Loss of Memory and Reform-driven Policymakers

In 1975, Neurologist Oliver Sacks saw a hospitalized patient by the name of Jimmy R.  (see “Lost Mariner” in wife-hat-2)


Jimmie R. was suffering from Korsakoff’s Syndrome, a condition associated with chronic alcohol abuse. He was stuck in time. No memories after 1945. It was “Groundhog Day” again and again.

When I originally drafted this post, I thought that I would compare reform-driven policymakers to Jimmy R. along the lines that veteran school reformer Deborah Meier had laid out in a series of questions reformers must ask but seldom do:

“Amnesia is dangerous… Getting into the habit of asking questions such as ‘has this ever been tried before?’ ‘what happened?’ ‘is there a pattern here?’ ‘based on what evidence?’ and ‘does it matter?’ is what takes time and patience….”

But on further reflection, my comparison of Jimmy R. to policymakers suffering from  memory-loss is too dramatic, too over-the-top; it is an analogy that is, truth be told, flawed. Hurried policymakers have many reasons for not inquiring into similar past reforms and asking the above key questions about charter schools, performance evaluations, Common Core standards, and online learning. Reasons include their certitude about the reform as the solution to the problem, an allergy to disconfirming evidence, career ambition, and simply justifying their decisions by pointing out how different the world is now and that changes have to be made. Ah, there is one more. They even remember a rosier past that they cherished and want for all children.

Still the story of Jimmy R. and his being stuck in a past moment haunts me. The story, I believe, casts a shadow over those who rush to reform schools and are too single-minded to ask  essential questions about similar past ventures tried by equally well-intentioned reformers.



Filed under Reforming schools, school leaders

4 responses to “Loss of Memory and Reform-driven Policymakers

  1. Bob Calder

    There are many ways that we forget. And many reasons.

    My use of “institutional alzheimers” is surely inaccurate as well but it’s the way I understand schools failing to learn and follow through on short-term improvements.

  2. Nice post — and it reminds me of your own chapter in Tinkering toward Utopia (though originally an article by David Tack, right?) describing how school policy debates often fixate on things that end up being inconsequential, even as great big societal changes (with important consequences for education) are happening in the background, unnoticed.

    I.e., it’s not just that policy folks aren’t paying attention to the past — they might not be paying attention to the present, either.

    Makes me wonder, also, what historians will one day say about the present era. What society- and school-changing developments are we missing, right now, while we argue about merit pay, charter schools, and so on?

    • larrycuban

      That is a fine question, Rafael, about what historians will say about the present era, that, is what was emphasized–an easier call–and what was missed–a much harder, if not impossible, call. Thanks for the comment

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