Beabout - Book Review: Maxcy's Democracy, Chaos and the New School Order

Maxcy, S.J. (1995) Democracy, Chaos and the New School Order. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

A look at Maxcy's critique of Newtonian-paradigm approaches to school reform and some connections between Chaos Theory, John Dewey, and the process making "good" schools. This important book in the applications of chaos theory to school reform lays some excellent philosophical foundations and makes a strong argument for why traditional approaches to school reform are not likely to bring about the changes in schools that many people desire.

Bashing Frameworks

Begins by listing off the various frameworks giving rise to modern school reform movements: scientific, interpretivist, radical, and humanist, and discounts them all as being outgrowths of Tyler’s scientism that attend to only certain features of schooling.

Critical Pragmatism

The mantra of the rest of the book develops his philosophy of critical pragmatism that is based on Dewey’s notions of democracy and pragmatic philosophy and the pluralistic, post-modern American society.

To explain this:

  • Dewey’s notion of democracy is not as a governance structure, but as a way of life in which people talk to each other (discourse) and use their experiences (intelligence) to make life better. As applied to schools, this means that schools are mini-societies where children should practice these skills so as to adopt the democratic ideal, thus strengthening American society as they grow up. Maxcy supports and characterizes this form of democracy as maximalist, as opposed to the more common minimalist democracy in which experts limit the democratic involvement of certain segments of society in their efforts to improve it.
  • Dewey’s pragmatic philosophy centers on a belief in addressing problems that they encounter in real life instead of pondering the universe without actually doing anything about it.
  • Critical Pragmatism, then, encourages people to come together to solve real problems democratically, with attention paid to multiple voices and to the multiple ways of understanding and solving problems. Maxcy sees this process as more important to improving society than the actual solutions that come out of it.


In terms of assessing solutions to school problems: he tells us “there is no permanent, value-neutral matrix of instant rationality against which to test school life.” (p.20) In fact, he encourages us to broaden our attempts at assessing schools, saying that: “much of what is good in schools is overlooked, and much that is wrong is revealed by the present frameworks.” (p.142)

He also thinks the personal experiences of those in schools are more valuable than the organizational chart or assigned roles (a poststructuralist stance). Maxcy dislikes the traditional, business-influenced organizational theory often applied to educational leadership which covers up its assumptions about the purposes of schools, appropriate modes of inquiry, and the diversity present in today’s US public schools.

Chaos Theory

He describes chaos theory as focusing on “non-linear change, irreversible processes, and patterns of attraction.” (p. 33)

Chaos Theory deals with complex systems (large ones are complex- like schooling) and treats them holistically (whole is more than a sum of the parts). The system is always changing, in flux, appearing chaotic sometimes and ordered sometimes. Systems search for equilibrium (a balance in energy flow with its environment). He briefly mentions recursive symmetry (feedback loops) examples of which are fractals and strange attractors. Talking about the butterfly effect, Maxcy says chaos theory is strongly deterministic. Also, complex structures studied by chaos scholars are dissipative structures that are set in motion by initial conditions, but then take unpredictable paths through time and the environment.

Central to chaos theory is answering the question to whether the universe “wants” to be ordered (a cosmos) or is driven by some other forces we don’t know (chaos). Those who answer both ways might still use the theory in examining the world.

School Restructuring

“The story of school restructuring in recent years is the tale of modernist managerial philosophy running headlong into postmodern cultural changes.” (p.75) Schools are being asked to make up for holes left by community and family in the 20th century (citing
Jencks, 1972/1979 and Carnoy and Levin, 1976) and they can’t do it. He gives examples of failed school restructuring efforts at the state level (Kentucky Education Reform Act), city level (Chicago), and District level (West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana). Most school restructuring efforts have merely “rearranged the deck chairs” while pushing responsibility down the organizational ladder onto teachers or students. Of course, this was written before NCLB-I wonder what he might say now.

He argues for a shift in fundamental mindset of schooling away from generating economic productivity or even gaining knowledge to democratic participation in a vital social community. Citing Dewey, he urges us to see schooling as an ends unto itself (almost an internship for citizenship) instead of just a means to and ends (productivity, knowledge, citizenship, etc.). Schools are not to be effective but they are to be good. He uses chapters on moral and artistic thinking to discuss how we might create, sustain, and evaluate such schools.

In the end, chaos theory influences school reform by assuring us that “unframing” our current conceptions of schooling will not result in damaging chaos, but will unleash a more organic order that can be understood and managed through democratic processes.

© 2007 B. Beabout

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