Karass & Granfaloon

My friend Phyllis introduced me to a pair of words that Kurt Vonnegut coined in Cat’s Cradle:

  • Karass — an ad-hoc gathering of people who come together to solve a problem, solve the problem, and then disperse
  • Granfaloon — a group of people who come together to solve a problem, form a bureaucracy, and then work harder at maintaining that bureaucracy than solving the problem they were formed to solve.

The essential problem in our society now is that we want our schools to be a series of karasses — “here, you five folks… educate this child and help her understand the world.”  This is essentially a tribal vision of education; the child is placed in the hands of the elders, who simultaneously babysit the youngster and teach her all she needs to know to be a productive member of the tribe.

Trouble arises in the form that there is never “just one child”, so we must say, “here you twenty five people, or you seventy… educate these children.”  And the twenty-five, or seventy, say, “Well, we need books, we need computers, we need a building, we need…”  We need… we need… we need…

Consider, though, the old apprentice-journeyman-master model of education.  It had serious faults, of course.  In the long term, master craftsmen maintained monopolies on the mastership in order to limit competition.  Yet the goal of apprenticeship was to learn how to do all aspects of the craft well, and to assemble the tools and skils necessary to be a journeyman, so that you could then begin to practice the craft long enough to pull together the 10,000 hours you needed to be a master.

We’ve replaced the specialized, one-to-few training of the middle ages with a one-t0-many generalized education, and I think there’s an increasing sense that it has not served us well. Students graduate from high school with a diploma and a general understanding of the world, but not enough specific data and experience that they can say that they’re ready to begin a career.

The Granfaloon has taken them in, chewed on them for a while, and spit them out (or worse), without every really providing an education. Part of the problem, of course, is that we don’t really know what an education is.

Now hang on a minute! I hear you exclaim.  Of course we know what an education is! And that part is true.  We tend to think of someone as being educated if they can reason both in mathematics and humanities, if they they can discuss a wide variety of subjects, and if they can link one topic to another without wrenching the conversation around onto another track like a cowboy lassoing a transcontinental train.

Does anyone know how to turn an uneducated person into an educated person?  More specfically and importantly, how do we turn an uneducated person into an educated person using school?

Ned Hallowell’s solution is that we need educated people to Connect young people to the idea that being educated is fun; let them Play with the concepts presented, and the actual skills and tools of that idea; Practice the skills; Master the skills and underlying ideas (and by mastery he doesn’t mean “put in Gladwell’s 10,000 hours”, he means “show clear improvement”); and finally Be recognized as havingi improved.

But curiously enough  for Ned, and for the karass, the goal isn’t education, but happiness.   For the karass, there is a problem in need of solution.  The sooner it’s solved, the sooner the people involved can go back to what they’d really like to be doing.  And as we all know, a happy child is more likely to be learning than an unhappy one.

For a granfaloon, one child’s happiness or unhappiness is not nearly as important as “THE CURRICULUM” or “THE TEST”.  These structures exist not for the individual happiness of a child or a group of children, but for the purposes of evaluating and categorizing children… and for providing test-makers and test-givers and test-readers with enough resources to survive.

It may be that reaming children through an educational granfaloon is a necessary part of civilization — that there is no way to run a school as a highly-flexible karass.

But wouldn’t it give your child a warm, fuzzy feeling for the rest of his or her life, if a group of five or thirty or seventy adults came together to educate just them, and then dispersed, never to do that task in quite the same way for any other child, ever again?

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One comment

  1. […] I wondered aloud a year ago about what kinds of disruptions it takes for a school or a school system to collapse, and for parents and teachers to take other roads to learning and education.  A lot of it was in the then-context of the Central Falls, RI, decision to shut down their high school and try to remake it.  What have we heard about since then?  Not so much nationally.  And we know that most education systems are granfaloonish in style, rather than karassic. […]

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