The disease of giants Matt 03 Jul 2006

23 comments Latest by Roger

One last excerpt from Edward Hall’s “Beyond Culture.” Here he riffs on how things keep getting bigger despite evidence humans actually thrive in the opposite sort of environment.

In small schools, students participated more, it meant more to them, they were more tolerant of others, they formed closers, more lasting relationships, were more effective in group processes, could communicate better, performed six times more in responsible positions, they were absent less often, were more dependable, tended to volunteer more often, were more productive, were more articulate, and found their work more meaningful. In other words, the small schools produced better citizens, who tended to be more satisfied with their lives and were more competent in every way.

What is easily missed in all this is that consolidations is not restricted to schools but found on all sides — particularly in business and government. Everything is getting bigger: automobiles, airplanes, buildings, and cities. We are living in an age of giants. Yet everything that is known about man’s needs points in the other directions. It is like a disease: since everyone has it, we think nothing of it. The problem, of course, is that vulnerability increases with size and it therefore becomes necessary…to “manage” the environment, which makes for great rigidity and suppression of the individual as well.

23 comments so far (Jump to latest)

Laird 03 Jul 06

Absolutely.

One of the reasons homeschooling could take over the world.

And why family relationships should trump everything else.

And why small, fast moving companies should replicate as the organizing economic principle in our society.

Now…if we can just avoid being stepped on by the giants…

Matt Todd 03 Jul 06

I am a product of homeschooling and have to say that its merits are evident, though I do want to mention that it’s important not to be too small: with just myself and my brother at home, teaching ourselves with little parental supervision, we learned sufficiently, but we still missed a good deal of that group learning and participation. Granted, we were very social in that we took part in sports and other groups, but the learning part lacked that fundamental togetherness.

As a post a short while ago mentioned, I too think that 8-12 is a good number for a group to be optimally functional and cohesive. Powerful, even.

Cheers,

M.T.

Charles Martin 03 Jul 06

Honestly, this mentality of getting more for your money has carried over into every aspect of our lives… restaurant meals are larger than they’ve ever been (I don’t want larger portions, I want cheaper normal portions), the best deal at the convenience store is the 44oz drink for less than a dollar, we want the best choice of television distribution that gives us the most channels for our money, and it goes on.

Part of this is the result of the companies knowing that if the customer requires larger quantities, then they can get bulk prices for the product. They make more profit in this manner than if they just cut the cost of the smaller portion.

However, the bulk of the blame is on our own shoulders. How many of us when we “grow up” state that we will do better than our parents? We will do what we can to have a “better” life than our parents. We want our kids to have more than we got. All of this when they don’t realize that what they had growing up was probably too much even then. We “think” we didn’t have enough growing up when we do not realize the richness that we did have. And we also do not come to this understanding until very late in life.

We have to learn sooner (and teach our kids) to be content with and thankful for what we have.

alex keeny 03 Jul 06

i do not believe that homeschooling is the answer. i’ve known many homeschooled friends and i’d say that i’ve only seen a 10 to 15 percent success rate in social interaction. yes, most homeschoolers get through school much faster than someone in a public school, but in my observations, most of their human contact is limited to their immediate family. I think the answer is simply smaller schools.

William Cox 03 Jul 06

alex k.,

When people start talking in percentages, folks automatically assume they’re sampling from a large population. Therefore, I ask, “how many home educated students are you sampling?”

I was home educated and have known hundreds of home educated students. I would classify very few of them as socially inept.

You act like the government school system has never produced a socially inept student. Quite the contrary.
Social graces can easily be learned, but when kids leave school without basic skills, like speaking correct English and knowing simple math, that’s the real problem. That doesn’t happen with home education.

Daniel Azuma 03 Jul 06

I think the basis of the disease is our economics. We live in a society in which value is based on growth. Whether you are an individual, a school, a business, a religion, or indeed just about anything else, if you are not growing, you are considered a failure. Stagnancy is equated to death. And so we will do anything, including throw away that which truly gives value to ourselves and our enterprises, in order to keep the stock price rising, the church membership increasing, or the software feature list extending. And we end up with giants.

Such an attitude, of course, is neither healthy nor sustainable. If your biology did not stop growing, you’d eventually die of organ failure due to bloat (as Orson Scott Card illustrates in some of his novels). If your business and products did not stop growing, you’d end up like Microsoft, unable to ship an operating system. I’ll refrain (for now) from speculating about ruby-based web frameworks…

One reason we don’t realize the danger of unchecked growth is probably that we fail to pay attention to history. Addiction to growth is a pathology of modernism. It holds captive those of us whose blind faith in progress makes us ignorant of the value that some earlier cultures found in more static, stable societies.

Alex Mingoia 03 Jul 06

The absurdity of progress:

“Organic life, we are told, has developed gradually from the protozoan to the philosopher; and this development, we are assured, is indubitably an advance. Unfortunately, it is the philosopher, not the protozoan, who gives us this assurance.” — Bertrand Russell

Jay Reding 03 Jul 06

Daniel: That is true, but only to a point. A society in stasis is hardly a good thing either. Our addiction to growth also brought us the technologies we take for granted today.

The ancient Greek temple at Delphi had it nailed a few millennia ago. On the door was written the words “Nothing to Excess.” There’s nothing wrong with growing the value of a business - that’s what businesses are supposed to do. It’s only when you start sacrificing other values to growth that you lose sight of what matters.

