Analogies comparing idea propagation to sexual reproduction are in the air these days, in a recent NPR story about memes, and in a Wall Street Journal article about human evolution. Both point to the same thesis: the way to advance some complex facet of culture — e.g. to improve trade, create a republic, mitigate the oppression of an ethnic group — is to facilitate the exchange of ideas. The more we interact the better we harness our collective intelligence. Ideas, like organisms, thrive in recombination, and survive when fittest.
These stories remind me of three other echoes of the same principle. One I can’t give you a link to: my high school textbook on American history observed that it became harder for people to ignore the evil of slavery as transportation and communication improved. Before railroads, canals, and telegraphs we could turn a blind eye and cook up a fraction like 3/5 to get the constitution through. But give us easy access to each other’s back yards and we have to confront our contradictions.
Second: in his book Drive, business writer Daniel Pink argues for management by letting go. Set broad principles (e.g., “make up something very new that we can sell and that uses entirely in-house technologies”), give people all the latitude you can (e.g. one day a week out of five where they do whatever they want), and then get out of the way so something cool can result (e.g. Post-Its). The key is autonomy, but in the context of intense connectedness, iteration, and recombination. Idea sex.
Third: Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel. I’m hardly the first to marvel at this, a Pulitzer Prize winner whose punch line is (spoiler alert) it was the shape of the continents that set up the Old World to so completely trounce the New when they finally met up in the 15th century.
The predominantly east-west orientation of Eurasia meant plants, animals, and people could migrate (and interact) across great distances without a change in climate zone. In the Americas, by contrast, the north-south axis meant narrower ranges, slimmer populations, and fewer fruitful exchanges. By the time the two faced off, the east-westers had lived through arms races, epidemics, and economic booms that made the upshot inevitable.
Given all this, it would seem that three conditions hold the most promise for fostering progress in higher education:
1. One or two simple goals, universally shared. For natural selection this is really just one: have babies who grow up to have babies. For higher ed, at the moment, it’s make more graduates.
2. Lots of variety and autonomy. In nature this is biodiversity. In higher ed it’s academic freedom, both for faculty and for institutions. Once we set the simple goals of student success, we get out of the way. Our only appropriate message to faculty is “get them all up to here, in whatever best way you can think of.”
3. Easy and constant communication. This isn’t just random intercourse. It works best when the population communicating is somehow bounded together into a deme — e.g. “fish who like warm water,” “Northern Europeans who fight a lot,” “middle-class Americans wanting a better life.” This isn’t to argue for cliques, but rather to help us prioritize exactly whose access to the telegraph wires we most need to support. The idea is to set the size of the group as large as you can, to harness the power of variety in step two, without sacrificing the clear, shared aspirations of step one.
And this is where I’ve come to think — in agreement with certain advocacy-minded philanthropies like Gates and Lumina — that the perfectly bounded ecosystem for dramatic, grass-roots originated and systematically facilitated higher ed reform may well be the public state system.
More than the private non-profits and the proprietaries, we in the publics have the clear and simple goals, and the contained ecosystem of shared ideas and regular exchange, offset by traditions of variety and autonomy in our component institutions.
It’s startling to realize this, to sense how very far we’ve come in just half a century, leaving behind the statist dream of top-down command and control, to realize that the real power of the public system lies not in how we tighten our grip, but how we loosen it.