Learning in Mind

Rethinking the Purpose of Education

The Historical Purpose of American Public Education


magine a government decree ordering the medical profession to institute a "standard" medical assembly line based on the "average" patient. Doctors will be assigned to a particular station on the line. Every citizen, regardless of his or her initial state of health, will be required to move from station to station through the assembly line at the same rate. Get some vitamins here, get a shot there, get your reflexes tested at the next stop.

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The assembly line will move so quickly, and there are so many stations for the patients to visit, that no doctor has time to assess any pre-existing condition or to determine whether a different treatment is required. That's not in the production schedule for this assembly line. In the name of productivity and efficiency, doctors must simply perform their part of the standardized procedures as instructed

At various stages along this assembly line, everyone must undergo a battery of tests. These tests don't assess the health of the individual person, but how their health compares to a series of standards and to the health of the other patients who have traversed the same part of the assembly line. If patients "fail" those tests, it's either their fault for not trying hard enough or the fault of the doctors, who obviously need more training. What never comes under scrutiny is the assembly line process itself!

Sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? We intuitively know that, while standardized assembly lines may work with inanimate materials, they do not work with living beings possessed of nearly infinite variability. How then did the factory/assembly line approach to schooling become so entrenched? Have educational policy makers really convinced themselves that individual differences don't matter? That minds are sufficiently alike that standardized procedures will work to an acceptable degree? Yet if educators recognize that this approach is not only counter to research, but actually detrimental to learning, why is it so difficult to change?

Let's examine the metaphor of school as factory and see how that perception has continued to shape the thinking of educators to this day. You will soon find that "school as factory" was never a metaphor! Compulsory public education in America was deliberately designed using the factory model!

A Little History


oday's world is much different from the one in which the public school system in the United States began. You can find a fascinating (and disturbing) account in The Underground History of American Education(1) by John Taylor Gatto, and a more abbreviated description in Gatto's more recent book, Weapons of Mass Instruction.(2) Were it not for the extensive research Mr. Gatto has done in writing these books, what he suggests would sound like yet another conspiracy theory. But his meticulously documented history of public education can't help but enhance your awareness and understanding of why the factory metaphor permeates our schools and our language.

A full examination of the ground out of which our present system grew is beyond the scope of this article. However, a few quotations from earlier times may help you understand why school as factory isn't a metaphor at all, but a deliberately chosen methodology that still drives public education.

"Our schools are, in a sense, factories, in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life."
~ Elwood Cubberley-Dean of the Graduate School of Education, Stanford University, 1917-1933

Cubberly was extremely influential in shaping American schools at the turn of the century. Lest you think he was being critical of that process, here is another quote from the same man.

"We should give up the exceedingly democratic idea that all are equal and that our society is devoid of classes. The employee tends to remain an employee; the wage earner tends to remain a wage earner… One bright child may easily be worth more to the National Life than thousands of those of low mentality."(3)

And another from William Torrey Harris, the U.S. Commissioner of Education in the late 1800s.

"Our schools have been scientifically designed to prevent over-education from happening. …The average American [should be] content with their humble role in life because then they're not tempted to think about any other role."
One Room School

Here's another frightening Cubberley quote that appears to be playing out in public education with the narrowing of content, the focus on creating worker bees for the economy, tests that effectively maintain the "social classes," and the elimination of civics in many schools.

"Only a system of state-controlled schools can be free to teach whatever the welfare of the State may demand."

The "bright children" of Cubberley's time didn't attend public schools because those schools were never intended to provide the kind of encouragement and stimulating environment needed to develop beyond the "literacy" expected of docile and obedient citizens who would provide the goods and services necessary for society.

As head of the Department of Education at Stanford University, Cubberley trained a generation of school administrators in "scientific school management," based on Frederick Taylor's scientific management scheme. Taylor was one of industry's first efficiency experts.

[The following section is based on information from The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness by Dr. Todd Rose. The book has been named one of the most influential books of 2016 and one of the "must read" books of the year. To fully understand the information in this and subsequent sections, as well as their implications, reading the book in its entirety (only 196 pages!) is highly recommended.]

The Rise of Standards


rederick Winslow Taylor, born in 1856, was the son of a wealthy Pennsylvania family. Taylor was drawn to the new world of industry. He worked in several factories owned by friends of his parents, analyzing what he saw and figuring out ways to make the work more efficient. By the 1890s, Taylor declared that the only way to solve the problems of the factory age was through a "science of work."