It’s finding the right balance between growth and flexibility that’s the hard part. A company that never grows is a failure, a company that grows without regard for itself is a catastrophe.

Anonymous Coward 03 Jul 06

In my high school psychology class, our teacher taught us about how “correlation is not causation”. Just because students in small schools participated more, etc., doesn’t mean that they did this because they were in small schools.

Maybe these small schools were private religious schools, in which case the kids’ beliefs and upbringing may cause them to participate more, etc. It could be any of a number of different scenarios. Switching these kids to a larger schools may not change their behavior, just as moving kids from the larger schools to the smaller ones may not improve their behavior.

In short, the author’s observation says much less than Jay’s summary may lead you to believe about “evidence”. This study says nothing except that students in small schools participated more, etc. It says nothing about why they did those things.

Anonymous Coward 03 Jul 06

Err, make that Matt’s summary. I misunderstood the names at the top of the site.

Andrew 04 Jul 06

Isn’t the logical extension of this line of thought that we should all go back to living in smaller rural villages? How can you believe smaller is better at the same time as getting your hot hands on the latest toy laptop or 24” LCD from Dell?

Dan 04 Jul 06

Just bought myself a set of PC speakers with 10 times the wattage of my last set! Anyway…

While we think about how “smaller is better” in some senses, that’s at least in line with where technology is moving. Nanotechnology is as small as it gets, and if our wildest dreams could become reality, some day our children will be able to construct any arbitrary object they desire by simply asking a set of nanomachines to build it from a pool of various molecules.

It’s late and I’m babbling :)

Tamim 04 Jul 06

I think it is a rule of mankind that things start small, get bigger and then get too big to change and then they die. Organisations, People. Nearly everything. Except the only One.

Chris Ooya 04 Jul 06

Hall’s analysis is a bit extremely skewed. It’s like citing a statistic that car accident rates are higher when people have their windshield wipers on, then concluding that windshield wipers cause accidents. No: rain causes accidents.

Smaller schools are more successful because the communities that can afford to have smaller schools are wealthy. Poor communities have larger schools and larger class sizes. While there is no doubt that smaller class sizes are benefitial, there is so much more in the equation that distilling it down to this single variable is just plain rediculous. Wealthy schools have better materials and facilities, more options for extracurricular activities, parents can afford tutors if their children struggle… etc.

The fundamental problem is not size, but resources.

“Everything that is known about man’s needs” does not indicate that the tendency towards large organizations is a “disease.” Hall’s colorful language sounds good but fails to make any concrete case against large size. In reality, size can have many benifits in terms of efficiency and productivity. Growth becomes a problem when it stretches resources too thin.

Nick S 04 Jul 06

I was home educated and have known hundreds of home educated students. I would classify very few of them as socially inept.

Perhaps facetious, but isn’t that selection bias? By definition, you’re less likely to encounter the socially inept ones. Anyway, that’s flame war territory.

John Wesley kept his chapels small. Alfred Brooks liked his coding groups small. The armed forces keep their companies small. But not too small. A group of 100-150 in regular contact, divided into a few smaller groups that mix and match, is a very rich environment.

Anonymous Coward 04 Jul 06

“I don’t want larger portions, I want cheaper normal portions.”

I don’t want larger portions, I want better food.

FredS 04 Jul 06

So why do college classes run in the hundreds? I definitely learned more in college than in high school.

Andrew Knott 04 Jul 06

“The problem, of course, is that vulnerability increases with size and it therefore becomes necessary…to “manage” the environment, which makes for great rigidity and suppression of the individual as well.”

Vulnerabilty increases with homogeneity, not size.

brad 04 Jul 06

I definitely learned more in college than in high school.

That’s because you were older, (presumably) more mature, and (presumably) more motivated to learn.

Mario 04 Jul 06

An excellent argument for unschooling, the ultimate in small I should think.

Chad Burt 04 Jul 06

Hall’s colorful language sounds good but fails to make any concrete case against large size. In reality, size can have many benifits in terms of efficiency and productivity.

For concrete examples, look towards the following:

Telcoms - Expensive, bad cell and internet services
Microsoft - Has single handedly held the internet back half a decade with IE6
Media Corps - Failing to adapt to consumer needs for on-demand and online distribution. Resorting to lawsuits.

hmm 05 Jul 06

“Smaller schools are more successful because the communities that can afford to have smaller schools are wealthy. Poor communities have larger schools and larger class sizes”

What are we talking about here? Public schools or private schools? Almost every public school in a wealthy community is ENORMOUS.

I went to a tiny, poor rural highschool school, and it sucked. But I guess I am a better citizen, so maybe it wasn’t that bad. It would have been nice to have a calculus class, though.

Roger 05 Jul 06

Huge leap to say that because smaller schools are good for humans that everything smaller is better. From schools to airplanes? Airplanes have never been much of a social institution, I think we can enjoy efficiencies of many things bigger in a win-win fashion.

Furthermore, as long as these things are provided in a free market, customers take “size” into consideration as just another feature. So things will get or remain small if that is better.

The only problem that is obvious from the quote is that education is a service that would be dramatically better if it were provided in a free market rather than by a government owned monopoly. No different than shoes, automobiles, food service, etc. - they would all suck out loud if they were provided by the government.

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