Why the resistance to demographics in education?

Why do people lack information about demographics?  Is there a kind of resistance to demographics, at least in education?

I’ve been struck by this over the past several years.  In my work with hundreds of campuses and organization, and not a few governments, many* people have reacted to my presentation of demographic data with shock and excitement.  This is especially true of educators, and when said data is neither controversial nor bizarre, at least to me.

People don’t respond with arguments.  They don’t contest the research or dispute its importance.  They are just, all too often, surprised.  Aging states, the decline of the youth population, the rising hispanic population, etc. –  this is news to most of them, from what I can tell.

This is frustrating for a futurist, as demographics are very useful tools.  It’s also weird for the education world, since demographics clearly have a powerful impact on schooling.

This topic returned to mind after reviewing Nathan Grawe’s important new research, and hosting him as a guest on the Future Trends Forum two weeks ago.

His research is ground-breaking, but also keys off of what he and I thought were common knowledge.  He tells me many audiences react with shock and appreciation to his basic assertions, which he thought were well understood.

This reminded me of how rarely I see demographics spoken of in the ed tech world.

So what’s going on?  Why isn’t demographic research tripping off of everyone’s tongues?

I pushed this query across a bunch of venues, and did a little digging.  Let me share some findings, then see what you all think, dear readers.

Stats are not sexy Most of the demographic research I see appears in raw statistics or tables.  Rarely do I come across excellent visualizations, like Grawe’s:

Grawe_Forecasted growth in high school graduates 2012 to 2032

I hear from people who teach stats and numeracy that most Americans are pretty shockingly innumerate.  So maybe it’s not demographics per se that we avoid, but the way the field’s research appears: as numbers without visualizations or stories.

Speaking of which…

We prefer generational monickers Many people really enjoy seeing themselves or others in generational framings.  So and so is a Baby Boomer; ah, Millennials are thus and such; well, as an Xer I…, and so on. Strauss and Howe provide very accessible identities and stories for people to access.  Perhaps this displaces looking at the research and data that makes these more complex and, er, realistic.  We’d rather talk about the baby boom instead of the birth dearth.

The persistence of the past Humans have a hard time adjusting to change, often enough.  Admitting that the population one inhabits has changed since childhood can be an unpleasant shock.

Politics Demographics automatically involve major policy issues, from race and ethnicity to deindustrialization, from identity to taxes.  Many are contentious, and so many people will shy away from discussing these out loud, and perhaps avoid learning about them.  For example, thinking about an aging population often leads to realizing that retirement is increasingly unavailable, elder care underfunded, etc.

Speaking of politics…

The politics of religion and sex Demographics is ultimately about the most intimate aspects of human life: birth, death, and sex, for starters.  For many Americans these are awkward (on average) issues to discuss in public.  They involve radical or even painful aspects of religion and personal politics.  Think of abortion politics, for one, or the belief that black babies are being massively aborted for evil reasons.  Think, too, of the possibility that we’ll see new calls for women to have more children, and how that flies in the face of women’s social progress.

I suspect connections to health care make it even more difficult, at least in the United States.  On the positive side the growing population of older folks is a terrific triumph, a civilization-level win for science, public health, sanitation, technology, and care.  On the negative aspect, though, thinking this through means not only grappling with serious complexity, but dealing with the agonized mess of how America finances and restricts access to health care.  All too often we’d rather not talk about it.

It’s like the weather Like the old joke goes, we can observe these phenomena, but not do anything about it.  For some people the huge shifts of birthrate or immigration are meteorologically beyond our ability to address.  So this could cause people to stop paying attention, or to turn away in impotent frustration.

So: numbers, cheap stories, awkward politics, impotence.  It sounds like demographics are just a pain for most to investigate.

What do you think?  Do any of these map onto your experience?

*Yes, note that I use words like “many” and “some”.  #notalleducators resist demographics.

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4 Responses to Why the resistance to demographics in education?

  1. Joshua Kim says:

    Bryan, I’m naturally with you on this one. Perhaps the reason is that I was trained as a social demographer, work in edtech, and spend all my time thinking about the future of higher education. (And now electric bikes, but that is a different story).

    Recently, I wrote about this in Higher Education Leaders and the Falling Total Fertility Rate. https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/technology-and-learning/higher-education-leaders-and-falling-total-fertility-rate

    Maybe we need to visit the PAA meeting (Population Association of America – my old professional organization) to build some demographic / edtech / postsecondary change bridges.

    As to why there is not more knowledge about demographics, I’d say the reason is that we are not talking enough about the big trends.

    Your piece is a a good push to prioritize this conversation.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Good to know that about your background, Josh.
      Maybe the PAA is a place to go indeed.

      I keep talking about the big trends…

  2. Steve Orzech says:

    I completely agree with your premise and find your reasons compelling. Perhaps because they agree with many of my experiences as a secondary Social Studies teacher, I find that your suggestion about the personal and political nature of demographics ring true. I once got in trouble for teaching about sex ratio as reported to an uninformed administrator by an equally uninformed parent who was upset that I was teaching about sex in a geography class. For us, it becomes an issue of survival. If we talk about these things, administrators may not support us and our jobs could be in danger. As it becomes harder and harder to find good administrators, teachers of Social Sciences duck to more “safe” places like history or economics.

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