Perpetual Reform

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Education is one of those curious topics that manages to display unparalleled consensus and divergence simultaneously.  In its abstract form, there is the most comprehensive unanimity imaginable: from Nelson Mandela’s heartfelt, Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world, to Margaret Mead’s penetrating, Children must be taught how to think, not what to think, to Oscar Wilde’s pithy, You can never be overdressed or overeducated, history reveals no shortage of reinforcing reflections on the enormous value of a well-informed citizenry and the concomitant need to ensure that appropriate structures are in place to allow each generation to achieve its educational potential.

But how, exactly?

Well, there’s the rub.  The flip side of the unprecedented agreement across all peoples of the importance of education is the fact that educational reformers have existed as long as we have had historical records (and likely far before that), each with their own unique interpretation of what should and shouldn’t be done, to whom, and for what ends.  

Even I have had my own personal experiences in the educational reform lane, despite never having studied the theory of education. Faced with the unique, and quite unexpected, prospect of starting a theoretical physics institute entirely from scratch through a public-private partnership worth several hundreds of millions of dollars, I thought it an ideal opportunity to leverage the public attention by creating a spectrum of educational programs for students, teachers and the general public.  What was I trying to achieve by all of that? Well, I’m not sure, exactly. Something about transmitting the joy of the search to unlock nature’s secrets to curious members of the public, pushing back against celebrity culture by giving scientists a platform to inspire the next generation of thinkers, and doing my bit to show support to the small fraction of overworked, underappreciated physics teachers that fell within our orbit.

The good thing about such initiatives is that it is virtually impossible to fail.  Given that we were only adding to what already existed, even the most banal and poorly-constructed effort would hardly do any harm.  Indeed, I was long convinced that our public lecture series was a perfect example of just such an underwhelming measurable: almost every one of our monthly talks would generate dozens of shining, appreciative faces warmly approaching me afterwards saying, That was a wonderful talk, but I didn’t understand a thing!

Did our teacher and student programs do better?  Perhaps. It’s difficult to say, not least of which because often such initiatives need a decade or two at least to show their true effects.  But for my part, at least, the one clear takeaway I received from the entire experience was the awareness that generating substantial, long-lasting, structural changes to an educational system was hard.  Really hard. Which likely explains, as it happens, why history is littered with the remnants of failed proposals for substantial educational reform.

Howard Burton, howard@ideasroadshow.com

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