I’ve been on the search for a school for my soon-to-be-school age kids in recent weeks. Kindergarten, I have come to find out (as have many parents before me), is not at all like what I did when I was five. There are no half-day classes filled with painting and planting seeds to see what comes up and coloring pictures about fall leaves or Martin Luther King Jr. or Memorial Day. Back then, we had fun while also, in a laid back kind of way, learning letters and numbers and maybe, maybe – toward the very end of the year – some beginning addition.

K is now an all-day prospect in many districts, complete with reading and math worksheets as homework (at least an hour’s worth!), and assessment tests. Kids are expected to have learned, utterly, how to read by the end of their 9 months in K, and also how to count by 2s, 3s, 5s, and add and subtract some basic numbers.

As I’ve been trying to suss out where I’m going to send my kids to school, I’ve looked at 7 schools in this process of trying to answer that question – some private (Catholic and not), some public. It feels like college admissions. And it’s raising moral questions that I suspect are best described as “wicked problems”.

A colleague of mine, Brad Kallenberg, likes to begin his engineering ethics courses by talking about “wicked problems”. He names this as a technical term first used by Horst Ritter and Melvin Webber to discuss design work. But Kallenberg’s argument is that “wicked problems” in design are very similar to several kinds of moral problems in that contain several of the same features as wicked design problems, to wit:
There is no definitive description of the problem – “no designer is so omniscient as to give the only and exhaustively true description of what is going on…”
Making improvements to the problem is a constant enterprise, because there’s no clear cut point at which you can say that a wicked problem has been solved.
Wicked problems can’t be thought in terms of right/wrong, or yes/no, but in terms of better/worse.
– There is no way to demonstrate, without a doubt, that a particular design is the “right answer” but instead we only know what has failed.
Wicked problems are not trial-and-error, work-it-out-as-you-go problems, but one-shot deals. Kallenberg gives an example of a bridge: Kallenberg’s example is that you don’t build a trial dam and learn about its problems after hundreds of people have died.
Wicked problems have no one-size-fits-all solution. You can’t extrapolate from one better answer to determine that that will be the answer for all such problems.
“‘Every wicked problem can be a symptom of another [wicked] problem.'”
Debates about how to solve a problem are part of the problem – “if a problem can be solved either mechanically or electronically, then once that choice is made the rails are laid down for one class of solutions (but not others). Yet how to decide which set of rails to lay down?”
There are no finite solutions – it is entirely possible that the best solutions aren’t even under consideration.

(For more, see Kallenberg’s fuller discussion in chapter 2 of By Design: Ethics, Theology and the Practice of Engineering (Eugene: Cascade, 2013).)

There are some almost too-easy connections that could be made between the description of wicked problems, and children’s education:

– “No definitive description” – no kidding.  As a society we seem to have attempted numerous descriptions of the problem: poverty, lack of parental involvement, lacking choice in education, having no clear standards of excellence, lagging behind other nations because we don’t focus enough on math and science.

– Thinking through education has been a constant “making improvements”.  It’s a regular feature in election cycles, county budgets, and mill-levy debates.  Education has also involved constant changing of programs in an effort to get quick result.

– It’s a one-shot deal, or at least we think it is. Whatever we do with and for a child in their 12-15 years in public education can’t be redone later when they’re, say, 50.  As the saying goes, “You’re only young once.”

But let’s not make this too simple…

…precisely because it IS a wicked problem.

I suspect part of the reason why we are frenzied about education – the point of giving our children figurative whiplash with the different “new” methods administrators and teachers want to try – is because we’re trying too simplistically to fix what is not a simple problem.

As Kallenberg notes, debates about how to solve the problem are themselves part of the problem.  That is, it’s pretty clear that in the case of public education, the “rail” you lay down first suggests what kinds of solutions will be available (but not others).  That is: if your concern is with poverty and hence the fact that a lot of kids (up to 90% in my school district, depending on school) don’t have regular access to meals, then one fix is to provide free breakfasts and lunches.  But then questions arise about whether that either solves the crux of the problem, and whether that commitment means lower commitments in other important areas, for instance, those having to do with books and school supplies and teaching support.

Consider that because of the federal Title I program, my daughter could get free breakfast and lunch at her local public school.  Yet because of a decrease in the local budget, the school library is only open every other week.  Two different budgets; two different and often competing approaches to the questions; two approaches to education (among many) that will be neatly packaged come political election season.

Our current methods of debating, especially in relation to political elections, don’t allow  us to recognize that both kinds of budgets offer real solutions, but that both are likely to be inadequate.  Nor do our election-day arguments permit us to be very creative about discussing solutions to these problems because, like elections, solutions to moral questions are supposed to be answered in a “yes” or “no” kind of way. We will vote up or down; our current democratic system doesn’t permit both/and approaches, or more complex discussions – but that is exactly what we need when it comes to wicked problems.

Most of the questions we have as a society are moral questions, and they are nearly all wicked problems.  Abortion might seem to be a shining exception – a place where yes and no are more than adequate answers to the question of whether a baby’s life should be spared – except that, as an RCIA student of mine pointed out, those of us who are consistently pro-life find ourselves needing also to seek justice for the women whose lives are not examples of neatly dichotomized answers.  My RCIA student thought that Catholics ONLY cared about the life of the baby and not about the life of the mother… a sad mis-representation of what we Catholics think justice and love are about.  But I think my RCIA student is only reiterating a strong message she hears consistently inside and outside the church.  The Gospel of life message that babies are people who should not be killed has not come alongside the message that the pregnant women bearing those children are also important (and that seeking their well-being is also part of the Gospel of Life).   Those of us who are pro-life feminists insist on the necessity of caring for both – that fighting for the lives of the unborn is not an either/or proposition vis a vis women’s lives.  That’s not how the political language shakes out though: there, you’re either pro-life or pro-choice, which rhetorically means “pro the baby” or “pro the woman.”

We need to have better ways of thinking about and articulating our wicked problems.  Catholics have consistently found themselves too tied down by two-party systems of thinking, and two-answer debates because we do, in fact, come from a tradition that has a broader canvas for thinking about problems.  But we’ve been trying too hard to make that fit the mold of contemporary American politics.  That’s detrimental, both to our Catholic identity – and to discussing our wicked problems.