Anything mass produced by its very nature is mediocre because you have to make it in the easiest, fastest, and cheapest way possible. Schooling is largely an experiment in mass production, and as I argue in this post, a very bad one.
As was the case more than 150 years ago when the industrial economy was booming, today students are treated as something equivalent to raw material—empty brains that, with the “right” schooling (not education, it never is) can transform into enlightened, productive, intelligent citizens capable of “critically thinking,” engaging their particular context in an educated, cultured, and socially conscious manner.
The reality is, just as it was during the industrial factory times, students are the raw materials being socialized, conditioned, and manufactured into workers for the corporate machine that is most of American life and culture.
Granted, even as recent as maybe a 20-30 years ago, this system, while still bad, may not have been the worst thing in the world. Factories were still booming more or less; technology was not as rampant and vital to daily life; competition didn’t exist as much from every corner of the globe; employers mostly needed obedient conformist workers capable of doing what they were told; schooling provided these very people in great supply.
However, think of today’s current political, social, and economic climate: the middle class is no longer the majority, wealth and prosperity is concentrated in the top more than ever, largely due to cultural, economic, and educational advantages, the continuing erosion of many traditional jobs being replaced by technology, digitization, and artificial intelligence.
Economics aside, think, too, perhaps more importantly, about the explosion of information, the likes of which the world has never seen before. Economics and information are increasingly intertwined. This is the information age, after all.
This article from Forbes explains, in startling statistics, just how much information is available to us. Noting that “there are 2.5 quintillion bytes of data created each day at our current pace,” and that “over the last two years alone 90 percent of the data in the world was generated,” the author goes on to note many more startling statistics about the pervasiveness of the internet and social media—two factors that have long been revolutionizing how we consume information, work, play, communicate, become educated, engage politically, etc.
With these factors in mind why does the traditional schooling model reflect the year 1882 and not what the world is poised to look like in, say, 2030? Much to the detriment of unknowing students (the mass-produced cogs in the corporate machine), many students – especially poor minority students from urban areas – are left without the necessary skills, competencies, and educations needed to compete in this fast-coming Brave New World.
Let’s explore why this mass production model is not only severely outdated but one of the largest contributing factors to economic and educational inequality:
Relying on a System Designed to Fail Harms Poor and Working Classes the Most
It comes down to access, wealth, and privilege. Most career paths, after all, are going to be forged outside of the classroom anyway, as are other important connections, critical life lessons, financial knowledge, internship opportunities, etiquette and mannerisms of the upper classes, etc.
Think about where a poor urban student graduating from a failing public school ends up compared to an average middle class student graduating from an average suburban school. If no effort was made by the school to put the poor student on a path toward college or career fresh from high school they will likely struggle in large part due to a lack of resources in the home and community.
When it is all said and done, K-12 schooling is simply the system we are forced to comply with, for better or worse. Without it, not much would change in the homes of the wealthy and privileged. Whatever skills traditional schooling claims to inculcate in it students would still be transmitted to the wealthy kid because, lets face it, more learning – and especially the kind that leads to more wealth and privilege – is done outside of the classroom.
Hardly any business leader, politician, journalist or academic reflects on their schooling as “that thing” that did it for them. To be politically correct they may so; usually their biographies suggest otherwise. A combination of social, cultural, economic, and political factors shape the best and brightest–anyone, for that matter.
In the end, the suburban student typically will have the necessary resources to remain on the “straight and narrow” regardless of the education he or she received. They get a head start from their social and economic capital.
And let me be clear: this is not an indictment on middle class folks or the natural privileges certain kids receive from parents and/or community. It’s human nature. Can’t fight that. I point this out to show how when one group relies almost exclusively on an outdated ineffective system to prepare their kids for the real world in many cases the exact opposite happens.
NO Quality Control in these Mass Production Facilities
Those at the bottom of the economic ladder need to be challenged to rise, not given dumbed down curriculum and held to low expectations. Once labeled in the system as “remedial” or “special ed,” well, off you go to that conveyor belt from which you may never come off. My goodness, think of the unruly child who received one or two many timeouts and is forever labeled a problem child not worthy nor capable of educational ascendance.
Nothing about the mass production school model seeks to challenge anything: the unions, unaccountable leaders, overdiagnoses of select behavioral problems, you name it. True to mass production, schooling remains mediocre, available to the masses at large, and the well-to-do, schooled outside of a failing educational bubble, secure their wealth and privilege for generations to come.
Better to keep the factories booming. There is no time to “fix” “defective” products; it’s much easier to assign blame on parents, lack of educational interest, not enough resources to do their job, etc. Big business is waiting after all and needs its wheels greased to keep the economy rolling along.
The Only “Winners” are the Most Compliant Ones
We drool over Ivy League prestige and the supposed respectability it endows. Not to throw salt on the valedictorians of the world but are these students really that amazingly bright or simply the result of years and years of unquestioning obedience capable of acing standardized exams and the product of a privileged household?
Since most of traditional schooling is not based on collaboration, but competition, exclusion, not inclusion, awards for the best performers (i.e. conformers), schooling mostly maintains a rigid social and class system and an unchallenged corporate hierarchy. It measures virtually no other intelligence and operates on the false assumption that the masses should be learning the same things at the same time.
The “winners” are not the academic all stars and the “losers” are not the ones who later go to work at Walmart. True education is far too personal of a matter to be boiled down to tests, memorization, and compliance. We need to personalize education, not standardize it as some cruel commodity to be placed on a conveyor belt.
Here a few other thoughts on how the mass production model of modern schooling harms broader social interaction and maintains class structure.
Being confined to one place and doing one task with one group of people for one specific reason is dehumanizing
We are social exploratory beings by nature. Killing this instinct in kids is especially damaging to their creativity and originality. Provide kids with access and opportunity to different, even dangerous, things.
Why do we warehouse kids as a society? Why are the most wondrous years of childhood spent indoors listening to arbitrary authority figures with whom no cultural, family, social or religious bond is shared? Wouldn’t kids be better served by discovering the world around them, finding their own talents, and interacting with people and things on their own terms? Why is not any of this the norm as it once was?
I think it comes down to two things: the false assumption that kids cannot be trusted with responsibility and treated as adults and the conventional (i.e. dangerous) reliance on the professional managers of society —teachers, politicians, lawyers, administrators—to tell the little people what to do and think.
The few “products” that make it do not prove the system works
Far from that. We love the rags to riches story of the self-made man from Hollywood. That’s just it: it’s Hollywood. One cursory look at the highest levels of corporate and political power in America reveals where power really lies: the vast majority of presidents, Senators, Representatives, and business leaders (and their kids) attended prestigious boarding schools that the general public knows little about; the vast majority of Supreme Court Justices attended two schools – Harvard and Yale; most of the admissions policies at the nation’s top schools are heavily slanted toward the connected and well-to-do.
As one entrepreneur put it recently: rarely do we “work” our way to the top; we connect our way there.
But beyond that, those that “make it” had certain things in their life that no school system bent on standardizing and mass producing can ever provide: individualized attention from a caring parent who set super high expectations, a community mentor holding them accountable and shaping their character and broader horizons, a voracious appetite for knowledge that likely came about through self-discovery and mastery, among other critical factors.
Preparing kids for a world that no longer exists is horrible educational policy. Mass producing millions of these kids into a world that will be unrecognizable to them in the coming years is even worse.
Have you managed to get off the industrial factory product line and discovered your true innate talent? Do you know of any family members in this place today?
Please let me know and comment below.
Thanks for reading!