Systems of Survival

A board dinner discussion about scaling educational impact reminded me of Jane Jacobs’ Systems of Survival.  The Library Journal summarized it this way:

Jacobs argues that modern societies utilize two distinctive moral systems–one being suited to the world of commerce, the other to the world of politics. Commercial morality is unsentimental, nonpartisan, and efficacious; political morality is personalistic, expansive, and vaguely altruistic. The problem is that we don’t always know which system of morality to employ in concrete situations. Furthermore, the wrong choice can have disastrous consequences.

While it failed to gain critical or popular support, Jacobs work is still a classic for those of us trying to improve a public delivery system by injecting private sector innovation and values.  I was reminded by the dinner chat of how fundamentally different the cultures and incentives are for organizations designed to deal in commerce from those designed to deal in politics.  It does help explain the oil & water reaction we often see when trying to mix the two.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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1 Comment

john thompson

Is there any way to synthesize The Life and Death of Great Cities with your support of NCLB? Honestly, you know how Jacobs would have ridiculed data-driven accountability in education. I enjoy your work on innovation, but I've never understood how you can reconcile it with your support for accountability practices that - at their best - represent a leap into the Taylorism of the early 20th century. At their worst (with Klein and Rhee) they are turning the clock back to the mind body dualism of the 18th century.


Tom Vander Ark

thanks, great question. Like my friends at, I'm for a 'great schools promise' that ensures that every kid has access to at least one great public school. That means measurement and accountability. I wish the US wasn't so dependent on old psychometrics and am optimistic about adaptive curriculum embedded and performance assessment. Let's hope with the $350m to be spent on Common Core assessments that we see some improvement.

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