Posts Tagged ‘Solutionism’

I had that dream again. You know the one: I have to go take a final test in a class I forgot about, never attended or dropped from my schedule. Most higher-ed students have this dream repeatedly, as do former students (or for those who take the educational enterprise seriously as a life-long endeavor, perpetual students). The dream usually features open-ended anxiety because it’s all anticipation — one never steps into the classroom to sit for the test. But this time, the twist was that the final test transformed into a group problem-solving seminar. The subject matter was an arcane post-calculus specialty (maybe I’ve seen too many Big Bang Theory whiteboards strewn with undecipherable equations), and the student group was stumped trying to solve some sort of engineering problem. In heroic dream mode, I recontextualized the problem despite my lack of expertise, which propelled the group past its block. Not a true test of knowledge or understanding, since I hadn’t attended class and didn’t learn its subject matter, but a reminder that problem-solving is often not straight application of factors easily set forth and manipulable.

Outside of the dream, in my morning twilight (oxymoron alert), I mused on the limitations of tackling social issues like there were engineering problems, which typically regards materials, processes, and personnel as mere resources to be marshaled and acted upon to achieve a goal but with little consideration — at least in the moment — of downstream effects or indeed human values. The Manhattan Project is a prime example, which (arguably) helped the allied powers win WWII but launched the world into the Atomic Age, complete with its own Cold War and the awful specter of mutually assured destruction (MAD). Borrowing a term from economics, it’s easy to rationalize negative collateral effects in terms of creative destruction. I object: the modifier creative masks that the noun is still destruction (cracked eggs needed to make omelets, ya know). Otherwise, maybe the term would be destructive creation. Perhaps I misunderstand, but the breakthrough with the Manhattan Project came about through synthesis of knowledge that lay beyond the purview of most narrowly trained engineers.

That is precisely the problem with many social ills today, those that actually have solutions anyway. The political class meant to manage and administer views problems primarily through a political lens (read: campaigning) and is not especially motivated to solve anything. Similarly, charitable organizations aimed at eradicating certain problems (e.g., hunger, homelessness, crime, educational disadvantage) can’t actually solve any problems because that would be the end of their fundraising and/or government funding, meaning that the organization itself would cease. Synthetic knowledge needed to solve a problem and then terminate the project is anathema to how society now functions; better that problems persist.

Past blog posts on this topic include “Techies and Fuzzies” and “The Man Who Knew Too Little,” each of which has a somewhat different emphasis. I’m still absorbed by the conflict between generalists and specialists while recognizing that both are necessary for full effectiveness. That union is the overarching message, too, of Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary (2010), the subject of many past blog posts.