Letter to the Editor Ref.: Overcoming Isolation

IFSR Newsletter 1991 No. 1 (27)
Charles Francois
Libertad 742, 1640 MARTINEZ, ARGENTINA
Dear Dr. Sokoloff, dear IFSR-NEWSLETTER readers,
I was deeply impressed by the note about “Overcoming lsolation” in NEWSLETTER nr. 25, and am very eager to help drive the nail deeper into our very tough systemic wood.
The description of the specialization problem in that editorial is a perfect clinical diagnosis and, in these short lines, I see a most clear definition of our current and future quandaries. Specialists generally lack interest in the work of other specialists who do not live in their own islet. Should one of them come to understand that he is becoming a kind of social (and even scientific) castaway, he would lack the time, means and keys to sail again towards the open ocean of questioning and understanding.
You advocate, quite correctly in my opinion, a “restructuring of our academic institutions” in order to give “equal prestige (and employment) to both specialists and generalists”. Let us face it: this is going to be a Herculean endeavour. And, moreover, nearly nobody else besides ourselves has any understanding of the urgent need to do so, if we are to avoid a series of agonizing global crises in the coming century. Unfortunately, I should add that the systemic movement has not yet produced the needed tools. Many of the participants in our meetings are still, at best, part-time generalists, who try to connect whatever special work they are doing with a more efficient methodology or land with a better understanding of their local scientific environment. Full-blown generalists are still a very rare species, indeed. As a result, our generalist community has until now produced very little material of inspiring quality. And this is my first point: if we are not able to communicate to many people what we precisely mean with our G.S. and cybernetic view of the world, that is, of course, our own failure. So, let me express what I mean, first by “many people” and secondly by “a G.S. and cybernetic view of the world”.
By “many people”, I simply mean Mr. John Citizen, or Jacques Bonhomme, or Juan Pueblo, or Comrade Ivan. He may be a scientist, but he could also be a blue or white collar worker, a farmer, an engineer. Most important of all, he may be a politician, one of those gentlemen who regard themselves as the managers of our society, until some tailtwisting of the unpredictible crocodile throws them to the ground (or below it). By “many people” I mean, moreover, the rich and poor, women and men, youngsters and old people, instructed or just somewhat literate individuals. As to a “G.S. and cybernetic view of the world’ I should summarize it as a capability to understand complex situations.
Synthetically, we should produce educational material suited to very different levels of understanding in very different cultures, and aimed to enable people to better understand where they belong, in which way they do and what responsibility they have towards the world in which they live.
Let me now go into some detail and try to more precisely characterize the different kinds of material I have in mind. Of course, in every case, it should be significant and of the highest possible quality.
1- Graduate level material
There is an urgent need to prepare a global census of systemic and cybernetic concepts, to explain these concepts, to discuss them, to exemplify and interconnect them. Their general relevance must be emphasized and their transdisciplinary value explained. They should be presented as tools for observation and practical action in complex situations, while at the same time recognizing their limitations, especially the predictive ones. We also need a good presentation of a systemic-cybernetic methodology for observing, typifying and modelling complex systems. However, in my opinion, the actual limitations of this methodology should be clearly stated and explained.
Addressing themselves to specialists, the generalists should team up with them in small task forces to consider, first, what systemic-cybernetic concepts and models may contribute to every specialty, which examples and, eventually, new general concepts can be obtained from them and how they can be used to relate one’s own work to the world at large.
2- High school, technical school and college level
ln these surroundings too, concepts, methodology and practice constitute our basic tripod. However, in this case, we must considerably reduce the level of abstraction and invert the whole process.
The key to the understanding of complex systems must be sought and found in practical and everyday real situations. It is not even necessary to speak of “systems” or “cybernetics” in abstract terms to youngsters until they are 12 to 14 years old. The most important aspects are the links and reciprocal interrelations that can easily be observed in everyday life. The ones who must really know about the global view are the teachers and professors, in order to avoid perceptive and conceptual shrinking in their charges’ minds.
Thus, our responsibility is to explain all this to the instructors and educators who are responsible at this level. 1c this end, another type of material must be created, with the help of these teachers. This is what we are trying to do at an experimental level here in Buenos Aires. (See our NEWSLETTER nr. 7: “Systemic education for youngsters”.)
3- “We were all general systemists once”
Under this banner I some years ago, in an ISSS Meeting, reminded you that we all, as “newborn babies and kindergarten children”, have experimented with complex systems. We have all had to connect complex causal sequences, learn familial and social differences, learn the coordinated uses of thousands of objects, etc. We had to do all this before being able to read, count and write, let alone study anything in a scholarly and formal way, becoming thus more or less blocked in perceptive and conceptual straight-jackets.
