zenpundit.com » Blog Archive » “The Big Picture”- the Nexus between Education and Grand Strategy

“The Big Picture”- the Nexus between Education and Grand Strategy

This will be the first of several related posts. 

The other day, I happened to be talking to my friend Dr. Von, a physicist and educator, and he brought up a post by The Eide Neurolearning Blog, on educating children in terms of “big picture thinking”:

What is ‘big picture’ thinking? Business consultant Andrew Sobel described it as:

1. Having a simple framework
2. Using analogies and metaphors
3. Developing multiple perspectives
4. Looking for patterns and commonalities

Instead of training for compliance, careful rule-following, and exact memorization or a paragon of crystallized intelligence, we need to make more room for ‘big picture’ thinkers – while still recognizing the need for basic skills and knowledge.….Pint-sized big picture thinkers really do exist and they seem to be over-represented among gifted children who underperform or cause behavioral disruptions in their early elementary school years. Many of these kids are ‘high conceptual’ thinkers, those who like discovering novel subjects, themes, and things that don’t make sense(“The thing that doesn’t fit is the interesting thing” – Richard Feynman), but the reason for this is often not random – inductive learners (learners who derive rules from examples) use novelties to generate new hypotheses or new rules.If you really want to teach and interest big picture thinkers, you would expose them to rich multisensory and chronologically-advanced experiences. Look for subjects, phenomena and ideas that could be compared and contrasted. Complexity should be embraced and not shunned. For big picture thinkers – complex is simple and simple is complex. Complexity often brings more meaning because there are enough examples that one can make a pattern.….Many of them are seeking the overarching framework inside which they can put their new bit of knowledge. Often these are ‘why’ kids – who need to know why something is true, not just that something is true.

The Eides have given an excellent explanation of the big picture thinker as a cognitive type and had some implied suggestions in that description on how a teacher or professor could approach students to get them thinking – models, metaphors, analogies, exposure to patterns and multiple perspectives. Note: all students willl derive some benefit from these techniques and become better at seeing the larger context. Many people can, with sufficient practice, can become significantly better, but the natural big picture thinkers are the ones who will react with insightful leaps of reasoning, imagination and questions with little or no prompting.

Unfortunately, such experiences in public schools and even our universities have become increasingly rare. Dr. Von explains why:

When I talk with students (juniors and seniors in high school) about how different subjects and classes are taught, invariably it comes down to great amounts of memorization. Most students, when you engage them in real conversations about the education they receive, will open up freely and get right to the point…because of the continued emphasis on grades and GPAs by colleges, students feel the need to focus first on memorization and get the grade on the test, and then move on to the next topic without much concern with what was just studied. When this is the case in school, has true learning just occurred? Likely not, if students are unable to recall and actually apply concepts that were covered in the past.

….To make matters worse, as students rely so heavily on memorization and short-term success on tests (and this is driven home even more in the ‘high stakes testing’ environment we find ourselves in in the era of No Child Left Behind, as resently implemented), those students, many of whom are gifted, as the Eides point out, who prefer complexity in their learning, are not benefitting from the way many (most) classrooms are run. By complexity, I mean those students who want to ‘see the big picture.’ Those students who want to know why something works, and how it is related to the material that was studied last semester as well as to the material that was covered in another class. For example, I love when students in my physics classes come to me asking about how to interpret and apply a particular integral result which was just studied in calculus class, or how Einstein’s theories changed political and military history, as studied in a history course. Those moments happen every so often, as a result of student curiosity and their wanting to truly learn about the material rather than memorize something for the test, and good teachers recognize such moments when they happen…

It falls to me to discuss why it matters: As a nation we are crippling the next generation of visionaries by retarding their intellectual growth with bad educational policy as surely as we might if we were adding lead to their drinking water.

Scientists and inventors, philosophers and artists, entrepreneurs and statesmen, individuals who conceive of and accomplish great things do not emerge from schools and colleges that emphasize low-level thinking and a curriculum without intellectual depth or rigor. They emerge in spite of them.

