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Jun 11 2009

questions on educational development

My final paper will ask what development strategies can implement best practices of education for the least advantaged students around the globe. The paper will have to address some basic questions. First, what do we know? Second, what don’t we know? Third, what changes can and should we make? Fourth, how can we make those changes? And fifth, what theory could support or challenge the strategies we would set out? In this post, I will outline what each of these questions might entail.
A global map, arranged by the "education index", provided by the Human Development Report of the United Nations Development Program

A global "education index", provided by the Human Development Report of the United Nations Development Program

So, what do we know? This question will have to be answered in several different ways. For example, we know that educational institutions often reflect the social organizations in which they are embedded. We also know that educational models provide some of the most effective means by which young people are socialized into cultural patterns. Since culture directly influences institutions, and therefore markets and politics, we know that culture and institutions form a reinforcing feedback cycle. Thus, we know how hard it is to change the practices of cultural institutions, and we can also infer how effective small changes can become over a long duration. Finally, we know which practices work, and which do not — to which we shall return.

Then, what don’t we know? We cannot know all of the externalities that also affect culture and institutions, nor can we predict what externalities will arise from small changes in those systems. We do not know the depth or complexity of each individual who participates in these educational systems. Most importantly, we do not know what form the most effective innovations in education will take, nor from where they will arise. However, all of these uncertainties and gaps in our knowledge can be harnessed productively.

What changes can we make, and what should we do? Here, the questions lose some objectivity and blend into subjective, cultural territory. We can say, generally, that we should aim to change educational practices from worse to better, and there are already measures that can help us direct those efforts. For example, we can look to previous research that indicates effective educational models, like Japan, Denmark, India, Finland, and South Korea. We can also seek out failing or defunct educational institutions, like Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, and Mexico. Finally, we can look at the relative efficacy of international, national, regional, and local educational institutions to determine what our strategy should be.

So we come to the question of strategy. This involves determining both what opportunities we have before us, as well as what challenges. Once the research indicates some particular, concrete institutional models, how we go about instituting the necessary changes will be radically contingent on the culture and the model in question. This blends into the theoretical aspect of the foregoing research, since the cultural, economic, institutional, national, linguistic, and many other networks that affect education itself will require analysis. We can say, however, that if we identify some interstitial, as-yet-untapped resources, like the apparent multilingual advantage of those in less-developed regions, then we can target our strategy to those advantages, and at the same time, minimize resistance to the small changes that will likely lead to structural revolutions.

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Jun 09 2009

sand castles

I imagine that before even beginning a discussion of Qatari prospects, Jane Jacobs would first insist that the proper unit of analysis is not, in fact, Qatar as a whole, but rather its chief city, Doha/Ad-Dawha, even if the Qatari riyal remains pegged to the US dollar. Then, I think Jacobs would quote herself, and call Doha and its surrounding region a “cathedral in the desert”, because of its geographically unlikely rise. And, while it is true that there are economic opportunities for and in Doha and Qatar, Jacobs might remind us that these opportunities are leveraged against the oil-wealth which gives the Qatari ruling family its power. For this discussion, we should consider how Doha and Qatar fit the model for cities and economic agglomeration outlined by Jacobs, in order to think of the future of this city-region. Continue Reading »

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Jun 08 2009

institutions of trust in piracy and terrorism

We can transpose Greif’s comparative analysis of disparate economic groups to look at two of the emerging models for economic activity among the bottom billion. The two groups I have in mind are Al Qaeda and the Somali pirates. Although, at a first glance, these two networks may appear to be motivated more by destruction than by production and distribution, I would argue that we take a closer look, at the cultural grounds of each collection of actors. We may find that by comparing the structures and behaviors of each group, we can shed a great deal of light on the growth of economic institutions today. But first, we should generally characterize the cultural background of each group. Continue Reading »

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Jun 04 2009

on dynamic stability

We speak of “flows”. By these, we mean the movements — of ideas, of information, of resources, of people — that describe paths through, around, and in the networks we speak of as landscapes. In this way, we talk about dynamics. We begin to think of change, in the structure of relationships, as constant. And, as we turn our attention to these flows, we find that they move in the same way metaphorically as physically. That is to say, the changes we describe tend to follow the paths of least resistance. Continue Reading »

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Jun 02 2009

the conditions for radical change

We can look at contemporary institutions all we like, but as Putnam points out, their adaptivity and other structural characteristics may not be immediately apparent to us. “Those concerned with democracy and development should … lift their sights beyond instant results.” Well, we are certainly concerned with development. The question is, how concerned are we with democracy itself?

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Jun 01 2009

the hunger

The agent of change is the individual entrepreneur responding to the incentives embodied in the institutional framework. – North, p 83

When a child goes hungry inside of a developed region, like in Southeast Washington, DC, they might find alternative sources of food, such as government-subsidized after-school programs. In areas like ours, when hunger becomes a problem, we can flex the dense ties of our urban networks and redistribute some public funding to provide, say, more food subsidies to those after-school programs. We might just as easily find community support for shifting school lunches to slightly later in the day, or even the funds to add a snack period for older grades late in the afternoon. In these ways, the vast safety-net of the dense, developed urban network provides resources by which the problem of food insecurity can be addressed for relatively large groups of children. For the rest of their families, more drastic measures can be taken, such as establishing community farms and grocery cooperatives.

The entrepreneurs who can be induced to invest in these enterprises will likely do so on the basis of their secure niche in an emerging market. The capital flows that support continued operations of these food security programs will originate at first largely from government subsidies, but they can be established to work towards more private and collective ownership over time by means of profit-sharing or by providing the initial capital as loans to individuals or small groups. These groups will, in turn, have high incentives for contributing their labor and expertise to the development of these organizations because of their close ties to one another, those which inform their collective identity, as residents within a particular neighborhood with a particular character, set of ideals, and other cultural markers which each of them shares.

