National Public Education

The Cyclopes and Local Control

Everyone knows the story of the Cyclops in the Odyssey: how Odysseus escapes from this man-eating monster by getting him drunk on fine wine and then poking out his eye with a sharpened log.  What is less well known is that Homer has some sharp criticism about how these monsters live.  They don’t know how to live well.  They don’t cooperate with each other and they don't have any way to meet and discuss things.  Each one lives alone in his own cave, master over only his own family.   They have no government to decide their laws, and no customs or traditions that regulate how they should interact with each other.

Consequently, they have no organized agriculture or technology – no ships, no crops, no trade, no good wine.  Without a way to meet and talk with each other about these things they can never develop them.  By always living alone, each in his own local abode with just his own family, they can never achieve the kind of excellence that the Greeks have.  Their success is limited to the success of each individual, not the combined success of the community.  This is why, Homer says, they are so easily defeated by Odysseus, even though they are individually so much stronger.

In our public education system we put a good deal of emphasis on the importance of “local control.”  We say that this is the best way to educate our children; we try to give the families involved as much authority as possible and to limit outside influences, such as distant state or federal authorities.  I have no problem with this idea in general.  In my own work in schools I have always involved parents as much as possible.  Throughout the world it is accepted that families and local communities ought to have a major voice in the education of the children.

The problem is that if we only emphasize this aspect of our educational system we end up with a Cyclopean kind of problem.  If only the local systems are emphasized, so that there is no way to coordinate their efforts and combine their successes, we will always end up, like the Cyclopes, with a less than optimal result.  If there is no way for the local groups to talk with each other, to share information on how to develop the best practices, then there is no way to produce new and better ways to teach the children.

This is why it is so hard to “take to scale” new ideas in 0ur public education system, and why the outcomes, overall, have not improved in the last generation.  Stagnation is built into the very concept of an emphasis on local control.  Yes, local control works, but it is not a good way to improve things.  If all your emphasis is on simply developing each local situation, then the results have to be varied, since there are, by definition, no connections between these results.  But all those varied results will always just add up to the same average results over time; there is nothing to move them forward.  If you don’t ever work on making the overall situation better, it won’t get better.

It is hard for the people in those local situations to see this.  The Cyclopes don’t see anything wrong with their way of life.   It’s only when an outsider, like Odysseus, brings in something better, like really good wine, that they realize that things could be different.  Similarly there is nothing in a local school system that indicates a problem.  It is, after all, the best way to educate the children.  It’s only when we pull back and look at the overall results that we realized that things could be done better.

As Homer points out, though, the solution is simple.  It’s merely a matter of getting together and talking about these issues.  That’s what the Cyclopes are missing: meetings.  That’s all; a way to discuss what the local people are doing and so decide on which ways are best.  This doesn’t have to replace the emphasis on local control; it just adds a way to share new ideas and techniques.  Collective methods that grow out of local work do not replace that local emphasis, they just add to it.

The point here is not that there is anything wrong with local control; what is wrong is to try to run the entire program around this one ideal.  What we are missing are the kinds of meetings that the Cyclopes are missing; discussions about our local control.  Those can only be created by setting up some kind of organizational structure that is larger than local.


Peter Dodington