Taylor's goal was to eliminate inefficiency by ignoring the individual and putting the system first. A business should not worry about adapting its system to fit the individual. Instead, businesses should hire Average Men who fit the system. Taylor didn't want brilliant or talented workers who had a tendency to want to change or "improve" methods. He believed that there was one best way to accomplish any process, so he set about to "standardize" industrial processes. For example, he measured the average time it took workers to shovel coal into a furnace. He analyzed the physical motions and determined that the optimal amount of coal to shovel in one swing was 21 pounds. He had special shovels built to carry 21 pounds. He then established a set of standard steps for this and every other industrial process, and workers were not permitted to deviate from those standards.(4)

Taylor's methods undoubtedly increased the efficiency, productivity, and profit for businesses in the Industrial Age. But at what cost? Much of America's strength in its early years derived from the ingenuity and creativity of its individual citizens. Americans used whatever available resources they found to build cities and eventually populate the vast landmass of the United States. At the Great Exhibition held in London in 1851, many nations exhibited their most interesting products, technologies, and inventions. Entrepreneurs from America, which had existed as a nation for less than 100 years, surpassed all expectations with inventions, such as Samuel Colt's revolver, Isaac Singer's sewing machine, and Robert McCormick's mechanical reaper.

Before Frederick Taylor, factories hired the most talented workers they could find, and allowed them to organize the work in whatever they believed would help production. But Taylor saw nothing worse than a worker trying to do things his own way. "It is thoroughly illegitimate for the average man to start out to make a radically new machine, or method, or process to replace one which is already successful."(5) As Taylor's standards were adopted through business and industry, workers who had once been celebrated for their ingenuity and creativity were "relegated to the role of automaton."(6) As a result of this standardization, factories decreased the need for skilled workers, thus lowering the cost of labor. The ingenuity and creativity that had once been America's strength were replaced by standardized processes that increased productivity and profit…at the cost of the individual.

Taylorist Education

In the early 1900s, Taylor's Principles of Scientific Management became the Bible of industry. Workers became cells on a spreadsheet—interchangeable Average Men. But Taylor wasn't finished. Efficient factories had an insatiable appetite for semi-skilled workers, but in 1900, only 6% of the American population graduated from high school. Immigrants flocked to America to work in factories, but how would their children learn what they needed to replace them? America needed an education system, but what should its purpose be?

Even then, "a group of educators with the humanistic perspective argued that the proper goal of education was to provide students with the freedom to discover their own talents and interests by offering an environment that would allow them to learn and develop at their own pace. But when it came time to establish a nationwide, compulsory high school system, the humanist model was passed over in favor of a very different vision of education—a Taylorist vision."(7)

Educational Taylorists declared that the new mission of education should be to prepare mass number of students to work in the Taylorized economy. Thus, public education was organized to conform to the central tenet of scientific management: standardize everything around the average. Schools around the county "divided (students) into groups by age (not by developmental readiness, performance, interest, or aptitude) and these groups of students rotated through different classes, each lasting a standardized period of time. School bells were introduced to emulate factory bells, in order to mentally prepare children for their future careers.…Modeled after scientific management, [the planners] created a fixed, inviolable curriculum that dictated everything that happened in school, including what and how students were taught, what textbooks should contain, and how students were graded."(8) And consistent with Taylor's top-down hierarchical management in factories, schools replicated a system of principals, superintendents, and district superintendents.

"By 1920, most American schools were organized according to the Taylorist vision of education, treating each student as an average student and aiming to provide each one with the same standardized education, regardless of their background, abilities, or interests."(9)

Thus, in the same way that he had turned factories into altars of productivity at the expense of individuals, Taylor shaped public education into a factory assembly line, with a single purpose—to turn children of "the common man" into a docile and obedient working class satisfied to fill boring jobs in the early years of the Industrial Age. Any pretense of educating children to their full potential was long forgotten.

A more in-depth article about the school as factory metaphor can be found here.

[In The Lingering Influence of Scientific Management, we see how educational Taylorism continues to influence today's public schools, as well understanding the current "official" purpose of public education in the United States.]

  1. Gatto, John Taylor (2000) The Underground History of American Education. Oxford Village Press
  2. Gatto, John Taylor (2010) Weapons of Mass Instruction. New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, BC. Canada
  3. http://greatlakescenter.org/docs/Policy_Briefs/Howe_LocalControl.pdf p. 7
  4. Rose, Todd (2015) The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness, HarperCollins, NY. p. 44
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid., p 50
  8. Ibid., p 51
  9. Ibid.

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