Simplicity isn't always simple

In the developing world, people rarely desire simplicity. In affluent societies, simplicity is a lifestyle enabled by complexity.


Simplicity can be deceptively complex. People in subsistence cultures rarely see simplicity as desirable. They hunger for more food; cleaner water; better schools; greater access to electricity, health care, transportation. Won’t affluence and choice just make their lives more complicated? Yes, please.

Further up the economic ladder, simplicity can become an ideal. The surfeit of products and information, the bustle of modern life, make people yearn for simpler times. “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!” urged Mr. Simplicity, Henry David Thoreau, who fled the whir of 19th-century Concord, Mass., for a cabin on Walden Pond. His was modern simplicity. It worked because of underlying complexity: He could always stroll into town for a warm meal from Mom and a chat with his pals.

Apple gadgets are perhaps today’s best example of modern simplicity. Under Zen-like interfaces a hive of connections runs software that interacts with faraway servers. Complexity powers their simplicity. Unschooling, which Stephanie Hanes explores in a Monitor cover story (click here), is Apple-like. It wouldn’t work as well if universal public education and rich social and cultural assets – museums, libraries, the Internet – weren’t already established.

Stephanie spent four years as a foreign correspondent in Africa and other developing regions – in places where kids would do anything just to go to a conventional school. Unschooling is a first-world luxury. It thrives when families are cohesive, engaged, inquisitive; when a parent can be a teacher/coach who connects kids with learning opportunities. That isn’t an option for many of the 50 million American public school students – or for parents who either can’t or don’t want to revolve their lives around their kids’ educational explorations.

There are larger consequences, meanwhile, when families turn away from conventional education. Schools lose support and diversity. The common ground of public education erodes. Still, parents have good reason to question mainstream education. Some dislike assembly-line schooling and standardized testing. Some believe children should learn at their own pace. Some worry about their children’s safety and the negative social influences they might experience in and around schools. 

The growth of unschooling might also be foreshadowing the kind of disruption to mainstream education that mainstream media, finance, and other parts of the economy have gone through. Technology and choice raise questions about shipping children across town, funneling them into one big building, and teaching them en masse. As telecommuting is changing the traditional workplace, unschooling might be the leading edge of a movement that makes elementary and secondary education less centralized and more networked. 

But that won’t be for everyone either. Public schools, private schools, religious schools, vocational schools, home-schooling, unschooling – simplicity and complexity can coexist. In fact, they need each other. In his book “The Laws of Simplicity,” John Maeda, an artist and software specialist who has taught at MIT and the Rhode Island School of Design, likens the balance between the two to rhythm in music: complex notes followed by simple ones followed by complex ones. Even Mr. Simplicity would probably be OK with that sort of complexity.

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