Schools as factories

2009 December 4
by Evan Lenz

I picked up a copy of David Elkind’s The Hurried Child at a used-book sale recently. Below are some quotes relevant to the focus of this blog.

What is surprising about our schools today is that they have reached full industrialization just at a time when factory work, as it was once known, is becoming as obsolete as the farmer with a horse-pulled plow.

Our schools, then, are out of synch with the larger society and represent our past rather than our future…[T]he discrepancy is particularly great today because of the knowledge explosion and the technological revolutions that occur with machine-gun rapidity. Children do poorly in school today, in part at least, because they sense the lag between what and how they are learning in school and what is happening in the rest of the world.

Consider that the above was written in 1981, long before the advent of Google, Facebook, and YouTube.

He then goes on to describe in painful detail how schools are becoming more standardized and education is becoming more product-ized. In a section called “Assembly Line Learning”, he describes the relentless pursuit to quantify children and their achievements via increasingly burdensome standardized testing.

Schools in ostrich-like fashion, are responding to the challenge of poor school performance by regression. “Back to basics.” Back to old methods and old materials. Back to a factory emphasis on worker (teacher) productivity and quality control (pupil competency) that is at odds with the major thrust of modern industry. What the traditional factory ignored and what modern industry recognizes is that the worker is not a robot, that he or she needs motivation, challenge, a sense of involvement, recognition, and some input in the system. Modern industry looks at the worker as a person, while schools, particularly those that use teacher-proof curricula do not.

Consider that the above was written in 1981, long before “No Child Left Behind”.

This all seems more true today then when Elkind wrote it. Schools are still moving backwards, and knowledge & technology are growing even faster. Do you really want to put your kids on a boat that’s sailing backwards, and anxiously hurry them along while you’re at it?

His conclusion is both gratifying and perplexing:

If we have to see our schools as factories, then we should learn from our modern-day factory experience. Hurrying workers and threatening them do not work. Treating them as human beings who want to take pride in their work, who don’t want to be confined to the same routine, and who want the opportunity to express their opinions and to have those opinions taken seriously does work…Democracy is the balance between total control and total freedom, and what we need in education, as in industry, is true democracy. Only when the values upon which this country was founded begin to permeate our educational and industrial plants will we begin to realize our full human and production potentials.

His call for democracy in education is gratifying for parents of kids at a Sudbury school. But I’m perplexed by how one would go about implementing democracy in a school run as a factory. The analogy between treating students well and treating factory workers well breaks down. Factory workers are not themselves the product being shuffled down the assembly line, whereas in schools, that’s exactly what students are. Thus a more appropriate analogy would have the widgets and cranks themselves being treated as human beings and given a say in their future, which of course is nonsense. I think the first step is to do away with the factory model. Stop treating students (i.e. people) as products, constantly assessing and assuring their “quality”.

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2 Responses leave one →
  1. December 7, 2009

    Well, I’ve heard this book title enough times now that I know I need to read it. Great excerpts!

    • Evan permalink*
      December 7, 2009

      Keep in mind I was cherry-picking. But that’s not to say the rest of the book isn’t good (or that it is), since I haven’t read all of it. :-)

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