The other day I broke down and installed Real Player to watch a video of Jay Forrester giving a quick talk on System Dynamics. I don’t know why, but I had assumed he was dead! He was born in 1918 and all his books were published before 1975, but apparently he’s still teaching at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Recently he’s been getting educators to use System Dynamics and systems thinking as the foundation of their curriculum. Very cool!

Then I realized I had seen some video lectures of Russ Ackoff that I couldn’t watch because I didn’t want to install Real Player, so I went and found them. Four hours of Russel Ackoff! Really fun stuff if you’re as into Ackoff’s work as I am. He told a lot of stories and covered a lot of his usual material in-depth. In the third hour he started getting into some of the work he did in Mantua, a ghetto of Philadelphia.

There were some great stories, including how he got an entire school that was suffering from illiteracy to become literate… by putting Charlie Chaplain silent films on in the auditorium that kids had the choice of leaving class for. A lot of what he does is like social engineering. There was also a story of a bunch of shops that were constantly broke into. Tenants would constantly move out because of it. What did Ackoff tell them to do? Hire the kids that were breaking in as a police force to protect the shops. Theft stopped immediately.

I decided to transcribe one of the stories about how he dealt with the gang problem in Mantua using education. He put on a program that they paid the gang leaders of Mantua to take, but let them decide the curriculum. They following is my personal transcription of the story:

There were 21 gangs in Mantua and the destruction was incredible. There was not only a lot of crime, but a number of kids killed in gang wars. There were 7 turfs and if a kid went into another turf without protection they would risk being killed. They came to us and said, “We’ve got to do something about the gangs.” The gangs were headed up by kids 17, 18, 19 year olds who were the real power brokers in the community. So we decided to open up a school for gang leaders.

Now the first question was, how are you going to get these gang leaders to come to school? We’d have to pay them. We calculated how much it cost to have a gang and the destruction they do in the community, and it was tremendous. We went to the Anheuser-Busch corporation, they have a foundation, and got a grant of money to allow us to develop an educational experiment for gang leaders.

At the University of Pennsylvania we set up a class for 21 gang leaders and it was unique in several respects. The curriculum was entirely determined by the students. They were paid $60 a week at that time which was a lot of money for coming to class. They were provided with whatever equipment they wanted. The first thing they wanted was walkie-talkies with disc players that turned out not to record the professors as they said it was for, but to play records while the professor was talking. But that was their business.

Now several things happened in the course. Some of it, and this is just an aside, but about 3 or 4 days after the course began, I got a call from the engineering college which was the building in which this class was meeting. They said to come over immediately there was a crisis. One of the kids in the class was hot that day, it was in the spring so it was hot, took his coat off and he had a gun in his belt, it was conspicuous. And he walked out of the classroom to find the men’s room and he couldn’t find it. He walked into an office to ask the secretary. You can imagine what happened. She screamed and immediately everybody came running. Of course the supposition was he was there to rape her. And so it was a great big fuss and it took a while to get it settled and we finally convinced the attendees not to carry guns to class.

After about two weeks, a deputation of about three came to me and said, “You know, the people that are coming to lecture to us are writing on the blackboard, and they erase it before we have a chance to read it. Can we have a speed reading course?” Now, it wasn’t speed reading at all. It was illiteracy, but they weren’t going to call it that. So they wanted a course in reading. We put one on, and all 21 of them came to it in the evening on their own time. And within a couple weeks they were literate enough to read the blackboard.

About a month later in the course, they came to us and said, “You know, they’re using a lot of numbers and they add and subtract and divide too fast. Can we take a speed arithmetic course?” We put on a speed arithmetic course for them.

The courses were unbelievable, sometimes I was so embarrassed I could hardly hold in. At one point, they wanted to find out how the newspaper operated. So we got ahold of the Philadelphia Inquirer which was the major newspaper. The publisher’s an old friend of mine, I said who’s the principle reporter who covers the ghetto? He said we got a young girl that’s a real crack up on this. So we asked her to give the course and she agreed. She came to class, and she’s a beauty, she was one of these typical white blond girls. And she started to talk but before she got five minutes in, one of the guys broke in and said “Would you ever date a black man?” First question that was asked of them! She said, “Well as a matter of fact I did.” He said, “How’d you like it?” And then he got very personal in the subsequent questions. But she had to put up with this.

The fact is, before long they found out a hell of a lot about how the newspaper worked. They wanted to know how foundations worked. They had the chief of police in to explain how the police worked.

With some absolutely incredible consequences, for example, the first methadone treatment center in the United States was in this neighborhood. And it was illegal. Because remember, methadone was not legal when it was initially introduced. They took over a building and made a treatment center for methadone, in which there was a lineup of kids every morning, mostly from the suburbs coming to get methadone. The problem was in the first week, they broke into it three times and stole the methadone. There was no way of making the building secure. So how do you solve that problem? That was given to the kids. They went to the police and said, “Will you store this stuff for us in your safe?” The police said yes. So we had the police storing illegal methadone every night. They were delighted because we were cutting down on drug usage and addiction problems in the community.

Now these 21 gang leaders, as they went through this course, towards the end they said, “We want a graduation ceremony.” Well what kind of ceremony do you want? They said, “We want the president of the university to give us a diploma, and we want to be in cap and gown.” So we agreed, got them the cap and gown and the president of the university agreed to give them the diploma. We had a regular diploma made up like a normal one. It didn’t give them a degree, but it gave them a certificate of completion of the program.

And then they said, “We want a prom!” Well what kind of a prom? “We want a nice ballroom and we want formal dress and we want our families to come.” Boy, let me tell you, that was one of the best parties I’ve ever been to in my life. All these young men dressed in tuxedos with gals in gowns and corsages with their families there. We had a band there, it was absolutely a marvelous evening.

Then they wanted a class trip. What kind of a trip do you want? “We want to go to a country we’ve never been in.” Because most of them had never been out of their neighborhood. And we said like what and they said, “Well, anywhere abroad.” The question was, how are we going to get 21 people abroad? We didn’t have enough money. We want back to Anheuser-Busch and we said, “You’ve got five planes, can we borrow them to take these kids somewhere?” They said, “You can, but not outside the United States.” So we went back to the kids and they said, “So what’s the furthest place we can go that’s in the United States?” We said, “Puerto Rico.” “Good,” they said, “we want a class trip to Puerto Rico.”

So we flew the 21 of them to Puerto Rico with two chaperones, one from the neighborhood and one from the university. Two days after they got there, we got a phone call saying “Can you get the planes, they want to come home.” Why? “They discovered the Puerto Ricans don’t speak the same language they do. They feel very disoriented and uncomfortable, and they want to come home.” So I said, “Look, use your heads. What can they do where language will not matter and which will keep them occupied?”

I didn’t hear from them, until the end of the week I got a phone call. I said, “What happened?” “Oh you don’t have to worry about it, the problem’s taken care of.” I said, “What did you do?” “We took them into a prison where they can play basketball with the inmates and they’re having a hell of a good time.” And they spent their so called class trip in prison in Puerto Rico playing games with the prisoners.

You see, self determining activity. They came back and they were just full of this. Now the follow up is what’s important. 17 of the 21 people are gainfully employed even today 40 years later in corporations or government. Two of them disappeared on us and we’ve never been able to track them. 2 of them went to jail for crimes they had committed before they came to the class.

Now you calculate the cost benefit of a course like that. It’s absolutely incredible, it runs in the millions of dollars. It wasn’t the pretense of educators telling these kids what they ought to learn. But giving them a chance to educate themselves in what they wanted to learn that they thought they might be able to use subsequently. The impact of that, was absolutely incredible.