Lessons from Oppenheimer: How Schools Need to Manage Dogma and Ideology | Sanje Ratnavale | 12 Min Read

August 21, 2023

In the recent Hollywood movie, Oppenheimer, an ideological battle between socialism or communism and loyalty to country rages in the head of the protagonist. In one of the most famous lines of the movie, when challenged about the disconnect between an intellectual embrace of communism, the right to unionize which he denied the Manhattan Project scientists, and patriotism to a country dedicated to capitalism, Robert Oppenheimer responds, “Why limit yourself to just one dogma?”.  Though glib, this is a perfect response from a scientist because it recognizes that theory has its limits and must be tested;  a recurring theme in the movie as well. There is a faint underlying fear that their atomic explosion might unleash a “chain of events” that actually destroys the world. It is a concern beyond the scope of theory to resolve. Oppenheimer rates that probability at near zero but not zero. The ultimate irony as the movie concludes is that it is not the science that unleashes that cascade, but humans themselves in utilizing the knowledge of the Manhattan Project.

Sitting in that theatre and seeing this drama unfold, my mind turned to independent schools and education in general, but not today’s world of education or schools. It was the contemporaneous drama unfolding at the time of the events portrayed in the movie. This was the story of two ideologies or dogmas that entered the consciousness of educators and schools between the 1930s and early 1950s, transmitted by the Progressive Education Association.  These ideologies were the Learner-Centered (led by the likes of John Dewey), and the Social Reconstruction or Justice ideology (led by George Counts). As I wrote in the article Why DEIJ is desperately seeking a curriculum date? the clash between these two progressive ideologies was terminal and “by 1955, the Progressive Education Association had failed to reconcile its differences and collapsed”. The result of this schism was the forceful return of the two traditionally embedded curriculum ideologies, the Scholar Academic, based on the transferred cultural and scientific knowledge emanating from the Colleges, and Social Efficiency, focused on the employable skills required by an industrial society. In the 1950s, it was the Scholar Academic ideology that led to the comeback of STEM, spurred by the space race. In the 1980s, it was the rapid spread of Social Efficiency ideology with standardization, ignited by…

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Sanje Ratnavale

Sanje founded OESIS in 2012 and serves as the President of what has grown to become the leading network for innovation at independent schools: the acronym OESIS grew from the initial focus on Online Education Strategies for Independent Schools. He has held senior administrative positions at independent schools including Associate Head of School at a K-12 school for seven years, High School Principal for three years, and CFO for seven years. Prior to making a switch to education, Sanje spent 15 years in venture capital, investment banking, and senior C-level (CEO, COO, CFO) management. He was educated at Christ Church, Oxford University (B.A. and M.A. in Law/Jurisprudence). Sanje is based out of Santa Monica.