Last week I read this post by James Altucher where he talked about the manure problem in New York City in the late 19th century.
Everyone was using horses to get around, and the piles of manure and foul odors were just getting worse and worse.
The manure problem needed to be solved. So committees and task forces were created. Politicians trotted out proposals. Newspapers opined on ways to fix it.
There were thousands of smart New Yorkers trying to figure out how to fix the manure problem. But they couldn't, because they were focused on the wrong problem.
Meanwhile, 615 miles to the west, a small group of entrepreneurs in Detroit were solving the manure problem ... by commercializing personal automobiles.
While the New Yorkers were trying to figure out how to move shit around, Henry Ford and his contemporaries were finding a better way to travel, and inadvertently solving the manure problem at the same time.
The other night at dinner, we were talking about this idea of solving the right problem, and education reform came up.
Education reform is one of those areas where I think if we focus too much on "education reform" per se, we are bound to fail.
Rather, our impact will be higher if we focus on foundational problems such as: living wages, safe neighborhoods, easy and free access to birth control, and hunger.
Spending time, human capital, and money to improve teacher:student ratios is akin to shoveling manure in 1890.
It makes a difference around the edges, and it's probably a worthwhile thing to do while we're waiting for a better alternative, but ultimately it doesn't solve any problems - it simply alters the dynamics a bit.
Everyday we're faced with a bunch of problems and a whole slew of potential solutions. As you survey your problem/solution landscape, step back and evaluate whether you're making difference at a foundational level, or if you're just moving shit around.
Peter Koehler's Writing Archive