The Power of One

America was built on an almost mythological image of the rugged, individual hero. We see this image represented in western films, where Alan Ladd’s Shane comes in to save the day and then rides out into the sunset. We see it again in action movies like when Bruce Willis’s John McClane saves an entire building from terrorists, virtually on his own. The power of one individual makes for a great story. But why does the lone hero do what he does? What happens when the story ends? This aspect seems to be getting lost in our 21st century experience.

Having recently read Eric Kalenze’s Education is Upside-Down: Reframing Reform to Focus on the Right Problems, I’ve been processing a number of the big ideas he addresses so brilliantly. There’s so much involved in righting an education system that’s gone so wrong, and Kalenze posits a number of reasonable and practical solutions in a well-structured, manageable plan for systemic advancement. The extended metaphor of “the funnel” cogently illustrates the problem with the K-12 education system in the U.S. as we know it now, as well as how the system can be positively changed in order to be effective for students as learners and for society as a whole.

Kalenze’s thesis begins with the idea that the purpose of the K-12 education system is to “funnel” a diverse group of individuals into a well-functioning, thriving society. This is obviously a debatable starting point, but I, for one, haven’t heard a more noble, practical, or achievable statement of purpose yet, so I was totally on board the Upside-Down bus from the first stop. I suppose if one disagrees with this premise, it might be a sticking point throughout the whole argument; however, Kalenze manages to persuasively disassemble key aspects of a number of opposing ideologies as he goes along, so if you didn’t agree with him from the outset, you might very well find yourself jumping aboard at a later stop. If not, you’re still left with a well-structured, well-researched, and well-argued perspective that will have undoubtedly caused you to re-evaluate some of your own beliefs about education, its purpose, and the various components that comprise an education system.

One of the main ideas that seems to have found residence in my own mind and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere is this notion that the funnel (K-12 education), right-side up, is meant to bring diverse individuals toward a common, functional existence in a societal experience that we all inevitably share. So, we have students from different cultural backgrounds, of varying aptitudes and abilities, interested in diverse subject matters, all with unique and individual personalities, all of whom, after compulsory schooling, will become part of society. They may go to post-secondary school, they’ll (hopefully) find jobs; many of them will join sub-sections of society, like religious communities, professional communities, or build their familial communities. The common thread here is that most of us have to live, on some level, with other people.

Given that our first stages of development are rather self-centered, it seems to make sense that we would, as a society, take special care to induct children into community living, while also respecting notions of individuality and the value of each person. This is where Kalenze’s metaphor pulls double-duty: he explains how a right-side up funnel should work, and then he explains how in the U.S. (and, increasingly, in Canada), the funnel is upside-down. From there, he illustrates how this upside-down funnel does (not) work. Kalenze suggests that contemporary society has gone too far in promoting the primacy of the individual and that this has been done at the expense of a well-functioning society. He goes on to explore the ways in which those young people who happen to be, largely for socio-economic reasons, situated above the narrow end of the funnel (mistakenly at the top), will more easily find their way through the funnel (K-12 education), and therefore into society. However, those who are not situated above the narrow end, perhaps for socio-economic reasons, or due to a lack of interest or engagement, or variances in abilities and aptitudes, slide down the sides outside the funnel (K-12 education), making active and effective participation in society much more difficult. This has negative repercussions both for the individual, and for society as a whole. Kalenze further argues that the myriad interventions to ameliorate some of the very obvious issues in K-12 education which have been implemented over the past few decades simply cannot succeed because of the fundamental systemic problem: the funnel is upside down.

The reasons for which the funnel is upside-down, and stays that way, are many, but Kalenze suggests that one of the reasons is our preoccupation with individualism. “Personalization” in K-12 education is one of the new buzz-word innovations, which posits that students learn differently and that they should be able to demonstrate their learning in a manner representative of their strengths. Further, the argument is that the system should accommodate for these variations whether through technological supports, differentiated instruction, accommodations for assessments, or even through differentiated assessment. Another reason that the funnel is upside-down has to do with our contemporary preoccupation with relativism in education. Who’s to say that students should learn the works and ideas of dead white men? Why is Shakespeare more relevant that Stephanie Meyer? What’s the point of memorizing times tables? Why should students have to write essays when they can make videos? These are the kinds of questions that will supposedly move K-12 education into the 21st century, where each individual student experiences success and can realize his or her own full potential.

I’ve spent a couple of weeks taking this all in. In the meantime, I’ve seen the recent absurdity play out on American college campuses as student activists have been attempting to silence views that they deem offensive or find uncomfortable. I’ve seen the reports from Ontario’s most recent EQAO results, which show that students are falling further behind in mathematics under that province’s focus on student-centered learning. Acquaintances who own small businesses have complained to me that their young employees are unreliable and lack the necessary work ethic to contribute effectively. University professors are shocked that many students seem to feel that simply showing up merits a good grade. I even heard a story from a former university athletics coach who had parents come in to question him about why their son didn’t make the team. And in my own experience, I’ve been feeling a growing sadness as I’ve come to realize that my own school lacks a sense of community and culture.

Why should any of this be surprising? If Eric Kalenze’s theory is to be accepted, and I think it should be, many people of the last couple of generations have been trained to believe that they’re each the center of their own tiny little universes. They’ve grown up in a K-12 education system that has catered to their individual needs and has lowered the bar whenever it was too high to reach. The worst thing I see is the growing sense of apathy and disenfranchisement that seems to have become increasingly representative of society in North America. I think this is the most sobering aspect of contemporary life, and K-12 education has played a part in this negative turn. This level of selfishness and dogmatic individualism has meant that people don’t feel part of something greater, that they want to “protect what’s theirs,” and that blame is often the first response when others seem to struggle. Politically, this mindset has been responsible for Donald Trump’s and Ben Carson’s rise in the polls. It’s influenced the reluctance to help refugees in their search for a better, more peaceful life. It’s fueled the cutting of social programs and has persuaded conservative governments to embrace austerity economics at the expense of features fundamental to a fulfilling life, from affordable post-secondary tuition to the implementation of a reasonable living wage.

The individual is important. A thriving society is comprised of individuals who thrive. But we cannot focus unduly on one without undermining the other. However, I think this is what’s happened. We’ve swung too far in our efforts to meet individual needs in K-12 education so that these individuals don’t know where to go beyond that. They can’t conceptualize their roles as pieces within a greater whole. With the funnel upside-down, we’re all pouring out every which way – no unity, no cohesion, no common goals. I’m an individual; what I think has inherent value; my needs are of prime importance. This kind of narrow-mindedness is not the key to advancing society and civilization. The power of one individual can be significant, but it’s most noble and fulfilling when applied to the service of a greater good.