Deep and simple, two characteristics of a good educational foundation


“Deep and simple is far more essential than shallow and complex.”

I came upon this idea recently, while catching some of the 2012 documentary, “Mister Rogers and Me,” about writer Benjamin Wagner’s friendship with Fred Rogers.

The above quote is one of the insights Wagner got from Rogers, and it immediately rang in my ears as something meaningful, but a little unclear. Unclear, at least, until the other night, when, as I watched my twelve-year old labor over her social studies homework, I knew exactly what Mister Rogers meant.

Over the course of two weeks, or about eleven assignments, she was to study the West’s involvement with the Middle East, starting from the Crusades, right on up to the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The resource she used was an NPR series titled, “The Middle East and the West: A Troubled History.” Almost every night, she had to listen to a new segment and answer four or five key questions, along with some vocabulary work.

As I watched her sit down, pen in hand, and try to grasp the history of the world, basically, in two short weeks, I knew immediately what Fred Rogers meant when he made his point about “deep and simple” being far more important than “shallow and complex.”

“What’s radicalism?” she would pause and say. “Who was Saladin?” I didn’t know, or didn’t remember, most likely. I had to scramble to help her. I sat by her and walked her through some of the important concepts of how the West’s 20th century involvement in the Middle East connects to the Crusades. Honestly, it is not something that I have thought about enough in my life, and I ended up really enjoying the NPR history series.

It was succinct and informative, but, from a twelve-year’s old vantage point, “shallow and complex.” She hurried through the nightly overview provided by reporter Mike Shuster, and often had to be prompted to look at the maps that accompany each of his presentations. Her concern, because she is a conscientious student, was in getting the work done, not in thoroughly grasping the concepts underlying the history. There isn’t time, she would say.

I don’t blame her teacher for assigning this work. Instead, I think it stands as an example of how we are asking kids and teachers to do more “rigorous” work but mistaking complexity for rigor.

But drowning students, before they are ready, in complex work that they often do not have enough time to truly wrestle with or understand ends up making the work too shallow to be meaningful, I am afraid. It would be simpler—and perhaps deeper—to help students like my daughter first grasp the underlying complexity of what happens when a foreign power invades and attempts to control another country or group of people, and then have them move on, over time, to how this has played out across the world.

This is the depth, and the simplicity, that I could see she needed to understand before adequately grasping how the Crusades, World War I, and even contemporary events in the Middle East, are all examples of profound human experiences. Is it more rigorous, or just more shallow, to try to absorb all of this in a couple of weeks?