Industrial Revolution & American Education
There are two Big Narratives in education:
1. Traditional education became the factory model, signaling, and oriented around obedience.
2. Progressive pedagogy destroyed the cognitive and social value of education.
Both are sort of right, largely wrong, and fatally imprecise.
In the second half of the twentieth century, it became common wisdom that American unity was rooted in shared pride at the nation’s #1 status, attributed to the maximization of industrial capacity required by modern warfare. Whether they thought this was a triumph or grounds for an anti-capitalist revolution, all American intellectuals agreed that industrialists—in America and everywhere else—had built modern society, arranging it in accordance with their own needs.
All also perceived something deeply wrong with the public education system. The first narrative, associated with “the left,” held that the system had been built by industrialists to create model factory workers: compliant, conformist workers who knew how to do little but memorize and follow instructions. The second narrative, associated with “the right,” didn’t talk so much about who built it or why, but were sure it had produced excellence-oriented innovators who were the backbone of modern industrial society…until recently. By the 1960s, the right also believed that the system was defective, and that their political opponents were the problem. Progressive educators had “dumbed down” the one-time engine of American success to the point where students learned hardly anything useful. Time to go back to basics, they insisted, at the same time progressive educators were insisting that we finally go beyond the basics.
To add to the confusion, in recent decades, the arguments have shifted. Many on the right have adopted a version of the left’s argument: the modern education system was built to supply the fuel for the industrial revolution, but the industrial era is over and we need a new, internationally competitive system that allows for more individualism and creativity. On the other hand, many progressives are now focused on making sure everyone gets access to the benefits of the system, presumably no longer seen as an inescapable force of disempowerment.
Everyone seems to agree that we need a new vision for American education. But first, we need to get straight on what the prior visions were. The best way to straighten this out is to reset the conversation.
Boosterish narratives to the contrary, America did not have an education system standardized enough to be conceptualized as a national model until very recently.
“The Education Trap: Schools and the Remaking of Inequality in Boston, by Dr. Cristina Viviana Groeger,” focuses on “the birth of what we might call the modern education system, in Boston, from the last 30 or so years of the 19th century to about the midpoint of the 20th.”
Industrialization did roughly coincide with the rise of the modern American school, which took place between 1880 and 1920, the period commonly known as the Progressive Era, which tracked the Second Industrial Revolution almost exactly.
“The phrase ‘Industrial Revolution’ was popularized after an Oxford lecture in 1884 by Arnold Toynbee and has consequently been used to describe Britain’s economic development from 1760 to 1840.”(6)
The entire American industrialization discourse, which dates back only to the Cold War, has been impaired by generalizing from concepts that are specific to a country and era. The creation of national plans for industrialization was a 20th-century practice.
From the Founding until some point after the Civil War, the American understanding of industrial development was shaped by a particular context:
- The only model of industrialization in existence was Great Britain
- The US defined itself in opposition to Great Britain
- The American South defined itself in opposition to the factories of the American North, which were also resented by the Northern aristocracy and farmers everywhere
- British industrialization did not require increased education (nor did that of any other country)
- British industrialization was not viewed as a marker of general prosperity; it was a brutal experience for the working classes. Industrialization was seen as an impressive symbol of power and resources, but this success was understood to most benefit elites, be contingent on certain national and historical factors, and bring great downsides with it. (Aspiring to industrialize did not become a fixation until the 20th century, when increased resources and social democracy made it more palatable to the working classes, following a period in which war mobilization made it a sheer necessity.)
- There was no plan by American leaders to replicate Britain’s industrial revolution. They did not see it as possible or desirable.
The conclusion from all this is that the American public school system, which did not exist until the 20th century, could not possibly have been designed in the antebellum US to produce “fuel for the industrial revolution.” It makes no logical sense.
Where does the idea come from? Well, something like this kind of happened in the mid-20th century U.S., at least in theory. During the Cold War, industrialization, a more universal change not particularly related to sophisticated knowledge, became conflated with specialized technical knowledge, which has always been an “elite” thing. An obsession with educated “human capital” as the key to national success, and consequent fear of falling behind other nations, led people to assume increased education “fueled” surges of development. This rhetoric served useful purposes, but a moment’s thought should lead to the conclusion that this was not due to superior mass education.
China and the Soviet Union may have been serious competitors at the national level, but their populations were not widely educated.
But this more positive spin on the “schools are here to produce fuel for industrial progress” myth only took off because Americans had gotten so used to hearing of America’s factory-style schooling. The origin of this myth will be described below.
Post-Civil War, Americans became very interested in the European model of “industrial education,” but this did not refer to education for future factory workers. At the time, the term “industrialization” did not exist, and “industrial” meant something like “development-oriented” or “modernizing.” An industrialized economy and increasing democratic or at least broadly participatory social contract, with an increased need for technical or scientific training at the college level, and an increased need for socialization (to maintain political stability) and practical training (to procure economic reward) for those not destined for college. In Europe, the modern educational ideal was vocational training for the masses.
