INSIDE THE BELTWAY: From education to advertising, the more things change, the more they stay the same

Back in the last century, sociologist David Riesman (unaccountably ignored in century-ending lists of Most Influential Americans), wrote a book, Constraint and Variety in American Education, which deserves as serious attention today as it did when it was published. In that 1956 book, Riesman likened the progress and development of American education to that of a snake, regularly doubling back on its tail. Just as the less-developed and more rural and remote school districts - at the 'tail' of Riesman's educational snake - were finally adopting the 'reforms' called for 30 years earlier by John Dewey and his fellows at Columbia Teachers' College, those urban, now suburban, schools at the head of the snake were beginning to realize the reforms hadn't really worked and that it was time to 'go back to basics.'

Back in the last century, sociologist David Riesman (unaccountably ignored in century-ending lists of Most Influential Americans), wrote a book, Constraint and Variety in American Education, which deserves as serious attention today as it did when it was published. In that 1956 book, Riesman likened the progress and development of American education to that of a snake, regularly doubling back on its tail. Just as the less-developed and more rural and remote school districts - at the 'tail' of Riesman's educational snake - were finally adopting the 'reforms' called for 30 years earlier by John Dewey and his fellows at Columbia Teachers' College, those urban, now suburban, schools at the head of the snake were beginning to realize the reforms hadn't really worked and that it was time to 'go back to basics.'

Back in the last century, sociologist David Riesman (unaccountably ignored in century-ending lists of Most Influential Americans), wrote a book, Constraint and Variety in American Education, which deserves as serious attention today as it did when it was published. In that 1956 book, Riesman likened the progress and development of American education to that of a snake, regularly doubling back on its tail. Just as the less-developed and more rural and remote school districts - at the 'tail' of Riesman's educational snake - were finally adopting the 'reforms' called for 30 years earlier by John Dewey and his fellows at Columbia Teachers' College, those urban, now suburban, schools at the head of the snake were beginning to realize the reforms hadn't really worked and that it was time to 'go back to basics.'

Thus, decades of 'see-and-say' reading, relaxed targets (pass/fail) for achievement, and an end to drills and memorization were being discarded by the 'leading' schools in favor of phonics, old-style report cards, hall monitors and homework, just as the 'new' education - and even something called the 'new math' - was being adopted by the 'backward' schools of the hinterland.

There is a lesson here for all of us, as we see the process being repeated, this time in information technology and its impact on the American economy.

And, naturally, given the new speed with which information travels, the 'snake' is doubling back on itself much faster; a half-century can be compressed into a decade.

Ten years or so ago, those at the front of the commercial parade, especially those reporting on new developments, were hailing the conversion to dot-coms as the new way of doing business. Led by Amazon.com and its colleagues, 'bricks-and-mortar,' we were told, would soon be a thing of the past, an e-relic of the old days.

Soon, in fact, even advertising by the new types of business began to crowd out more traditional ads, until fewer and fewer people responded to the commercials for the simple reason the product either was incomprehensible or the company was unknowable.

And sure enough, just as this trend reached 'the sticks,' just as Amazon.com and eBay spread their word to small towns and mid-size businesses, the newness of the emperor's clothes became more and more apparent - very few of the newcomers were making a profit, or even much revenue. Traditional ways of doing business began to re-burgeon as the dot-coms, denied further financing, began to disappear.

Can e-commerce sell bricks and mortar?

Not very likely.



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