To force a systemic improvement in public education, the Bush administration pushed through “No Child Left Behind” with rigid timetables, mandated high stakes testing and punitive consequences for schools and districts not making standards. That is to say, the Bush administration addressed the lack of rigor in educational process with a sledgehammer – but ignored the lack of rigor in educational substance ( at least directly – under NCLB some schools had to toughen their curriculum to teach to the state test, but other schools or schools in different states dumbed down for the same reason – curricular alignment).

That NCLB forced public schools to ensure that our weakest students verifiably succeed at understanding the fundamentals is laudable. That this emphasis increasingly comes at the cost of schools only educating all their students at the level of the fundamentals is inexcusable. Perhaps criminal. NCLB is the overarching legal framework that was superimposed on a system whose content was (and often still is) frequently less than demanding and taught by instructors who themselves have not majored in the subject they are teaching. 

At the postsecondary level, long before the measure and punish model of NCLB arrived at k-12 schools, colleges and universities abandoned any semblance of a core curriculum or traditional canon and undergraduate degree requirements were larded with plenty of au courant esoterica as course options. Esoterica formerly left for footnotes in dissertations or as the subject of longwinded, diatribes at the dreary meetings of extremist splinter parties. Ivy League, big state schools, small third tier colleges – it does not matter; with only a few exceptions, the “cafeteria a la carte” model of undergraduate education prevails.

While a few students absorb and become true believers of fashionable cant, most students graduate high school and college unaffected by the large amounts of rubbish and trivia they have been exposed to because it was presented without any kind of sensible context and being committed to short term memory, quickly forgotten. The real damage to students comes from the cumulative effect of the absence of substance – the waste of time where meaningful content and the pressure to think through hard problems should have been.

The costs of educational myopia are here and they will grow worse with time. We already see sharply declining public support for science (because more people are now ignorant of basic scientific literacy),  lower rates of innovation and other negative economic effects. In the area of governance, across the board, regardless of party label or ideology, we have national leaders in their 40’s, 50’s and early 60’s who see the world primarily in short-term, tactical terms and who confuse career or class interest with governing in the national interest. Oligarchy is inherently a non-strategic worldview because it eschews making choices because choices require sacrifice in the near term in order to acquire systemic advantages in the long term. 

Oligarchy” seems like a a harsh word because we think of “oligarchs” as being selfish, exceedingly greedy, political sociopaths. While such figures do exist outside of TV and the movies (Burmese junta, Iranian hardliners, Soviet politburo etc.) most people are neither particularly malicious nor eager to consciously and openly do things society acknowledges to be wrong or counterproductive. Even less so are they eager to be seen by the public as incompetent. The problem is that, frequently, people are prisoners of their own limited frame of reference and, when their conscience might be tweaked, they excel at rationalization and denial.

This is not a question of smart or dumb or of expecting politicians to be moral paragons. There’s plenty of IQ wattage inside and outside of Washington, DC and petty larceny in politics goes back to the stone age. Rather, on average, the difficulty is that our nation’s intellectual potential has not been effectively maximized. Is it reasonable to educate people in a way where all subjects are disconnected from one another, prioritizing narrow specialization, emphasizing accumulating facts over understanding principles, rewarding the “right answer” instead of the “best question”, demanding conformity instead of curiosity and then expect our leaders to be visionaries and adaptively creative statesmen who think in strategic terms?

Why would our societal orientation in complex, dynamic, fast moving situations be good when our educational system trains people only to think through simplified, linear, sequential problems? Strategic thinkers need to be able to see “the big picture” and handle uncertainty, or they cannot be said to be strategic thinkers.

The ship of state has been steered, over the last forty or so years, into an epistemological cul-de-sac and we are headed for the rocks. America needs a grand strategy for a competent citizenry in order to reach the point where it can again have a grand strategy to deal with an unruly world.


Red Herrings

Project White Horse

Fabius Maximus

The Committee of Public Safety ( provides an extensive analysis of the subject)


Liberty/SecurityRethinking liberal arts

21 Responses to ““The Big Picture”- the Nexus between Education and Grand Strategy”

  1. Posts about education as of July 16, 2009 « youtubeblog Says:

    […] […]

  2. Lexington Green Says:

    So, if some people managed to actually educate their kids so they have both content and thinking ability, would that give their kids a strategic advantage in the dog-eat-dog struggle which is adulthood?  Would they be one-eyed-men in the land of the blind?

