Seeing Around the Convention Wisdom

by guestblogger Andy Smarick

It’s not often that I recommend an article that’s 10 years old and has virtually nothing to do—at least not explicitly—with education policy.

But I recently re-read Jonathan Rauch’s amazing Seeing Around Corners from The Atlantic and was reminded of its brilliance.

I’m a game theory buff and had the outrageous fortune of having Nobel laureate Tom Schelling as a grad school professor.  So, admittedly, the article kind of had me at hello.  But even if you don’t have a schoolgirl’s crush on this stuff and irrationally go head over heels, it’ll grow on you fast.

Without giving away too much, the gist of the article, Schelling classics like The Strategy of Conflict and Micromotives and Macrobehavior, and Robert Axelrod’s seminal The Evolution of Cooperation, is that in many ways individual human behavior is much simpler, unintuitive, but predictable than we all suspect.

Moreover, when aggregated, reasonable and ostensibly benign individual actions can culminate in not only unexpected but sometimes terrifying group behavior.

If you think Malcolm Gladwell has a special personal window into the machinery of the world, this stuff is a telescope and microscope wrapped into one—you’ll see farther and more clearly.

Though its insights into the genesis of riots, genocide, and segregation are astonishing and mortifying, the article’s bookends are about the use of rather straightforward computer modeling to understand a century’s old social and geographic riddle.  The result will make you shake your head in wonder.

Though I wish I were magnanimous enough to blog merely to bring others head-shaking wonder, I have to admit an ulterior, albeit virtuous, motive.

I’m convinced that the lessons of this article, and the tools and techniques of game theory more broadly, will eventually lead us to a much deeper understanding of the tragic roots, status, and characteristics of urban school systems and may ultimately reveal a hitherto invisible path out of the woods.

Clearly, over the last few days, I’ve completely abused my right to blog and spent down to the last cent whatever policymaking capital I had accumulated.  A levelheaded blogger doesn’t hand-wring in public about educational federalism, and a reputable education policymaker wouldn’t dare suggest that the condition of inner city schools may be a function of variables beyond poverty, educator effectiveness, and content standards.

I’m still comfortably ensconced in the Eduwonk studios, but the blogging police and policymaking authorities have now joined forces, and there is a battering ram outside of the door.  Needless to say, my time horizon is fading fast.

Should you read Rauch’s article, or any of the other material suggested above, and have thoughts about potential implications for the analysis of urban American public schools, or—be still my heart—know a little something about this type of modeling and think it might apply, shoot me a message over the next 24 hours at

After that I can probably be reached at or

One Reply to “Seeing Around the Convention Wisdom”

  1. I quite liked the Gladwell piece, Andy. This reaches where teachers live and he successfully describes some aspects of the teaching game. It does not well serve policy nor does it suggest a new approach to teacher preparation other than throw out more would-be teachers after a few years.

    Modeling aggregate human behaviors does have some success and that success seems to be in some way conditional upon the behavioral rules and algorithms set by the designers. I too, have been fascinated by game theory starting about ten years ago when I was presented with the Prisoner’s Dilemma by one of my doctoral profs. More recently, the study of emergence as applied to individual learners, not in aggregate, keeps me up at night. And originally trained as a geographer, I am quite fond of how biogeographical modeling could have been used to capture bin Laden I am also aware that many complex financial models predicated on psychological assumptions of human behavior failed miserably during the 2000s as the global financial system nearly went Chernobyl.

    May I suggest that you keep pursuing this line of thought in education but be very wary and very conservative in thinking you can apply any of it to any or all components of the educational system. I don’t mean the formal system–I mean the system-as-it-is. Already, you have advocated for charters and justified it using a business model paradigm (which isn’t even as grounded as a theoretical perspective might be). You have said on tape that churn is important in an industry. Yet, education is not a traditional industry and by engaging in so much experimentation, it’s not just investment portfolios that suffer gain or loss in opening a new restaurant, we are experimenting with human subjects (children lives) when we churn. I’m not sure that is immune from moral scrutiny.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.