Every now and then someone puts forth an idea that is simultaneously so profound and so obvious that it is instantly accepted, and it slips quickly into the category of self-evident wisdom. As a result, most people never know the name of the originator, even as they make use of the idea. Thomas S. Kuhn, whose book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, appeared 50 years ago this month, was hardly a prophet without honor–or profit.  His dense book with the oxymoronic title–structure of a revolution?–is still in print, having sold 1.4 million copies over the past five decades. Yet even so, his theory of “paradigms,” and “paradigm shifts,” has radiated far beyond science, spreading into history, business, and politics–even as few attach Kuhn’s name to the argument.

Today, no policy issue better exemplifies the idea of a paradigm shift–actually, of paradigm shifts–than education. As Kuhn would say, these shifts have been difficult to achieve and deeply disruptive to the old order, but, driven as they are by advancing technology, they ultimately prove to be inevitable. Two decades ago, I had a small role in articulating the first paradigm shift on education, and I owe my articulateness to Kuhn.

Like many nerds, I first ran across Structure in high school, back in the 70s. Many years before Wikipedia, I plodded through Kuhn’s references to scientists and philosophers such as Bacon, Lavoisier, and Lister, keeping an encyclopedia at the ready. Yet even so, my comprehension was poor: Just as Woody Allen speed-read War and Peace and came away knowing that it was about Russia, I slogged through Structure and concluded it was about change.

Fifteen years later, in 1989, I was a White House policy adviser to President George H.W. Bush. The year before, as part of his national campaign, Bush had pledged to be “The Education President”–without offering much in the way of specifics. In the latter years of the preceding Reagan administration, Secretary of Education Bill Bennett had made a strong case that the public schools–notably, in Chicago–were failing, but it would fall to the next president to offer up solutions.


So, soon after Bush 41’s inauguration, a West Wing meeting was convened to put actual policies behind the platitude. The mighty Office of Management and Budget told my policy colleagues and me that we had $500 million in “new money” to allocate to K-12 education programs; yet, unfortunately, no truly new ideas about reversing the chronic decline in school achievement were on the table.

After the meeting, it was obvious that despite the high hopes of the new Bush team, we were already in a rut. If our $200-billion-a-year educational system was failing, what was the likelihood that spending $200.5 billion the next year would make much of a difference?

Dimly recalling that Kuhn had something important to say about how change occurs, I walked over to a bookstore–a store that has long since been paradigm-shifted out of existence–bought a new copy of Structure, and started re-reading.

Structure is nominally a history of scientific progress, and yet its insights embrace how any system that involves humans can change. As Kuhn explains, we each organize our lives into a paradigm, a fancy word for “model,” or “pattern.” We wake up every morning sure of certain things–for example, basic questions of identity and loyalty. These are our personal paradigms. And as we go through life, the information we receive–from family, friends, work, and life itself–is generally taken to confirm our place in the pattern.

Out of these systems come tradition, habit, and standard operating procedure–the things that make us comfortable and competent. As Kuhn wrote, “Paradigms gain their status because they are more successful than their competitors in solving … problems.” Most of the time, such comfortable mindsets serve us well: we know automatically who we are, what to do, even how to vote.

Yet sometimes the old ways don’t work. In the face of changing circumstances, the tried-and-true paradigm becomes untrue. And as much as we’d like to, we can no longer hide from change. In Kuhnian phraseology, this is a “crisis.”

In the history of science, a crisis hits when it becomes obvious that the existing paradigm is no longer working to explain natural phenomena; the classic example was the realization that the sun didn’t revolve around the earth (the Ptolemaic, or geocentric paradigm), but rather, that the earth revolved around the sun (the Copernican, or heliocentric paradigm).

Kuhn’s subversive and cynical point, though, was that the new discovery didn’t come gradually. Instead, the discovery typically came in a burst to one or two iconoclasts, who then had to push their way past peers who couldn’t see, or refused to accept, the new idea. And sometimes, as in the case of both Copernicus and Galileo, the old orthodoxy pushed back. Hard.

