Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Cult of Order

Many, many, many reformsters are members of the Cult of Order.

The Cult of Order believes in blind, unthinking devotion to Order. Everything must be in its proper place. Everything must go according to plan. Everything must be under control.

It is not new to find cult members in education. We all work with a least a couple. Desks must be just so. The surface of the teacher desk must be pristine and orderly enough that bacteria will avoid it and others will either stay back in awe (or experience a near-uncontrollable urge to violate it). Students lose a letter grade for putting their name in the wrong corner of a paper. In high schools, they believe that even seniors would benefit from going class to class in neat and orderly lines.

But reformster members take the Cult of Order to new levels.

They were bothered by the chaos of the crazy-quilt state standards, each different from the rest. They are alarmed at the possibility that individual teachers might be teaching differently from other teachers. Order, predictability, uniformity-- these are qualities to be pursued, not because they are a path to better outcomes of some sort, but because they are in and of themselves desirable outcomes. Standardization and a national curriculum that gets every student in every classroom on the same page at the same time-- this vision is good. Don't ask "Good for what?" To the Cult of Order that's a nonsense question, like asking about the utility of a kiss. For them, controlled, orderly  standardization is as beautiful as a sunrise.

The Cult of Order is all about fear-- fear that some sort of dark, menacing chaos lurks just beyond the borders. There's a horrible monster waiting just on the other side of that white picket fence, and the only way to keep it at bay is to make the fence just as neat and orderly as possible.

And yet, we know this is not how the world of human beings works. Human relationships are messy, wobbly, unpredictable, hard to plan. At first flutter of your heart, you cannot know how that story will end. Friendship may grow or wither, and no amount of orderly control can change it. And on the large scale, throughout human history, the dream of perfect order always travels hand in hand with aspirations of totalitarian despots.

It is only in the modern age that a true dream of perfect order seems attainable. The Romans maintained centuries of empire precisely because they developed a system that did not depend on perfect order and standardization, but left the many varied local governments in place. The Romans knew that complete order and control was unattainable. The modern Cult of Order believes it is.

Science also tells us that the Cult of Order is wrong. Chaos theory and information theory and quantum mechanics all tell the same story, The dream of simple linear Newtonian order, where insisting on A always gets you to B-- that dream is unattainable, a failed model that does not reflect how the world works. There is a kind of order in the chaos, but it is more rich and complex than we have ever imagined. More importantly, it is an order that does not respond to nor allow for planning and control.

Reformsters keep asking, "How can we precisely control the aspects of education in order to get the exact results that we want?" This is a oxymoronic nonsense question, like asking "How can I best kick that cute girl in the face in order to get her to love me?"

To try to exert that kind of exacting control over other human beings is not just futile-- it's damaging and destructive. To remodel American public education into the model preferred the Cult of Order is destructive and wrong.


  1. Oh so very very true. My previous principal worshipped at the altar of the Standardized Classroom. Very destructive.

  2. lol Yeah, I've known a couple of colleagues who were pretty OCD. Yes, some people are control freaks and some have trouble understanding complex issues or concepts. They try to simplify them but do not know how to get to the underlying important principles. They seem to be people who think everything should be reduced to numbers as if everything can be measured and numbers are magical. They see numbers, not people. Statistics don't help if you can't figure out the why.

  3. "How can we precisely control the aspects of education in order to get the exact results that we want?" It's like these people think life is a game of billiards and they want to put the eight ball in the side pocket every time. They don't seem to understand that life (and education) are a little more complex than the geometry of a pool table.