I really like it when someone correctly identifies the nexus between work and schooling. We spend all this effort talking about how the world of work has become unacceptable, as we’ve conceived it, but very little on the fact that traditional schooling is the mechanism for creating precisely this world of work, and for conditioning people to not only accept it but to support and defend it. We don’t want cubicles, but still expect our kids to sit up straight and get good marks in 3rd grade. We want initiators, not pawns, but we still punish or bully ingenuity and cleverness, if it doesn’t merely wait for an authority figure to provide the questions, but comes up with its own criteria for what’s interesting or useful.
So far, my three favorite little pieces on factory schooling are as follows:
1. From a letter by Fr. George Rutler to Peter Robinson, a former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan:
I’d encourage your youngest one to abandon kindergarten altogether. Almost everything I learned was learned outside the classroom, and school itself interrupted my education. Moreoever, school locks you in with your peers. That is a mistake. One’s social circle should never include one’s equals. From my earliest years I found children uninteresting and always preferred the company of adults. This was an advantage, because I got to know lots of folks who are dead now whom I never would have known if I had waited until I was an adult. – So I have a collective memory – and oral tradition – that goes back to the eighteenth century, having spoken with people who knew people who knew people who knew people who lived then. – The only real university is the universe and a city its microcosm. That is why an expression like ‘New York University’ is foolish. New York City is the university….Instead of school, children should spend some hours each day in hotel lobbies talking to the guests. They should spend time in restaurant kitchens and shops and garages of all kinds, learning from people who actually make the world work….One day spent roaming through a real classical church building would be the equivalent of one academic term in any of our schools, and a little time spent inconspicuously in a police station would be more informative than all the hours wasted on bogus social sciences. Formal lessons would only be required for accuracy in spelling and proficiency in public speaking, for which the public speakers in our culture are not models, and in exchange for performing some menial services a child could learn the violin, harp, and piano from musicians in one of the better cocktail lounges, or from performers in the public subways….So I urge you to keep your child out of kindergarten, because kindergarten will only lead to first grade and then the grim sequence of grade after grade begins and takes its inexorable toll on the mind born fertile but gradually numbed by the pedants who impose on the captive child the flotsam of their own infecundity. [source: The National Review]
2. From Richard De Charms:
An Origin has a strong feeling of personal causation, a feeling that the locus for causation of effects in his environment lies within himself. . . . A Pawn has a feeling that causal forces beyond his control, or personal forces residing within others, or in the physical environment, determine his behavior. This constitutes a strong feeling of powerlessness or ineffectiveness.
3. From Seth Godin:
A hundred and fifty years ago, adults were incensed about child labor. Low-wage kids were taking jobs away from hard-working adults. Sure, there was some moral outrage at seven-year olds losing fingers and being abused at work, but the economic rationale was paramount. Factory owners insisted that losing child workers would be catastrophic to their industries and fought hard to keep the kids at work–they said they couldn’t afford to hire adults. It wasn’t until 1918 that nationwide compulsory education was in place. Part of the rationale to sell this major transformation to industrialists was that educated kids would actually become more compliant and productive workers. Our current system of teaching kids to sit in straight rows and obey instructions isn’t a coincidence–it was an investment in our economic future. The plan: trade short-term child labor wages for longer-term productivity by giving kids a head start in doing what they’re told. Large-scale education was never about teaching kids or creating scholars. It was invented to churn out adults who worked well within the system.Of course, it worked. Several generations of productive, fully employed workers followed. But now? . . .
If you do a job where someone tells you exactly what to do, they will find someone cheaper than you to do it. And yet our schools are churning out kids who are stuck looking for jobs where the boss tells them exactly what to do. Do you see the disconnect here? Every year, we churn out millions of of worker who are trained to do 1925 labor. The bargain (take kids out of work so we can teach them to become better factory workers) has set us on a race to the bottom. Some argue we ought to become the cheaper, easier country for sourcing cheap, compliant workers who do what they’re told. We will lose that race whether we win it or not. The bottom is not a good place to be, even if you’re capable of getting there. As we get ready for the 93rd year of universal public education, here’s the question every parent and taxpayer needs to wrestle with: Are we going to applaud, push or even permit our schools (including most of the private ones) to continue the safe but ultimately doomed strategy of churning out predictable, testable and mediocre factory-workers? As long as we embrace (or even accept) standardized testing, fear of science, little attempt at teaching leadership and most of all, the bureaucratic imperative to turn education into a factory itself, we’re in big trouble. The post-industrial revolution is here. Do you care enough to teach your kids to take advantage of it? [Full Post]
I see lots of brilliant kids “washing out” of public preschool or finding their first years of public school (by the later years, they’re already a little dead inside) intolerable, because they are being penalized or ridiculed for being initiators and rewarded for being pawns. They are taught to color between the lines, not to reconceive the initial problem and challenge its very definition. They are being molded into interchangeable managers and execs who will keep straining to float the existing system, long past the point people are screaming for the lifeboats. I also see parents turning away from factory schooling as the standard of education, just as they do from traditional employment as the standard of work (and it’s no coincidence, since the one is predicated on the other), and their kids are often turning into 5-year old and 8-year old initiators, innovators, creative geniuses. When the cloned kids try to bully or insult them, they teach their kids to leave those guys behind. When adults try to marginalize or turn them into a sideshow curiosity, they’re taught to find their community elsewhere. I can’t help but think that these little boys and girls will have opportunities I haven’t had for the simple reason that they aren’t being put through the lathe of corporate-political-religious power in the West. But watching them, I find it easier to ask myself, “How would I approach things if I unschooled myself? What would I do differently.” It’s great to have as inspirations people who only come up to my knees.