    In other words, do the oligarchs children get a superior education at Sidwell Friends and the equivalent, and do they want the rest of society to be neutralized as competitors?

    My answer:  Yeah, probably. 

  3. Daniel McIntosh Says:

    Yes, indeedy.  That’s the main selling point for many private educational institutions.

    And it was by design.

    Check out the writing of former NY "teacher of the year" John Gatto for a description of the process.  This is from a speech he gave to convention of home-schoolers:

    In the first decades of the new school century the group of famous academics symbolically led by Edward Thorndike (he is the Thorndike of the Thorndike/Barnard dictionary), and John Dewey of Columbia’s Teacher’s College and their industrialist allies, decided to bend government schooling to business and the political state just exactly as it been bent in Prussia. A higher mission would exist too. Schools would serve as "instruments of managed evolution, establishing conditions for selective breeding before the masses take things into their own hands" (now I quoted that from a published essay by Edward Thorndike at Columbia Teacher’s college in 1911). Standardized testing would separate those fit to breed and those fit to work and those unfit. Back before WW1, educational psychology, which was the creation of Edward Thorndike, had established that certain kinds of mental training in history, in philosophy, in rhetoric, for instance, made students resistant to manipulation because it developed independent intellect, it reduced their plasticity. That knowledge coupled with the new German directive to serve corporation and government, provided a sufficient motive to dumb instruction down. Between 1906 and 1920, a handful of world famous industrialists and financiers, together with their private foundations, hand picked University administrators and house politicians, and spent more attention and more money toward forced schooling than the national government did. Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller alone spent more money than the government did between 1900 and 1920. In this fashion, the system of modern schooling was constructed outside the public eye and outside the public’s representatives. Now I want you to listen to a direct quote, I have not altered a word of this, it’s certainly traceable through your local librarians. From the very first report issued by John D. Rockefeller’s General Education Board — this is their first mission statement: "In our dreams, people yield themselves with perfect docility to our molding hands. The present education conventions of intellectual and character education fade from their minds and unhampered by tradition we work our own good will upon a grateful and responsive folk. We shall not try to make these people or any of their children into men of learning or philosophers, or men of science. We have not to raise up from them authors, educators, poets or men of letters, great artists, painters, musicians, nor lawyers, doctors, (he’s really covering the whole gamut of employment isn’t he?) statesmen, politicians, creatures of whom we have ample supply (whoever the pronoun we is meant to stand for there). The task is simple. We will organize children and teach them in an perfect way the things their fathers and mothers are doing in an imperfect way".

  4. arherring Says:

    Great post.

  5. Zenpundit on ‘The Big Picture’ « Red Herrings Says:

    […] The Big Picture – The Nexus Between Education and Grand Strategy “Is it reasonable to educate people in a way where all subjects are disconnected from one another, prioritizing narrow specialization, emphasizing accumulating facts over understanding principles, rewarding the “right answer” instead of the “best question”, demanding conformity instead of curiosity and then expect our leaders to be visionaries and adaptively creative statesmen who think in strategic terms? […]

  6. zen Says:

    It is absolutely an advantage. Being educated in an environment of intellectual inquiry and independent exploration with feedback from a competent expert – whether the school is private, public, Montessori, homeschool, whatever – trumps the industrial model that Dan described being put into place a century ago ( nice quotes by the way from early Progressives)  and prevails in most places.
    I once was asked by a school district how to improve the quality of their educational program without spending any extra money. It took all of twenty minutes to propose the outline of how their curriculum could be changed to accomodate deeper and enriched experiences. It was immediately rejected because "all the students couldn’t do that and it would be like tracking " ( except that the work was open to everyone, no tracking was involved). I asked if they ran the football and basketball teams on the same basis. That was the end of my educational consulting. LOL!
    Thanks arherring!