Such initiatives are grounded in deeply implicit, or tacit, knowledge bases. Those who propose such projects for the poor areas of their own cities tend to have had some common experiences with those experiencing hunger. The arguments that are made in these developed urban centers on behalf of those experiencing hunger because of war, famine, and epidemic diseases in other regions of the world, however, are grounded in a very different kind of experience. Perhaps there is a connection between the current strategies for dealing with food crises in other parts of the world are also too deeply entrenched in modes of thinking that rely on media coverage, government funding, and the privilege of recourse to fast food. In this way, our mentalities about truly effective and sustainable food sources are too closely linked to our experiences with food service. I would argue that those with life experience in the heartland and country, those who have lived and word among farmers, would be the best experts to call upon when strategies for food source development are in question. When faced with a famine, one question a farmer might ask that a lobbyist might not is, “what can you grow here?”. The answers to this simple inquiry can provide a wealth of insight as to what strategies to pursue for getting a region back on track to self-sufficiency.

Simply put, there will be a marked difference between organizations of food producers who grow corn, for example, and organizations of producers of soybeans. There will also be a clear distinction between organizations that produce a variety of food, and organizations that produce one cash crop. The labor forces for each kind of group will specialize differently, their land (and tasks) will be divided very differently, and their long-term effects on local, regional, and global food markets will radically diverge. Thus, in order to deal with a food crisis, we must begin quite literally “from the ground up” as we develop solutions. The first step, at any rate, is to feed the hunger, both literal and metaphorical, of those whose lives are most likely to change radically in the short-term on account of these solutions, and to do so without compromising the longer-term direction that such strategies will take.

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May 28 2009

small is beautiful

I am thinking about communication networks across the continent of Africa. In order to conceptualize the actors, and therefore the structure of their relationships, I looked for a visual representation of the existing structure of these networks. I found that representation in an image that might be familiar to many of us, by now: the lights of the world, as seen by satellite, at night. I cropped out the continent from its global context, and then circled the clusters of lights that appear across its surface. Continue Reading »

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May 26 2009

nails and networks

As I was stacking boxes and stocking shelves yesterday morning, I thought about the webs of production and distribution that all the brightly packaged products had to follow to reach the store where I work. In order for me to sell, say a box of nails to a customer, that had to travel a long way first. Working backwards, I noted the cases into which the nails had been packed for shipping, on a tractor-trailer that had woven its way into the city from our warehouse in Virginia.

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May 21 2009

between arc and node

I often tend to isolate myself, and, subsequently, my ideas. But upon reading Nexus, I was reminded that even if I were to keep totally to myself, without any social relationships at all, I would not exist in a networkless vacuum.When I began to map out a rough network of my intellectual life, I found that I was focusing on those close to me, and that I was forming a very dense web, populated mostly by tight clusters of individuals. These clusters reflected the groups with which I have been involved, including my family, teachers from high school through college and graduate school, and some of my closest friends. It was only at these last nodes of my network, the friends that I have gathered from our collaborations in music, poetry, art, research, and social life, with whom I remain in touch, that some of the weaker links between members of my network began to emerge, filling in many voids in my network.

I remembered more of these clusters, of which I had been a part or to which I had been loosely linked. I found relationships between members of my family, for example, and close friends, with whom I had ended up at the same school, through whom I had met a close but geographically distant friend. I saw the sudden emergence of institutions I had thought external to my network. I realized, looking back at the myriad examples of small worlds and networks in Nexus, that not only are we each linked as human beings through these relationships, but that the same kinds of relationships exist between disciplines like the music, poetry, art, and research of which I had been thinking. The balance between random chaos and perfect order to which Buchanan so often refers became, itself, a powerful, beautiful inspiration.

However, I was also struck by a peculiar turn of rhetoric that kept slipping into my own conceptualization of these relationships. Once I had begun thinking in terms of networks and complexity, I found it hard to break with the spatial metaphors on which such terms often draw: network itself is fundamentally a spatial-visual construct. Recognizing this, I tried to become more critical of my own use of these terms. It is possible, after all, that even a “groundbreaking” theory can lock its proponents into rigid ways of thinking; how much more possible is this for a persuasive and elegant theory that very closely resembles a theory of the universal? Though complexity is a seductive and powerful mode of analysis, avoiding many of the traps of both strictly linear, causative logic and “chaos theory”, it still has its faults, and the reliance on spatial metaphors to explain abstractions is one of these.

There is a strong sense that those who took place in the negotiations to form the Washington Consensus used a much less densely-populated network than they could have, where either connections or actors relevant to the negotiations and to their outcomes were ignored, relegated to a void. Concurrently, the powerful institutional forces represented themselves as central to the network of negotiators and decision-makers, taking western liberal-democracy capitalism as an ideal economic model to which any country in crisis could aspire, although in spatial-metaphor terms, their model was largely peripheral to those towards whom the outcomes of their decisions were directed. Finally, there were connections both formed and broken during these proceedings, including the important ideological connections between, for example, fiscal policy discipline with privatization.

It seems that the most critical engagement we can make by using network theory and a view towards holistic complexity in terms of analysis and policy recommendations is to refine already-existing networks, finding what we had missed in earlier descriptions, and adjusting our views of the underlying structure of relations to reflect what actually exists, so that our implicit critiques and ideological assertions can be most effectively and accurately applied. In other words, our process must always be a dynamic one, not only stepping back to see a bigger picture (so to speak), but also moving closer to examine subtle details, and changing our perspective “horizontally” as well, so that we do not rely on a fixed center in our conception of the socio/political/economic world network, but are able to recognize when such centers shift, and to react with grace.

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