A few bad apples

The classroom conversation took place in 2014 but I remember it like it was yesterday: “OMG Dr. Preston that’s so cliché…”

Huh? I looked up from my desk to see one of my most successful seniors – who gained admission to Princeton, University of Michigan, UCSD, and UCSB, and earned a full ride at Ohio Wesleyan – staring at the apple next to my laptop.

I laughed and said, “You have got to be kidding me. Are you seriously profiling that apple because I’m a teacher? Can you imagine walking up to a member of any other group and talking about their food that way? What if this were a taco or a piece of fried chicken?”

Of course, it wasn’t, and I didn’t take (much) offense. She didn’t mean anything by it.

More recently, the “bad apples” saying has been used in the contexts of racism and culture wars. But both the saying and apples themselves have deeper meanings in education. Poor families have given apples to teachers since the 1700s in Europe, and it was common practice in the American west during the 1800s.

Times have changed. The vast majority of apples grown and sold in America now suck, and so do the vast majority of conditions surrounding the teaching profession. The quality of apples and the quality of teaching have declined for the same reasons.


The Red Delicious apple has been described as, “A crime against the apple… (that) has an unparalleled power to inspire visceral disgust… but really has no business in the mouth.”

In 1905, the United States Department of Agriculture published a bulletin entitled Nomenclature of the Apple: A Catalog of the Known Varieties Referred to in American Publications from 1804 to 1904. The document was over 400 pages long and listed approximately 17,000 different apple names. Even after deducting for poetic overlap in naming practices, Americans still grew 14,000 distinct varieties of apples in the 19th century. That’s FOURTEEN THOUSAND.

So why is it that when we go to a supermarket, there are only five types of apples on offer? Why are they all round, tasteless, acid-washed, waxed imitations of fruit? Where are the apples of yesteryear – the yellow Westfield Seek-No-Furthers; the purplish Black Oxfords; the massive, red-streaked Wolf Rivers; or Thomas Jefferson’s go-to fruits, the Esopus Spitzenburgs?

It’s not like customers like Red Delicious better than other varieties of apple. It is “the most produced and arguably the least popular apple in the United States.”

So, where did the good apples go?

As Rowan Jacobsen put it in Mother Jones, “Industrial agriculture crushed that world.”

More specifically, over two decades at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, the Stark Nursery of Missouri spent about $750,000 on a marketing campaign to promote the Red Delicious. Growers across the country valued the cosmetic appeal more than the taste – it turns out sellers have different priorities than buyers.

So, even though the Red Delicious was becoming notorious for its thick, bruise-resistant skin and mushy, mealy, tasteless interior, by the 1980s it accounted for more than 75% of the crop produced in the state of Washington.


Q: “Hey there, David – what does this have to do with Open-Source Learning?”

A: All the problems in the world are the result of actions we take based on choices we make. The more information we have, and the more skills we have to analyze, question, synthesize, and use that information, the better our chances of making decisions that improve the quality of our lives.


First, consolidation sucks because it reduces the number of choices we have.

“Wait a second,” my friend said when I mentioned this to her. “I have hundreds of choices when I shop. Just look at all those brands!”

Brands are not choices. Stores-as-brands are not choices either.

If you just bought a pair of [Ray-Ban, Oakley, Vogue Eyewear, Persol, Oliver Peoples, Arnette, Costa del Mar and Alain Mikli, as well as licensed brands including Giorgio Armani, Burberry, Bulgari, Chanel, Coach, Dolce&Gabbana, Ferrari, Michael Kors, Prada, Ralph Lauren, Tiffany & Co., Valentino and Versace] sunglasses from one of 9,200 [LensCrafters, Pearle Vision, OPSM, Laubman & Pank, Spectacle Hut, GMO, Óticas Carol, Salmoiraghi & Viganò, Sunglass Hut] stores around the world…

… you just bought a Luxottica pair of sunglasses from a Luxottica store.

In the marketplace, reducing the number of choices reduces competition. Larger companies can achieve greater profit margins by reducing costs and raising prices in economies of scale, without worrying that they will lose market share to a competitor who makes a better product with better ingredients/materials.

