“Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of minds to think.” Albert Einstein
Ever since I’ve gotten deeper into spirituality, meditation and metaphysics, a lot of my views on a variety of subjects have changed dramatically.
But something that hasn’t changed since the time I was a kid is my views on the education system.
We usually think of schools as environments to stimulate learning, but it ironically manages to stifle the innate curiosity and the eagerness to learn that are present in all of us as children.
It promotes mindless conformity and conveniently ignores the fact that we are all unique individuals with different talents, inclinations, and aspirations.
Schools curtail independent thinking and puts all of us through standardised tests, and sees it as a good indicator to determine someone’s level of intelligence.
The system frankly never made sense to me, and I would often sit in class and wonder how most of what I was taught in class would have any real-life application.
But upon exploring the origins of the current education system, it has finally started to make perfect sense, and I have discovered that it is serving the very purpose it was designed to accomplish.
What if I told you that it was never the objective of the current education system to nurture learning, curiosity, critical thinking and creativity in students, but in fact, to do quite the opposite.
In this post, I’d like to share with you a compilation of writings that reveal the veracity of the above statement by uncovering the startling origins and purpose of the education system.
The factory model of education
The famous author and futurist, Alwin Toffler describes the origins of the current education system in his 1970s book, Future Shock,
"The American education model (as well as the system practiced here in India and around the world)…was actually copied from the 18th-century Prussian model designed to create docile subjects and factory workers.” (Note :Prussia was historically a prominent German state)
Mass education was the ingenious machine constructed by industrialism to produce the kind of adults it needed.
How to pre-adapt children for a new world – a world of repetitive indoor toil, smoke, noise, machines, crowded living conditions, collective discipline, a world in which time was to be regulated not by the cycle of sun and moon, but by the factory whistle and the clock.
The solution was an educational system that, in its very structure, simulated this new world. This system did not emerge instantly. Even today it retains throw-back elements from pre-industrial society. Yet the whole idea of assembling masses of students (raw material) to be processed by teachers (workers) in a centrally located school (factory) was a stroke of industrial genius.
The whole administrative hierarchy of education, as it grew up, followed the model of industrial bureaucracy. The very organization of knowledge into permanent disciplines was grounded on industrial assumptions. Children marched from place to place and sat in assigned stations. Bells rang to announce changes of time.
The inner life of the school thus became an anticipatory mirror, a perfect introduction to industrial society. The most criticized features of education today – the regimentation, lack of individualization, the rigid systems of seating, grouping, grading and marking, the authoritarian role of the teacher – are precisely those that made mass public education so effective an instrument of adaptation for its place and time."
"Built on the factory model, mass education taught basic reading, writing and arithmetic, a bit of history and other subjects —the overt curriculum.
Beneath it was the covert curriculum that was far more basic. It consisted of three courses — punctuality, obedience and repetitive work —the basic training requirements to produce reliable, productive factory workers.
Factory labour demanded workers who would take orders from a management hierarchy without questioning. And it demanded men and women prepared to slave away at machines or in offices performing brutally repetitive jobs. " (paraphrased from Alvin Toffler's Future Shock)
However, contrary to Toffler’s description, some argue that the Prussian model of education was initially set up to instill discipline and obedience in citizens rather than to produce "factory workers".
However, most agree on the fact that the spread of industrialisation created the need for compliant and literate workers. Therefore, this system was subsequently copied for this purpose by U.S, U.K and other parts of the world with great support for its adoption by industrialists.
The Rockefeller Influence on the Education System
In the U.S, industrialists like John D. Rockefeller poured a significant amount of investment into education system. He created the General Education Board at the ultimate cost of $129 million and provided major funding for schools across the nation and was very influential in shaping the school system.
He didn’t exactly conceal his interest and motive in being actively involved in promoting the widespread adoption of the education system and once stated
“I don’t want a nation of thinkers, I want a nation of workers."
