Monday, February 15, 2010

The Factory Model of Education, Technocracy, and the Free School Movement

The American free school movement of the 1960s and early ‘70s arose as a rebellion against the oppressive authoritarianism of state-run education, that is, the top-down, coercive, follow-the-rules and -rubrics mentality that dictates from on high what has to be done in the classroom. Various writers have referred to this authoritarian system, among other terms, as a technocracy and a “factory model” of education.

That is to say that business and capitalism usually take the blame for the authoritarianism. The last thing that free school advocates would propose is a free market in education. Yet there is much to be admired in the work of the founders of free schools: their emphasis, in particular, on decentralized organization and catering to the needs and interests of the child. Democratic management of the schools, which no doubt empowers the children, may or may not flourish in a free-market system.

The notion of free schools goes back at least to the work of a young Leo Tolstoy (1, 2), who disliked the rigidity and sterility of the European schools. The proponents of the idea, however, are mistaken about the role of business and capitalism in producing the authoritarian atmosphere they are rejecting. The factory model of education, for example, has a badly misunderstood history. Some say that the entire American public education system, dating from its beginnings in the 1840s, was modeled on the factory system.  Students, it is said, are products produced assembly-line style, then sold to the highest bidder in the labor market.*

The factory model, however, is an early twentieth-century phenomenon, coexistent with the rise of progressive education but not an essential characteristic of it. Labor productivity and efficiency were the focus of so-called scientific management (1, 2). These ideas—many of them needed at the time, as management of any kind was not well understood as a skill or taught—were transferred to the administration of public schools.

The problem was (and is) that public schools are bureaucratic, top-down, coercive institutions. Businesses are not. Businesses operating in a free market have a built-in measure of efficiency: profit earned through customer satisfaction. Bureaucracies measure their success by reference to the higher authorities in government who set the rules, laws, and budget. That is the source of the authoritarian atmosphere of public education. The factory model is bad analogy. The product of education is knowledge, values, and skills; the students are paying customers.

Technocracy was a movement in the 1930s that advocated using scientists and engineers to run government (and, therefore, the control and regulation of business). It gave us the phrase “social engineering.” The free school movement of the 1960s brought the term back to refer to the authoritarian nature of public education. This is not incorrect because technocracy is a species of bureaucracy and bureaucrats, whether expert scientists and engineers or not, call the shots over their subordinates. It is unfortunate that the free school advocates do not see the connection between technocracy or bureaucracy and governmental coercion. It is only the free market that would fully allow them to pursue their goals without further authoritarian influence from outside.

Indeed, John Holt did come to the conclusion that the only valid form of education safe from corrupting influences is home schooling, an autarchic withdrawal from the world at large. Holt never did advocate, nor would have advocated, capitalism. Other free schoolers think that their model of small, decentralized child-centered schools should become the model of public education, replacing the current authoritarian behemoths. They fail to see that any cooperation with the coercive apparatus of bureaucratic government requires compliance to rules and laws. Even charter schools that supposedly are freed from some of those rules still succumb to political football tossing and regulation. Many fail to maintain their original missions (1, 2).

The upshot of schooling is that schools are not factories that produce goods. They are high-traffic service firms analogous to entertainment businesses. Some entertainment companies, such as concert halls and sports stadiums, provide their services to thousands of people at one time. Others provide individual services, one customer at a time. There is no reason to assume that a free market in education would not provide its services on a similar scale. The methods of delivery would be the lecture and the tutorial. Customers would be free to choose which services, as described, in combination, or in other variations, they would like to buy. The market would decide. No authority would oversee, control, or regulate.

*I have heard college professors refer to their students as work in progress. When the students graduate, they are finished goods. A better description of environmental determinism—the molding of the child’s clay mind by an outside authority—could not be given. Hopefully, such professorial comments are bad metaphor, rather than serious descriptions.


David said...

Jerry Kirkpatrick writes:

"The methods of delivery would be the lecture and the tutorial"

And I would dare say that the method of learning would be the freedom to learn. As a great thinker, Leo Tolstoy, wrote in the 1860's -- about 150 years ago:

"Don't be afraid ! There will be Latin and rhetoric, and they will exist in another hundred years, simply because the medicine is bought, so we must drink it (as a patient said). I doubt whether the thoughts which I have expressed p e r h a p s - i n d i s t i n c t l y, a w k w a r d l y, inconclusively, will become generally accepted in another hundred years; it is not likely that within a hundred years all those ready-made institutions-schools, gymnasia, and universities -- will die, and that within that time there will grow freely formed institutions, having for their basis the freedom of the learning generation."

A century later, in 1968, Sudbury Valley School ( ) was founded. It's uncanny. Will it take another 100 years to catch on?

David said...

We should not confuse between a "technocracy," a “Factory model” of education, a "Factory system," and standardization and homogenization of schools, in, after and since the period of the Industrial Revolution.

Industrialization was the process that brought about the need for "skilled" workers as human workforce in the running of industries since the Industrial Revolution. Today, due to automation of industrial processes, most of standardized human work that was customary and necessary before -- isn't necessary any more.

Will democratic management of the schools flourish in a better sociopolitical and economic system? I think it will. Democratic management of the schools, which no doubt empowers the children, may or may not flourish in a free-market system or in any other system, just as liberal and direct democratic management of the schools, which no doubt empowers the children and protects the rights of individuals, may or may not flourish in a free-market system or in any other system. But in the later they have made use of freedom and have exercised personal responsibility for their actions at all times, and they realize that they are fully accountable for their deeds.

Schools that are democratic and non-autocratic; schools governed by clear rules and due process; schools that are guardians of individual rights of students.

I think it is safe to say that the individual liberties so cherished by us will never be really secure until the youth, throughout the crucial formative years of their minds and spirits, are nurtured in a school environment that embodies these basic truths.