Over the last few decades we have seen mass consolidation in various fields and industries, including:

  • accounting
  • arcade/food/entertainment
  • satellite television
  • construction and engineering
  • household appliances
  • lighting and light bulbs
  • search engines
  • soda
  • tires
  • toilet paper, and
  • wireless telecommunications.

You would have thought the industry had learned its lesson. You would be wrong.

The most painful illusion of freedom of choice is in the grocery store, where it does the most everyday damage to our wallets and our health.


Almost every single brand in the grocery store is manufactured by one of nine conglomerates: Kraft, Nestle, Pepsico, P & G, General Mills, Unilever, Mars, Johnson & Johnson, and Coca-Cola. Oh, that artisanal/ regional/ natural brand you like so much? That was acquired by one of the big companies.

When it comes to our food supply, manufacturing consolidation sucks because it makes us vulnerable. Corporations prioritize industry and shareholder profit, not high-quality products. They use all sorts of toxic chemicals and cheap ingredients. They manufacture products – just as commercial farmers grow the Red Delicious – to make things attractive for purchase but unhealthy to consume. As a result, mass-produced food isn’t good for us to eat.

Consolidation of industrial agriculture is even more dangerous. Profit incentivizes large growers to produce fewer varieties of fruits and vegetables, but growing and relying on less variety makes populations vulnerable.

One million people died in Ireland during the potato famine. Just imagine if the poor had a potato alternative to the Phytophthora infestans – infested Irish Lumper.

Today – right now as you read this – the world’s food security is under attack by TR4, also known as Panama Disease. TR4 is the banana equivalent of Covid-19.

This isn’t the first time that disease has attacked bananas. In the 1950s, the industry was hit with “one of the worst botanical epidemics in human history.”

“The banana production system was weakly founded on the limited genetic diversity of one variety, making them susceptible to disease. You would have thought the industry had learned its lesson. You would be wrong.”

The healthiest natural systems are the most diverse.


In the same way variety is an asset to consumers in the market for everything from sunglasses to food, diverse and divergent thinking is an asset to any social system.

When organizational teams, families, and political parties have constructive disagreements, everyone gets the benefit of everyone else’s best thinking.

In fact, Tuckman’s famous framework of the stages of group development indicate that “storming” is a natural and necessary step toward high performance. Instead of being a conflict or even a competition, argument in this context can be a shared search for truth that brings everyone to a more informed understanding.

The alternative – the pressure to conform, to keep one’s mouth shut to consolidate thinking into one cohesive perspective – is groupthink. This is NEVER a good thing. A classic example of this inefficient, unproductive, irrational disease is the Bay of Pigs crisis.

Unfortunately, groupthink tends to rule school culture. Schedules and curricula are designed for lockstep compliance. Disagreement is conflated with insubordination.

Many of the good teachers – the independent, flavorful, creative, nonconformist thinkers who inspired and occasionally provoked – have gone the way of the good apples.

In their place, credential programs, publishers, and testing companies have manufactured the teaching equivalent of the Red Delicious. Flavorless, mushy conformists who look better from further away, who follow the same textbook training scripts and cry on cue when the local Honda dealership pays for the tank of gas they can’t afford. It’s not their fault – that’s just the way they were produced.

Open-Source Learning encourages diverse and divergent thinking. One year, a student joined my course in the spring semester and introduced himself to the class by arguing a point until the bell rang. Imagine his surprise when I named him Student of the Week.


The old adage is true enough: A few bad apples really can spoil the whole bunch. Especially if those bad apples are education administrators and the bunch are teachers and students.

But that’s not the last word on the subject. There is a path forward.

As I wrote in Academy of One,

“We can meet traditional academic standards and establish standards of intellectual and personal excellence, while simultaneously preserving learners’ freedom to embark on interdisciplinary learning journeys of their own. We can create optimal conditions for growth in the garden without requiring all the flowers to be the same.

“Having high standards is not the same thing as standardizing school or evaluating its effectiveness through the use of standardized tests. Encouraging each learner to achieve their fullest potential is the highest standard – and one that by definition rejects standardization.

“For over a decade, students in Open-Source Learning networks have proven that individually created learning is the solution to a schooling world where conformity to one-size-fits all approaches have become the problem.”

Divergent thinking – intellectual diversity – is the antidote to consolidation and conformity.