Business advisor to Rockefeller, Frederick T.Gates, a prominent member of the General Education Board stated,
"We shall not try to make these people or any of their children into philosophers or men of learning, or men of science. We have not to raise up from among them authors, editors, poets or men of letters. We shall not search for embryo great artists, painters, musicians nor lawyers, doctors, preachers, politicians, statesmen, of whom we have an ample supply…
There are even reports that Rockefeller and industrial giant Andrew Carnegie, played a significant role to influence the American educational agenda to direct what students were taught in school.
In 1914, The National Education Association alarmed by the activity of the Carnegie and Rockefeller Foundations stated in their annual meeting :
“We view with alarm the activity of the Carnegie and Rockefeller Foundations—agencies not in any way responsible to the people—in their efforts to control the policies of our State educational institutions, to fashion after their conception and to standardize our courses of study, and to surround the institutions with conditions which menace true academic freedom and defeat the primary purpose of democracy as heretofore preserved inviolate in our common schools, normal schools, and universities.”
The following excerpt is taken from A Brief History of Education published in Psychology Today by research professor Peter Gray,
"If we want to understand why standard schools are what they are, we have to abandon the idea that they are products of logical necessity or scientific insight. They are, instead, products of history. Schooling, as it exists today, only makes sense if we view it from a historical perspective.
The idea and practice of universal, compulsory public education developed gradually in Europe, from the early 16th century on into the 19th. It was an idea that had many supporters, who all had their own agendas concerning the lessons that children should learn.
“Employers in industry saw schooling as a way to create better workers. To them, the most crucial lessons were punctuality, following directions, tolerance for long hours of tedious work, and a minimal ability to read and write. From their point of view (though they may not have put it this way), the duller the subjects taught in schools the better.
All of them saw schooling as inculcation, the implanting of certain truths and ways of thinking into children's minds. The only known method of inculcation, then as well as now, is forced repetition and testing for memory of what was repeated.
Repetition and memorization of lessons is tedious work for children, whose instincts urge them constantly to play freely and explore the world on their own. Just as children did not adapt readily to labouring in fields and factories, they did not adapt readily to schooling. This was no surprise to the adults involved. By this point in history, the idea that children's own wilfulness had any value was pretty well forgotten.
Everyone assumed that to make children learn in school the children's wilfulness would have to be beaten out of them. Punishments of all sorts were understood as intrinsic to the educational process. In some schools children were permitted certain periods of play (recess), to allow them to let off steam; but play was not considered to be a vehicle of learning. In the classroom, play was the enemy of learning.
A prominent attitude of eighteenth-century school authorities towards play is reflected in John Wesley's rules for Wesleyan schools, which included the statement: "As we have no play days, so neither do we allow any time for play on any day; for he that plays as a child will play as a man."
In the 19th and 20th centuries, public schooling gradually evolved toward what we all recognize today as conventional schooling.
Just as adults put in their eight-hour day at their place of employment, children today put in their six-hour day at school, plus another hour or more of homework, and often more hours of lessons outside of school. Over time, children's lives have become increasingly defined and structured by the school curriculum. Children now are almost universally identified by their grade (standard) in school, much as adults are identified by their job or career.”
The educational model was perpetuated by leaders like Ellwood Cubberly who frequently used the metaphor of school as a factory:
“Our schools are, in a sense, factories, in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life. The specifications for manufacturing come from the demands of 20th Century civilization, and it is the business of the school to build its pupils according to the specifications laid down.”
A short and interesting documentary of a Jiddu Krishnamurti school, a non-traditional form of schooling.
In today’s world, filled with constant disruption and innovations in every industry, the education system has somehow managed to remain the same over the past few decades.
Sure, the curriculum in schools may have expanded, but the fundamental way in which education is imparted to students remains unchanged. The striking similarities between schools and the factory model even to this day is uncanny.
We are no longer living in the industrial age, but in the age of internet and A.I, where our current education system has become more irrelevant than ever.
And this is why homeschooling, and alternative/ non-traditional schools, have seen a surge in popularity in recent decades. For instance, in the United States, the number of homeschooled children almost doubled, from 8,50,000 in 1999 to around 16,90,000 in 2016.
We may not be able to do our schooling all over again, but for those of us with young kids these are options well worth exploring.
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