  7. Charles Cameron Says:

    As Gregory Bateson once write to his fellow Regents in the University of California system:

    Break the pattern which connects the items of learning, and you necessarily destroy all quality.

  8. Charles Cameron Says:

    Apologies for the typo..  I meant "wrote".

  9. Ed Beakley Says:

    Mark, essential element of information for a culture of preparedness – Point On!
    Posted as #5 at PWH http://blog.projectwhitehorse.com/

  10. onparkstreet Says:

    Wow. I like this: "The real damage to students comes from the cumulative effect of the absence of substance – the waste of time where meaningful content and the pressure to think through hard problems should have been." Absolutely.

    One minor quibble, and perhaps I am missing the point (I often do) – is excessive rote memorization really a problem in the American educational system? Are there tons of American students out there who can immediately rattle off dates of important historical battles, or bits of Shakespeare, completely off the top of their heads at any given moment, even long after the test?

    I guess I’m saying that cramming is different from a kind of deep memorization that can help a student solve problems. When you commit at least some facts to memory, the material becomes less intimidating. You start with the basics and move forward.

    Well, perhaps I am thinking of medical residents. I find that they sometimes they don’t have a lot committed to memory and when I ask, say, ‘name ten types of (X) tumor,’ they can’t do it. It’s a problem because they absolutely should be able to do that. They should also know why certain tumors arise in certain organs, the big-picture, but they can’t shirk on the brute memorization part.

  11. Lexington Green Says:

    " brute memorization"
    It has its place.  It is a matter of mental and physical discipline.
    It is very, very hard to get kids to do it. 
    George Orwell said you cannot teach Latin to boys without corporal punishment.  He knew because he did it.  That is precisely what he was talking about.  You need a lot of brute memorization.
    Doctors especially need to have all their anatomy memorized so they can communicate clearly with each other.  It is a second language they all have to have. 

  12. zen Says:

    Hi onparkstreet,
    Very nice distinction. Yes, the public schools teach mostly at the two lowest rungs of Bloom’s Taxonomy and this tendency has been badly aggravated by NCLB. This short terms cramming is not the same as, say, memorizing long stretches of Homer or Shakespeare or knowing the Periodic Table or the categories of zoology. While technically "recall" – getting that kind of complex information into long term memory is harder. It inevitably is done for purposes of being "handy" for later application and analysis. 

  13. zen Says:

    Hi Ed,

    Thanks for the nod! Much appreciated!

  14. Is a college education worth a million dollars? « Fabius Maximus Says:

    […] “‘The Big Picture’ – the Nexus between Education and Grand Strategy“, Zenpundit, 16 July 2009 […]

  15. A Brain Divided Against Itself Cannot Stand « The Committee of Public Safety Says:

    […] Safranski posts over at […]

  16. YT Says:

    Zen : We probably need teachers the calibre of a Socrates in this time & age (a very RARE individual indeed) to REALLY excite ’em kids ’bout learnin’. Methinks most "educators" are just there for their monthly paycheck is all. LG sure is spot on ’bout "superior education" in certain institutions & parents wantin’ an edge for their kids over the rest of ’em.