Whether it’s Montessori, a Summerhill approach, Open Schooling, or what, there have been rebuttals to the educubicle for some time. Sure, people always say, “but we live in a great school district where the classes are smaller” or “we’re sending our kids to a good private school” – but what exactly, really makes a school good or great? What the above writers are talking about has nothing to do with class size or whether they’ve got more programs, better labs, or less of the ghetto. They’re saying, along with several generations of alternate thinkers, that the entire model is wrong. A good traditional school, in other words, is a lot like a nicer cubicle, or better coffee during those corporate meetings that suck so much. Are you bad parents if you send your kids to cookie cutter schooling? I don’t know, are you? I’m not personally in the business of excusing people, and normalcy isn’t an argument, as far as I’m concerned. I can tell you this – I can see a difference. A big difference, in who these kids will be, and what they are about currently, and how they already approach the world. If that pisses you off, you’re probably reading the wrong blog. Surely your school district has one you’ll enjoy. But the cultural revolution that began with this economic crash is far from over. We will not, no matter who you are or what you’ve heard or what you think, be going back to just business as usual. Ever. Ever again. Things will be different.
This is the first moment in our history when a vast number of people are doing anything they can to not go back to work, where work is defined as traditional employment. The economy is not done moving – that was a quake, but it was part of a series. And the keys to success dreamed of by the previous generations are no longer the standard – the family investment (assuming a stable market was a mistake – quake 1), the house (not so smart, after all – quake 2), the career (will never be secure again – quake 3), the education (possibly not relevant – quake 4), the luxury car or truck (like spending hundreds a month on gas? – quake 5). And if we think it isn’t going to change how a lot of parents raise their kids, and what childhood education is about, for more people than before, we’re smoking crack. The market is going to shake some more, and it just got more competitive. And there are two kinds of leaders – the interchangeable cookie cutter corporate/politico types who can’t save us and can’t even save themselves, and the initiator, origin, types who we need to create the ideas that will deliver civilization from the abyss.
I like to point out that one of the fastest growing types of food chains is the supermarket that caters organic, healthy, and delicious unprocessed food to ordinary “bucket of chicken” eaters in the Midwest (e.g. Sunflower Market), at prices that make it interesting to them for the first time. They’re not Whole Foods (which is expensive and more of a yuppy phenomenon), and they’re not the local health food joint (which is even more expensive, and you can’t treat it like a supermarket). These guys straddle that and focus on getting the price point for wholesomeness back into blue collar hands. We haven’t had healthy, affordable food for average people since the 1940s. Wonder Bread is crap, and everything that came with it, including 90% of what’s on the aisles at Walmart, but it’s what average Joe settled for in the form of “food”. $1.99/lb hormone beef and hamburger helper, anyone? That’s all changing. There’s a groundswell. A Trader Joes or something very like is coming to a community near you. Where I live, even the traditional supermarket, which will always cater to the poorest, is panicking and stocking up on organic everything. Their day is done. Feel the quake? They do. And there’s no less of a cultural movement toward work. This is the stuff Free Agent Source is always talking about. But it will result in a change of cultural attitudes toward how we condition children for work (and, if we’re honest, we’ll acknowledge that’s what traditional schooling really is – it’s child pre-labor, as we’ve currently conceived it – it’s not about teaching kids to really think at all). To borrow from Harlan Ellison, ‘If you make someone think they’re thinking, they’ll be a useful employee, but if you make them really think, they’re mainly suited to completely change everything and make it better, and what the people who sponsor education really want is useful employees.” So, putting aside the question of good or bad parenting, the most pertinent question is: “Are you aware of what has changed, of what is coming, and are acting accordingly in your family?” If not, then listen to Godin up there – he’s not just blowing smoke. And you’ll be one of countless who are listening to a lot of guys like him. Stick around – we’ll try to say something useful now and then, too.