Hysteresis and the Legacy of Industrialization


I recently shared a fascinating study on the impact of the historical legacy of a place, which found that students living in neighborhoods with a legacy of economic and residential segregation had greater odds of dropping out of high school compared to their peers in other neighborhoods.

The existing social capital of a neighborhood, in other words, is associated with the historical legacy of that particular place.

This makes a lot of sense to those of us that work in communities with legacies of poverty and trauma. And it also relates to a concept that Will shared here back in 2012: hysteresis. As explained on Wikipedia, hysteresis refers to “the dependence of the state of a system on its history.” This concept can be applicable to a wide range of systems—in our case here, we are considering socio-ecological systems.

Another recent study presents further support for the impact of the legacy of a place on people. Researchers used online surveys of the “big five” personality traits (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism) and examined them in connection to a region’s historical legacy associated with industrialization during the 19th and 20th century.

Their results suggest “that the massive industrialization of the 19th and 20th centuries had long-term psychosocial effects that continue to shape the well-being, health, and behaviors of millions of people in these regions today.”

“. . . .Our research shows that a region’s historical industries leave a lasting imprint on the local psychology, which remains even when those industries are no longer dominant or have almost completely disappeared.”

The author concludes that “Without a strong orchestrated effort to improve economic circumstances and people’s well-being and health in these regions, this legacy is likely to persist.”

Granted that this study is based on data gathered from online surveys. But the “big five” survey has a fairly robust research base behind it and predicts academic achievement and parenting behavior (you can also take the survey yourself; I found my own results enlightening). But of course, further research into the impacts of the historical legacy of a place should continue to be pursued.

In the meantime, for those of us who work with children raised in communities that bear the legacies of injury, we need to be mindful not only of the individual needs of the children before us, but furthermore the history of the place within which they live.


Research: The Industrial Revolution Left Psychological Scars That Can Still Be Seen Today, Martin Obschonka / Harvard Business Review

The Historical Legacy of Place


We’ve spoken here often about the need for a long-term perspective in education reform, as well as explored the concept of hysteresis.

A recent study,Towards Conceptualizing and Empirically Examining Legacy of Place: An Exploratory Consideration of Historic Neighborhood Characteristics on Contemporary Dropout Behavior” provides a novel look into such a perspective by examining the historical legacy of neighborhoods and how that legacy relates to inequality.

We argue that legacy of place is formed through historic economic and racial residential segregation, which influences economic and social status resource allocation in the present day. . . . School segregation influences the amount of social capital resources available to a neighborhood, which contributes to the existence of clusters of high poverty and high dropout rates among neighborhoods with low levels of social capital.

After testing their theory through multiple analyses, the authors found “that students living in legacy neighborhoods had over 16% higher odds of dropping out of school compared to their peers not living in these types of neighborhoods.”

“these findings should provide inertia for the creation of policies that address the lasting influence of historic neighborhood racial and economic segregation. Such polices may help to equalize racial educational outcome gaps considering minorities are more likely to reside in legacy neighborhoods compared to whites.”
This wider context is critical to bear in mind, especially in light of another recent study that challenges the benefit of in-school integration. As reported by the NY Times, “In School Together, but Not Learning at the Same Rate,”Nicole Mader, the co-author of the study, said the lingering achievement gap demonstrates that just having different kinds of students together in the same building is not enough to have true integration.”
Indeed. It’s bigger than that. It is the historical legacy that have led to segregated neighborhoods that must be actively fought.
But school diversity, even when it’s not enough, is at least a step in the right direction.



Like students, plants give up after years of failure, too

By Famartin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
“The plant life of Australia’s outback may have “given up”, according to satellite-based maps tracking the impact of changing climatic conditions, such as rainfall and temperature, on the world’s ecosystems.

“The study suggests the vegetation of our interior does not respond to sudden increases in rainfall because it has “learned” that drought will soon follow. . . .

“‘Sometimes when you subject an ecosystem to some kind of disturbance, such as a drought or fire, they behave differently depending on their past,’ he explained. . . .

“‘They don’t care if it is good favourable conditions now, because they know it is temporary and it is not worth investing in growing more at this time because they become bigger and it is a lot more to care of when the drought returns,’ he said.”

