it, then yes that is nefarious, malicious, even sociopathic. 

This horrific pandemic has been a massive perturbation that knocked the current systems out of balance. I had hoped that out of this horror would be a period of positive feedback pushing to a new balance point. I’m not sure this will occur. We are seeing the systems respond with intense negative feedback to maintain (or return to) the status quo of continued concentration of wealth, power, and sustained inequities. And why not? Those still in power benefit from that system. At some point however, a system can only operate so long, so far out of balance, before it crashes.

We as individuals can make changes in whatever systems we live and work in, but systemic change can not happen individually. While an individual teacher can do things differently to better educate all in the class, one politician can write legislation so that all will do better when all do better, thereby improving the lives of individuals they personally contact and effect, they can no more change the system they are in than a person installing solar panels on their home, stopping eating meat, and driving less can solve climate change. Systemic reform of systems stuck in a norm of inequity (benefiting those profiting from that inequity) requires systemic action.

An individual cannot do this. But maybe they can spark a movement by changing one other, and then another, and then another, until enough change to overcome the incredible inertia resisting that change. Until enough individuals who don’t benefit most from the status quo gain enough voice and power to participate in decision making, the system will not change. Fits and starts.

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