Dismissing the factory model school

In his landmark work “Between the World and Me”, Ta-Nehisi Coates laments the hypocritical nature of the message he received in the Baltimore City Schools, “I was a curious boy, but the schools were not concerned with curiosity. They were concerned with compliance.” When managing misbehavior replaces academic instruction, intellectual development is stifled.

Such circumstances are vexing for both students and professional educators. The narrator offers praise for some of his individual educators, but criticizes a “system” that focuses on punishment and places children in peril by returning them to the streets as a consequence for misbehavior in school. The argument is not without merit.

Fear of reprisal is a singularly poor motivator for any child. Policies of “zero-tolerance” have proven ineffective at modifying undesired behaviors in the school house. 

Children, especially those children from harsh domestic environments, need more hours in instructional scenarios, not fewer. Those classrooms, however, also need to have the resources to do more than crowd children into sweat boxes for some portion of the day. Elevating young minds beyond their circumstance requires that educators possess the capacity to captivate.

We can no longer take pride in the occasional “against-all-odds” success story while failing to nurture the promise inherent in every child.

“The development of a factory-like system in the nineteenth-century schoolroom was not accidental,” Joel Spring said in “Education and the Rise of the Corporate State”. Educational triage was the primary goal: identify the most capable students, and then ensure that the rest arrive at the functional literacy required to follow instructions on the assembly line and sufficient numeracy to balance a checkbook.

Schooling, back then, had little to do with optimizing learning outcomes and more with learning to acquiesce to tedium and drudgery as preparation for the conditions likely to be encountered in the industrial workplace.

During the age of the robber barons, corporatists imported cheap labor from abroad to keep the cost of labor hopelessly low and profits high for the investor class. Now, they incorporate abroad, access labor at bargain-basement prices offshore, and avoid paying taxes in the United States while taking full advantage of our free market while returning little in the bargain. The public coffers suffer as a result. 

Call the oligarchic elites of America what you will: capitalists, plutocrats, one-percenters, or political puppeteers! They consist mostly of obsessive hoarders-of-wealth. They utilize tiny portions of vast, inter-generational fortunes to persuade the political class that their power-and-privilege constitutes the natural order of things.

Is this society really intent on leaving no child behind? Then, why do we still employ an educational model that assumed a large portion of the school age population would never obtain a diploma? In his landmark work “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” Paolo Freire explained it quite succinctly. “It would be indeed naïve to expect the oppressor elites to carry out a liberating education.” That duty, therefore, falls to the rest of us. 


[This commentary appeared originally in the Prince George’s Sentinel on August 19, 2015. It has been slightly re-worked.]  

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