In our personal and political lives, we can all recall crises that forced a painful reassessment of some variety. Sometimes, we made the necessary change; sometimes, we didn’t. Either way, it was painful; if we didn’t make it, we fell behind, and if we did make it, we broke up our comfortable world. As Kuhn put it, progress depends on “tradition-shattering.”

The tradition-shattering moment for me, reading Structure in 1989, came when I read the sentence, “The state of Ptolemaic astronomy was a scandal before Copernicus’ announcement.” For me, that was it: Spending hundreds of billions on schools that didn’t work was a scandal. We were engaged, I thought to myself, in a giant act of negative metallurgy, turning gold into lead. And so, I thought, to add money to the same system was simply to compound the existing scandal.

Moreover, someone, I thought further, ought to say so. And so I and others started talking up school choice as an alternative to school reform within the current public-monopoly system. That is, we should stop trying to make the bureaucrats live up to promises they couldn’t or wouldn’t keep; instead, we should bypass the bureaucracy completely and give the money to parents, in the form of a voucher. It was a decades-old idea of Milton Friedman’s whose time had finally come. In fact, led by Housing Secretary Jack Kemp, the younger–and younger-thinking–elements of the Bush administration soon wrapped themselves into an “empowerment” movement, expanding the choice idea to other areas, such as public housing, and from there to other big issues, such as welfare reform.

It was a heady time for us, but such attempted paradigm-shifting was of little interest to the hierarchs in the Bush administration; Bush himself was mostly interested in foreign policy, and he delegated domestic policy to others, such as Budget Director Richard Darman–who was mostly focused on persuading Bush to retract his “read my lips, no new taxes” pledge so that he, Darman, could play fiscal Kissinger and negotiate a “Grand Compromise” on the budget. Darman’s impact, of course, was to broker a tax hike that sundered Bush’s political support. The result was higher taxes, a bigger deficit, and, of course, a humiliating defeat for Bush; he received a lower percentage of the vote in 1992 than any incumbent president since Taft in 1912.

Still, during the Bush administration, the “empowerment” crowd, in conjunction with education paradigm-shifters at Heritage and Cato, managed to instantiate the idea of school choice into Republican policy thinking. The old model of bureaucratic- and union-controlled schools had hit its Kuhnian crisis point. Greater public awareness about the problems of the schools, combined with new technologies that made testing, transparency, and magnet-schooling easier to manage, meant that there was no was turning back.

Meanwhile, after 1992, the real work on school choice was done out in the states–by, for example, Republican Governor Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, joined by renegade Democrats in the Madison legislature. The already prevalent post-60s Zeitgeistial shift toward social flexibility and personal autonomy had also contributed, inevitably, to educational flexibility and autonomy.

Indeed, in the last two decades, the school-choice movement has spread all over the country; Louisiana has a statewide voucher program, for example, while 41 percent of students in the District of Columbia school system go to charter schools. To be sure, persistent concerns exist about the quality of some of the new-style schools, just as persistent concerns exist about the quality of the old-style schools. But nobody dares suggest that we go back to the old system. The structure of the school-choice revolution is nearing its completion.

Yet now a new paradigm shift is upon us: online learning. The non-profit Khan Academy, offering some 3300 instructional videos at a single price–free–has captured the imagination of education reformers everywhere. Thanks to the effort of 35-year-old paradigm-shifter Salman Khan, any young person, anywhere in the country–or anywhere in the world–can receive instruction from the best.

And many others, too, are jumping into online education. One such is edX, a non-profit consortium, jointly funded by Harvard, MIT, and UC Berkeley; its president, Anant Agarwal, called online education “the single biggest change in education since the printing press.” Now that’s a paradigm shift.

Kuhn died in 1996, and even if he himself is obscure today, the ideas that he captured in his book will last forever, because the restless and questing human spirit in the past will also be the restless and questing human spirit in the future.

James P. Pinkerton is a contributor to the Fox News Channel and a TAC contributing editor. Follow him on Twitter.