Not even wrong: a school board’s discussion of systems thinking

Socialism. Communism. “Nazism.” American Exceptionalism. Indoctrination. Buddhism. Meditation. “Americanism.” These are not words or terms one would typically expect to hear in a Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board meeting. But in the Board’s last meeting on October 9th, they peppered the statements of public commenters and Board Members alike.

The object of this invective? Systems thinking. You really have to read part 1 and part 2 of Camel City Dispatch’s article to get an appreciation for the school board’s discussion of the matter.

I know that, as a systems thinker, I should look for the unstated assumptions that led board members to their critiques, and establish a constructive dialog. But I just can’t do it – I have to call out the fools. While there are some voices of reason, several of the board members and commenters apparently have no understanding of the terms they bandy about, and have no business being involved in the education of anyone, particularly children.

The low point of the exchange:

Jeannie Metcalf said she “will never support anything that has to do with Peter Senge… I don’t care what [the teachers currently trained in System’s Thinking] are teaching. I don’t care what lessons they are doing. He’s is trying to sell a product. Once it insidiously makes its way into our school system, who knows what he’s going to do. Who knows what he’s going to do to carry out his Buddhist way of thinking and his hatred of Capitalism. I know y’all are gonna be thinkin’ I’m a crazy person, but I’ve been around a long time.”

Yep, you’re crazy all right. In your imaginary parallel universe, “hatred of capitalism” must be a synonym for writing one of the most acclaimed business books ever, sitting at one of the best business schools in the world, and consulting at the highest levels of many Fortune 50 companies.

The common thread among the ST critics appears to be a total failure to actually observe classrooms combined with shoot-the-messenger reasoning from consequences. They see, or imagine, a conclusion that they don’t like, something that appears vaguely environmental or socialist, and assume that it must be part of the hidden agenda of the curriculum. In fact, as supporters pointed out, ST is a method, which could as easily be applied to illustrate the benefits of individualism, markets, or whatnot, as long as they are logically consistent. Of course, if one’s pet virtue has limits or nuances, ST may also reveal those – particularly when simulation is used to formalize arguments. That is what the critics are really afraid of.

5 thoughts on “Not even wrong: a school board’s discussion of systems thinking”

  1. Perhaps systems thinking has become a brand though. I’ve often wondered if SD would get further if it focused on more generic advocacy. Evidence based reasoning, model based problem solving, or heck even calling it an extension the scientific method would be appropriate. Sure there are important distinctions to be made about the focus on feedback and the delays stocks create, but overall aren’t we just trying to do good science?

    I’d like to see a school board just try and throw away basic science.

    1. There you go, trying to be constructive. 🙂

      We actually do something similar at Ventana – we often refer to what we do generically as mathematical modeling, rather than system dynamics, to avoid (mostly misguided) associations.

      In this case, though, the trigger appears to be the application. Board members see that the curriculum contains something about trees, and immediately leap to Agenda 21 and Nazism, with no discussion of the actual substance. That alone indicates that this is not a rational process. But perhaps a workaround is to focus the systems thinking activity on non-controversial topics, e.g. return to industrial dynamics, work with physical systems like thermostats, play the Root Beer Game, etc. Let students work out environmental or social implications for themselves later.

      I think the underlying problem is that the board members have an anti-systemic worldview. They believe in capitalism, individualism, exceptionalism, period. The nuances in the philosophical underpinnings of those views – Locke’s “as much and as good,” economists’ market failures – are lost; they skipped that day of class. They want an open-loop world without any remote spatial or temporal consequences of actions, e.g., growth without limits.

      I think there are many school board members who would be quick to throw away basic science. Just look at Conservapedia’s critique of relativity for inspiration. On the time scale of civilization, empiricism hasn’t been around that long, and I’m not convinced that it’s as firmly rooted as I’d like.

    2. Re “I’d like to see a school board just try and throw away basic science.” – ten years on, I think we’ve now seen plenty of that unfortunately.

      The original links to the Camel City Dispatch have gone down, but fortunately the Wayback archive has them.

  2. I couldn’t agree more with your comments Tom.. am sharing the URL for your blog ahead. It’s a nasty situation and must be extremely tough for the folk there to deal with this. I believe some of the foremost SD/ST educators from the Waters Foundation are dealing with the brunt of this… a real shame.

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