–Dani Cooper, “Global satellite map highlights sensitivity of Australia’s plants to changes in rainfall and temperature” on ABC Science News

An Editorial on Societal Culpability for Have-Nots

Graham Horn [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
A couple of years ago, I’d mentioned a study by Harvard Public School of Health which suggested that people with more education had greater resiliency against cognitive damage from toxic solvents.

A recent Danish study builds upon this theme, suggesting that greater amounts of education (as well as more cognitively demanding work) counters the deleterious effects of aging.

Developing our cognitive capacity through education can empower us to become more resilient against toxic chemicals and enables us to thrive well into older age. It also potentially shields us against perceptual illusions.

Education is that important. And cognitively challenging and engaging work is that important. But these studies also point to a darker side to this story.

The truism that “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer” bears tragic relevance here. If your brain rarely has the opportunity to develop resiliency and rich interconnections due to toxic or barren environments, then you are even yet more susceptible to the cruel vagaries of existence.

Think of those of our nation’s children growing up in environments of acute and chronic stress, some of whom will not graduate high school or will drop out of college. They are caught in a terrible catch-22. Those children desperately need to develop deep and robust reserves of social, emotional, and cognitive capital, yet may have little opportunity to develop anything but survival skills to meet daily exigencies.

It’s frequently suggested within the field of education that we can control little beyond the small confines of our school. And we often throw up our hands in the face of the utter devastation our children sometimes can face in their daily lives. We triage the psychological and physical needs of our students each day as best we can, but . . . they must go home at the end of the school day, and so must we. Often on the opposite sides of our societally staked fences. Because the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. So it goes.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can control the environments our children are raised within. We can design and structure our urban spaces and architecture to include greater access to greenery, commerce, and fresh air. We can develop policies for housing and transportation that prioritize the needs of the many, rather than the few. We can provide greater access to nutritious food sources.

Or we can keep telling ourselves that we will save the world within the confined spaces of our classrooms while our society’s more fortunate further segregate their lives into enclaves of ever increasing serendipity, and our society’s less fortunate live desperate half-lives on the outskirts of their happenstance pity.

If we truly want our children who struggle the most to gain access to the greatest of opportunities, then we must move beyond pity, beyond blame, and into shared living spaces and implement systems of collaborative decision-making and problem-solving. Shared, because so long as we don’t experience and live our lives in shared environments, then we will have little impetus to change systems nor environments. Collaborative decision-making and problem-solving, because diversity leads to better decisions.

What began as a post in reference to an article on aging has morphed into a fulmination against the strictures of our society. But as irrational and vague as my flight of rhetoric might be, the undeniable reality is that we can do better. Our system of capitalism can be much more robust and equitable, our democratic republic can be much more inclusive and effective, and our state mechanisms for deliverance of public services can be much, much better.

Over and out. Back to writing lessons for the classroom.


A good friend of mine just introduced me to the idea of hysteresis, which fits very well with our “school as ecosystems” framework. Essentially, hysteresis refers to the impact that a system’s history has upon its condition. The good folks at wikipedia provide an example:

“Coral reef systems can dramatically shift from pristine coral-dominated systems to degraded algae-dominated systems when populations grazing on algae decline. The 1983 crash of urchin populations in Caribbean reef systems released algae…allowing them to overgrow corals and resulting in a shift to a degraded state. When urchins rebounded, the high (pre-crash) coral cover levels did not return, indicating hysteresis .”

This is a hysteretic effect: despite the fact that some elements (the urchins) in an ecosystem (the Caribbean reefs) had returned to previous levels, the ecosystem’s history prevented the system from returning to its prior state. Phew.

Among other things, the concept of hysteresis should give us all caution. When we alter a system of any kind, the effects may be irreversible, or not reversible in the short term. For example, when we close down public schools by the dozen, then later find out that our system for rating schools bears no relation to the actual student learning, we might not be able to undo the damage.

There’s the damage we do to students, whose social and emotional (not to mention academic) experiences of school may be severely disrupted by school closures. There’s the damage we do to educators, whose efforts to build their school communities are discarded like so much city trash. Perhaps most importantly, there’s the damage we do to communities all over the city, where students and their parents learn that their voices do not matter, even when the decisions being made affect them most.