Design for Educating

Fenster writes:

Design is the new IP

Design is the new marketing

Design is the new currency

Design is the new engineering

Design is the new green

Design is the new black

Design, it seems, has some powerful mojo.

Yet with all things mojo how much is real?

Buckminster Fuller put the essence of design into two pithy sentences at the beginning of Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth.

If you are in a shipwreck and all the boats are gone, a piano top buoyant enough to keep you afloat makes a fortuitous life preserver.  But that is not to say the best way to design a life preserver is in the form of a piano top.

Not much arguing with that.  At base design expresses a few key concepts:


–about solving a problem

–taking account of context and systems

–with a goal in mind.

So far so good and pretty straightforward.  Now, it is not clear that Fuller’s Dymaxion Car. . .


. . . springs from this idea fully formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus.  But this conception of design does partake of the positive tradition of American pragmatism.  Things can always be made better.

There is something off, though, about the way Fuller frames the issue.  Note that he puts design on the one side and, for want of a better word, serendipity on the other.  But is that a fair fight?

What Fuller elides past in this metaphor is another venerable tradition: tradition.  Many of the answers we accept as worthwhile do not just come floating by us in the open ocean after a shipwreck as flotsam and jetsam.  No, these answers are often themselves designed in a sense but not in the highly intentional manner that Fuller would favor.  Rather, they arise more via human choice, experimentation, and trial and error, and the Darwinian process of winnowing down that follows.

So in a sense Fuller unfairly sets his notion of intentionality against mere chance.  Design can beat mere chance on a one for one basis much of the time: a life preserver designed to save lives at sea will generally best a piano top.  But in the real world a designed concept is up against many shipwrecks over many years, and it is quite possible–indeed inevitable–that the collective “design” that results from seeming chance will best the best of intentional design.  Gee-whiz pragmatism is a wonderful thing and is to be celebrated but let’s make it a fair fight and let’s make sure Burkean conservatism is taken account of.

These ideas were much on my mind when I read a recent (paywalled) article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on whether design concepts need to play a larger role in higher education.  And not just in the pedagogy–there is plenty of that–but relative to the institutions themselves, and to how they are structured, managed and financed.

There has been a lot of breathless talk about redesigning higher education, disruption and dramatic change.  Clayton Christensen, the Guru of Disruption, speaks about altering higher education’s “DNA”–eugenics for the organization.

The author of the Chronicle article, Lee Vinsel, will have none of that.  To him design thinking in higher education amounts to a “boondoggle”.

(F)addists and cult-followers are pushing the DTs as a reform for all of higher education. In the last couple of years, The Chronicle has published articles with titles like “Can Design Thinking Redesign Higher Ed?” and “Is ‘Design Thinking’ the New Liberal Arts?” The only reasonable answer to these questions is “Oh hell no.” . . . 

You likely can’t get to the article because of the Chronicle’s paywall.  But you can probably guess the line of the argument.

–Design thinking is a fad, like the human potential movement that was in part responsible for its development and growth.

–People who preach the application of “design principles” in higher education are just using the same old consultant-speak, gussied up for a new era.

–There is no real track record of success in applying so-called design principles to higher education anyway.

I suspect there might be a lot of debate about the first two propositions above, with advocates taking issue with whether “design” is a valued added way of looking at things.  I suspect less disagreement with the third proposition.  Despite hand-wringing galore over the past decades higher education has not much changed.  Some institutions can’t turn on a dime.  Colleges can’t turn on a million dollars.

Some will defend that, pointing to the resilience of the odd structure, and that it has proven adaptive over time.  Others will say time is up.

Now, it is true that whatever cannot bend can only break, and if conditions will no longer permit higher education to continue past practices change will come one way or another.  But to what extent will such change truly represent design and to what extent is it likely to be a form of what Charles Lindblom famously called, in only a slightly different context, “the science of muddling through“?

Vinsel is no doubt correct in asserting design has not amounted to much relative to reforming higher education.  But that may say more about just how hidebound the institution is in its conservatism than it does about the inadequacies of design thinking.

So let’s give a cheer for design thinking. . .  and one cheer in this complicated situation, not three.

Of course design works–except when it doesn’t.  Context and history matter.  The highest form of pragmatism is skeptical of doctrine of any type and will look first at the Law of the Situation.  What are we dealing with here?

Colleges are just too plural from the get-go to expect a brilliant designer to come up with A PLAN that will cause the institution to turn.  Too many cats, not enough dogs.

Yes it is possible that design itself can be a plural enterprise.  And that is probably the best that can be hoped for–that as the place really starts to crash enough people on the inside will get religion and pitch in on new approaches.  But even then the line between  “design” in a Bucky Fuller sense and muddling through gets kind of muddied.

An approach designed from the top is bound to fail due to excess authority.  An approach too willing to indulge higher education’s characteristic chaos is bound to fail due to inertia in the face of crisis.  Will splitting the difference work?  Maybe, but that could fail too if the crisis is deep enough, and if it continually outraces efforts to keep up with it.  That’s what is called a predicament.


Fenster on Christensen here.


About Fenster

Gainfully employed for thirty years, including as one of those high paid college administrators faculty complain about. Earned Ph.D. late in life and converted to the faculty side. Those damn administrators are ruining everything.
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