Against Solutionism

Throughout the spring one of the big funders of the PBS Newshour -- ExxonMobil I think -- was running spots to promote their math and science initiative for public schools. The spots featured slick production and inspiring narration from a voice oozing sincerity and positivity. All well and good -- to a point. After explaining how the US is (purportedly) lagging behind in science education, the sincere voice urges us: Let's solve this! At which point my patience runs out and I bark: Let's not!

The notion of just "solving this" implies that there is something that we aren't doing now that would make the problem go away if we would only start doing it. Like flipping a switch. Believe me, everything has already been tried. Every pedagogy, be it bottom-up constructivism or top-down lecturing has been implemented. We've thrown money at the problem and withheld money from it. We've put laptops into the hands of every kid in school. And still, some kids do well, and some don't. Some learn to love math and science and some don't.

The "let's solve this" crowd, which includes a substantial cross-section of liberals and conservatives, has pretty much settled on a "solution" of high-stakes standardized testing coupled with monetary incentives for schools who raise their test scores. The simplistic notion of solving fits well with this quantified approach to education. X amount of students were below a certain line and now X amount are above it. Problem solved. How tragic that our one truly bipartisan initiative is deeply wrong.

Education isn't just something that happens in schools alone or which can be meaningfully measured on tests. To "solve" the "problem" actually calls for us to be a different society with different values. It calls for changes of attitudes and behaviors in individuals, families, and communities. All of which is possible and in fact is happening all the time in countless ways, for good and for ill. The solution of test-based achievement actually can mislead us into thinking we can handle any educational problem within the isolated structures of classrooms and test-taking, obscuring the truth that improving education requires endless personal, cultural, and social metamorphosis, as well as the truth that education itself is fuzzy around the edges and diverse in its expression and application.

As it turns out, the syndrome -- the religion -- of "let's solve this" has been given the name of "solutionism" by critics of society and technology such as Evgeny Morozov, whose new book, To Save Everything Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, is reviewed in the April/May 2013 issue of Bookforum. The reviewer, Siva Vaidhyanathan, cites Morozov's definition of solutionism as the practice of "recasting all complex social situations . . . as neatly defined problems with definite, computable solutions."

It'll conclude by quoting Vaidhyanathan at length, since his analysis is so apt and eloquent:
A more measured approach to the issues too often addressed by solutionism would recognize that frictions and inefficiencies can have value as well. We should not "solve the problem" of education, for instance, by narrowly identifying the chief difficulty as non-standardized curricula, designed by a range of teachers for the individual needs of their students. But this is exactly what solutionism would do: impose an analysis that declares diversity a problem, squeezes out values that can't be quantified, and standardizes procedures and measurement instruments -- which is, of course, precisely the approach we've taken to school reform.
The companion piece to this post is my April 7, 2013 post, That Paltry Deity, Efficiency.


Popular Posts