And we did it, in the most natural fashion: by game and play. Now that we are grownups, or even old men, let us remember! All we have to do, is to let small children discover complexity for themselves. When they come to the ripe age of three or four, we may start to suggest some new games to them, which should in an implicit form contain, logical rules, feed-backs, organizational closure, dynamic stability, discontinuities or other systemic or cybernetic ways or means, as long as they remain playful and unobtrusive. Soon or later, they would discover everything by themselves, with the help of their fresh minds and natural creativity.
This is the third – and most fundamental – level where we should create systemic-cybernetic material. It does not need to be sophisticated. One of our members here achieves quite a lot with just some chalk marks on the tiles in a courtyard.
From primary school on, subtly oriented observation of natural systems (growing plants, animal antics, an aquarium or a pond, insect metamorphosis, visiting some reserve) should help a lot.
Let us now see who should accomplish this task and how. I do not pretend to know all the ways to attain our goals, but I propose, at least, a shopping list of material that should be produced:
1- Kindergarten and primary school level
There is a lot of material available: toys, games and the like. Most of this could be used, if it were more or less refocussed in a more systemic way.
Training programs for teachers should be conceived and tried out.
There are also many studies in child psychology that could be important sources for a systemic redirection of learning.
2- Medium level education and instruction
Some of us should tackle the task of creating systemic cybernetic guidelines for educators. There are various ways to do this, as, for example, by defining ways of observing real systems (the school, the borough, the family, woods, a pond, the beach, a river, a field, etc.) and real situations (an accident, a feast, a fight, an election, a strike, etc.).
Role-playing, participation in civic campaigns, scouting, self government, etc. are quite effective in creating a consciousness of personal interconnections and reciprocal rights and duties.
Here we are at an intermediate level, between abstraction and concrete observation, somewhat selective and reasoning. Here “teachers and explainers” should be at their best. But they must be trained: it is not so much a matter of changing the curricula as of a new formulation and a better interconnection of their contents, combined with the promotion of a spirit of participation and initiation.
3- High-level rethinking
This is the toughest assignment. Specialists generally believe that they know better, and they do… within their own fields. But they do not know about their ignorance of some very important things they should know (l-ignorance de l’ignorance, in Fourasties’s words). This is dangerous because either they believe they know everything they should, or they live in a kind of blissful seclusion.
As a result, their minds are quite difficult to reach.
Our problem is, thus, to find ways of connecting up with them. I confess that I have no ready-made method to achieve this. However, after conducting quite a number of tutorials with quite different assortments of specialists, I came to the following (provisional) conclusions:
– We need good general statements of the cybernetic system science concepts, devoid of any jargon.
– These statements should be connected with as many specialized fields as possible, but their transdisciplinary empowerment character should be emphasized.
– We should try to mix with any group, that is with practitioners of different trades, to give them a sense of surprise and amazement.
– We should carefully listen to specialists’ objections and critique. If they are right, we need to rectify our presentations or, even at times, our ideas; if they seem to be wrong, we should discuss the matter with them.
– We should use case studies, chosen from everyday life, as for example ACKOFF’s short stories or Stafford BEER’s apologues and puns.
– We should ask these groups to think about some global problems that no specialist could solve alone: the Aral Sea plight; the English cows’ “madness”, AIDS propagation; … or some more local complex problems: how to improve our borough, how to stop the spread of drug-addiction, etc.
– We should in as many places as possible offer simple tutorials for people who know nothing about systems, but could become interested in them.
The tasks that await us are gigantic. None of us can hope to make more than a small contribution. Moreover, as Margaret Mead asked many years ago: “When will systemists systemize themselves?”. We need a census of good wills. Why shouldn’t our Federation start that census taking with members of all of our societies? They should let us know their proposals, and, more than anything else, what they are effectively ready to do.
After a period of time it would probably become possible to start networks around specific tasks, some of which are delineated in this letter.
As a way to get the ball rolling, I will hereafter state what I am doing and willing to do:
– I have written an explicative Dictionary of systemic and cybernetic concepts in Spanish. It is ready for publication.
– I am preparing this same work in English and hope to do so later on in French.
– I am at present writing a “Guia Sistemica” (Systemic Guide) in Spanish, whose aim is to explain in the most simple terms the global systemic-cybernetic concepts, aimed at Mr. John Citizen.
– I am helping some very young systemist friends create a systemic method suitable for high-schools now (the experiment has been in progress for 18 months).
I hope to receive your feedback, dear reader, and, in collaboration with you and others, to draw more people into some kind of a really active circle.
Very truly yours,
Charles Francois
Libertad 742, 1640 MARTINEZ, ARGENTINA

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