In Response to Allison Schrager

On 29 June 2018, Allison Schrager’s “The Modern Education System Was Designed to Teach Future Factory Workers to Be ‘Punctual, Docile, and Sober'” appeared on Quartz.com. In the article, Schrager asserts a need to rethink current educational structures in the US–and to have that rethinking driven by corporate leadership. She glosses the history of public education from the viewpoint of industrialists invested in having a workforce habituated to factory shift-work standards, noting the unease of transition from self-directed home-based work to boss-commanded factory work. She also calls upon current business leaders to consider and push for changes to educational systems.

https://1h6jbi4208dc2f5vf01ckryo-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/100th-day-of-school-kids-celebrating.jpg
This is the kind of thing that happened with my daughter.
Image from studentreasures.com, here, used for illustration

Schrager is, in her core assertion, correct; the educational system/s in the United States were set up in large part to respond to circumstances that are no longer in place. Manufacturing is an increasingly small part of the professional environment, so having systems of schools set up to supply manufacturing workers with ready-to-go employees is not wise. (Whether it ever was is another question entirely, one worth considering, but not one I’m going to go too deeply into here at present.) She is correct, too, in noting the sociocultural shifts that accompanied the economic shift from home-based work to factory-based. And there is some sense to the idea with which Schrager concludes, that those who will complain about the mismatch of graduates’ abilities and their own interests would do well to work to change schooling.

But.

Corporate and business interests leading changes to education is what has produced the putative problems identified in the article–as well as the many, many other problems identified in other places. Testing companies are easy examples to find, certainly, but there are others; calculator manufacturers and textbook producers (when separate from the testing companies) are also prominent, and there is a long-standing comment about the economic utility of a workforce smart enough to run machines but not critical enough to ask why they need running. Any changes to schooling need to be made with a clear idea in mind of what the point of schooling is–and I am not a fan of the idea that school ought to be a place where a person learns how to have a job.

As I write this, it is my daughter’s 100th day in school. She was excited at the prospect, certainly, and I am glad she was; it’s good to see her enthusiastic about being with people her age and forming relationships that may well last for decades. (I’m still in contact with a very few people I knew when I was that age, and I am aware of the relative lack of such connections I have; living in a smaller town tends to point out who all stuck around and who didn’t.) It did prompt a bit of reflection on my own educational experience, some of which was at the very school my daughter now attends. Certainly, things have changed–and largely for the better. Her school environment is immensely more nurturing than I remember mine being, which I think good. (I admit I approached school with a bad attitude–not disdainful of learning, but dismissive of my fellow students’ intelligence; it did not make for a good time, and I do not wonder much at my lack of connection to people in my hometown.) There seem to be more opportunities available to her than were to me, as well, and that is to the good. And what I have seen of the curriculum so far seems generally fine, though I have some specific disagreements–but that’s always true.

I know that I am not in line with many prevailing thoughts when I express my worry about education-as-job-preparation. I’ve been at the front of too many classrooms whose students viewed their degrees only as credentials for work to be sanguine about the prospect of the same thing happening to my daughter. And, yes, I have chafed at times at the mismatch of my own academic training and the professional circumstances towards which it was aimed; I do not know that I will ever be over the bitterness of it. But I also know that that training and the system in which I was reared (and how applicable “system” is to something that has emerged out of no unified plan, even if it does tend to favor particular sets of people consistently, is an open question worth discussion–in another place and time) are products of that same impetus Schrager describes. I do not necessarily share her ideas about the best way to amend things, but I very much agree with her that changes are needed.

Change is always needed. Everything can always be better, and it cannot become better while remaining as it is.

I don’t claim to know what the changes would look like that would make things better. I imagine they would have to destabilize the current systems to a great degree, which would cause difficulties; while testing companies and many other corporate interests in education are decidedly problematic, many or most of the people I’ve known who’ve gone into teaching do so to help people, and they would be displaced by such structural shifts. So I acknowledge that change is likely to be slow and that it is certain to be fraught. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t need doing–or that it’s not worth the effort.

Help support the ongoing betterment of my being out of academe!

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