  17. Seerov Says:

    The Realist school of IR conceptualizes the world as being made up of States who compete for their interests within a global system of anarchy. Sometimes its helpful to view the behavior of groups within States the same way. Most people would agree that America has an elite that before anything else, attempts to pursue its own interests. This elite operates beyond partisan politics and this can be seen by analyzing the New York Time’s coverage of the run-up to the Iraq war and/or by reading the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page relating to immigration policy.  Most importantly, the American elite appear to be networked within a system of transnational elites (TNE), who see their interests as more in common with each other, than with the citizens of their respective Nation-States. 
    This leads one to ask: What type of education system would most benefit the TNE?
    By looking at the common themes seen in America education, the answer to this question appears to a system that focuses on globalist neo-liberal economics and the white as oppressor narrative. The former is easy, the TNE see the world not as a group of States, but as pools of labor and potential markets. Therefore its easy to see why neoliberalism dominates any legitimate conversation regarding the economic system. The whites as oppressor narrative is a little more complex. Its main purpose seems to be as psychological warfare against the populations of the West who would most oppose the agenda of the TNE.  The only time Nationalism of any kind is encouraged among Western populations are times when military action is required for the interests of the TNE.  At all other times however, ethnic Nationalism ( or just having a positive view of ones own heritage) is portrayed as extremely dangerous, especially when applied to domestic politics.  Its important to understand that ethnic Nationalism is only frowned upon when Europeans or European American practice it. Non-European or non-"white" populations are encouraged to "celebrate" their ethnicities while "whites" are portrayed as immoral or mentally ill for doing so.
    This leads one to believe that this is by design. The most likely purpose is the potential threat that the white working and middle class (WWAMC) pose to the TNE.  The education system is by far the most effective way of keeping these populations in line, and while the trade-off is a less technically educated population, the easy fix is to bring in non-Westerners (mostly Asians) to do the technical work. This also serves the added purpose of creating a non-Western technocratic elite who see themselves in opposition to the WWAMC.
    The education system also corresponds well with the American political structure. The American Left acts as the "social sciences" of the system whose job it is to weaken the standing of white populations through mass immigration and anti-white racial policies.  The American Right acts as the "business school" which gives the illusion of "fighting liberalism" but which results in making the WWAMC worse off economically. The American Right is also more likely to send the WWAMC to a foreign war that serves the interests of the TNE. 
    The best plan of action for people who can rise above and repair the damage caused by the American education system is to find a place within the TNE’s power structure and provide a skill or service that benefits the TNE. Any sort of opposition to the agenda of the TNE will result in a life of poverty, loss of freedom, or possibly even loss of life.  IOW, work as a mid level manager in a government agency and tend to your suburban garden on your off-time.  And if anybody asks; say "diversity is strength." 

  18. Dr. Von Says:

    ‘Tis a wonderful discussion. 

    The notion of memorization has come up in a few comments.  I agree that a certain type of memorization is necessary in education, and that is memorization for the sake of learning and eventual application (i.e. long-term memory).  The example of medical doctors needing to memorize human anatomy is a prime example.  But this is very different than what takes place in, say, most history classes, which is memorization for the sake of passing the next test.  This is why most cannot come up with dates and events, because the focus of the individual was solely for the short-term when they ‘learned about’ those dates and events in school, in order to pass the test. 

    Students freely admit this, and I and most of my teacher friends know this to be true because we did the same thing when we were in middle school and high school.  There was no importance/relevance given to us to make us want to try and raise the level of our learning to long-term memory, and many teachers will explicitly state ‘you need to know this for the test.’  If that is all that is required, and if that is all the motivation students are given, then of course we should expect nothing more than short-term memorization. 

    I tell my students on a very regular basis that they need to challenge me as a teacher…ideally on a daily basis.  They need to ask me, and often they do, "What is the point of me wanting to learn this stuff today?"  If I cannot give them any reason that will some how connect to their life in any way, then I need to ask myself if this should really be in the curriculum.  They may not agree with my argument or reasoning as to how it affects them, but they at least will acknowledge my effort to make a connection.  Why should students need to learn something if it truly does not matter for them in any way?  A lack of relevancy inevitably leads to short-term memorization for the vast majority of students.

  19. zen Says:

    " "What is the point of me wanting to learn this stuff today?"
    I tend to ask my students that – or even "Why did I just do "x"? What was the point to that?" – it provokes some interesting discussions – you can "read"the different levels of perception of what was just learned and they start to focus analytically on their own learning. Good time for Socratic questioning. Some of them can get quite sharp at discerning multiple levels of learning embedded  in a lesson

  20. “But good points are brought up that there is a need for memorization. Perhaps the best example is how medical doctors need to memorize human anatomy, which is obviously relevant and vital to a doctor’s work.” « OnParkStreet Says:

    […] (from a comments discussion at zenpundit) […]

  21. A Brain Divided Against Itself Cannot Stand | The Committee of Public Safety Says:

    […] Safranski posts over at […]

Switch to our mobile site