So, during and after the Civil War, Republicans in the federal government set up agricultural colleges and trade schools with similar aims (self-sufficiency and meaningful community participation as a citizen) for children who had been born into slavery or to parents who had been, and Native American children, who were believed to be doomed if they stuck to traditional practices. While the latter were sometimes called industrial schools, they were designed to produce independent tradesmen who could modernize their communities—Navajo territories did not typically have factories.
But the post-Civil War urban high school exemplified the traits that would come to define the modern American education system.
The Modern American Education System: High Schools Preparing the Middle-Class For White-Collar/Office Jobs
A decade after the Civil War, community leaders in northeastern cities were lamenting the fact that the rapidly expanding system of high schools seemed only to produce middle-class strivers.
“The farmer's boy who passes a few terms at the village academy goes home with a distaste for farming. He becomes a school teacher, a book agent, a clerk, an exhorter, a patent right vendor, anything rather than the tiller of the soil that his father was. In our towns, the boys of mechanics rarely follow the trades of their fathers. They go to our city high schools and come out of them with no thought of going to the shops to earn their daily bread. They throng the stores and offices for clerkships and agencies. They seem to prefer any thing rather than a trade...Instead of telling the boys of a school that in this great free country of ours they might some day get to be...president of the United States, I would tell them that the country needed good farmers and mechanics a great deal more than it did statesmen...”
A similar point has more recently been raised by Bryan Caplan, as shown in the following commentary from Robin Hanson:
“In...the Case Against Education...Caplan argues that school today, especially at the upper levels, functions mostly to help students signal intelligence, conscientiousness, and conformity to modern workplace practices. He says we’d be better off if kids did this via early jobs, but sees us as having fallen into an unfortunate equilibrium wherein individuals who try that seem non-conformist...”(11)
This is what the factory-style schooling system complaint referred to. In March 1915, a telling John Dewey piece was published in Industrial Education Magazine.
Dewey began by decrying the fact that no one was on the same page with regard to the need for industrial training in public schools. Advocates of such programs had advanced only an “indigested medley” of reasons for doing so: “the need of a substitute for the disappearing apprenticeship system,” “the demand of employers for more skilled workers,” making sure America could “hold its own in international competitive commerce,” and making education “more ‘vital’ to pupils.” Pro-reform interest groups were working at cross-purposes, and there was no conventional wisdom built up that could be used to engage the general public on specific policies.
Dewey also believed there had been a failure to distinguish between the circumstances, objectives, and needs of America and Germany, which was then seen to possess the world’s most advanced industrial education system. (Emphases added.) I quote at length:
“The oft-cited experience of Germany as to the importance of industrial education must be weighed in connection with the purpose which has dominated her efforts...Germans claim with justice that their systematized and persistent applications of intelligence to military affairs, public education, civil administration, and trade and commerce, have a common root and a converging aim. The wellbeing of the state as a moral entity is supreme. The promotion of commerce against international competitors is one of the chief means of fostering the state. Industrial training is a means to this means, and one made peculiarly necessary by Germany's natural disadvantages.
One does not need to grudge admiration for the skill and success with which this policy has been pursued. But as a policy it is extraordinarily irrelevant to American conditions. We have neither the historic background nor the practical outlook which make it significant. There is grave danger that holding up as a model the educational methods by which Germany has made its policy effective will serve as a cloak, conscious or unconscious, for measures calculated to promote the interests of the employing class...
It is natural that employers should be desirous of shifting the burden of [training workers in line with the specialized needs of large employers] to the public tax-levy...
But every ground of public policy protests against any use of the public school system which takes for granted the perpetuity of the existing industrial regime... with all its antagonisms...
[There is] a lack of enlightened public opinion as to the place of industrial training in the public schools in a would-be democracy...its aim must be first of all to keep youth under educative influences for a longer time.(13)
...[In the few places where attempts at industrial education have been made,] the aim has not been to turn schools into preliminary factories supported at public expense, but to borrow from shops the resources and motives which make teaching more effective and wider in reach.”
Dewey went on to argue that America’s circumstances demanded “efficiency of industrial intelligence, rather than technical trade efficiency,” the latter of which was the aim of the German system. Dewey was harsh on the “schemes for industrial education” that had been advanced by American proponents, saying that they “ignore with astonishing unanimity many of the chief features of the present situation.”
Dewey summarized these “chief features,” insisting that producing more technically skilled workers was not the main problem Americans faced. Trade unions opposed efforts “to recruit their numbers beyond the market demand,” and workers were more mobile. Rapid technological advances had made hyper-specialized assembly-line work and automation the norm. The industrialized world placed a higher value on workers’ adaptability than it did on accumulated knowledge, leading Dewey to conclude:
“Such facts cry aloud against any trade-training which is not an integral part of a more general plan of industrial education. They speak for the necessity of an education whose chief purpose is to develop initiative and personal resources of intelligence.
The same forces which have broken down the apprenticeship system render futile a scholastic imitation of it...the problem in this country is primarily an educational one, and not a business and technical one as in Germany. It is nothing less than the problem of the reorganization of the public school to meet the changed conditions due to the industrial revolution...”
Dewey’s point is almost the opposite of the factory training school myth, in all its manifestations. Significant social change has occurred, and that there is a jockeying of various interests. The deterioration of older apprenticeship arrangements, new theories of education, changing workforce needs caused by industrialization, and America’s entry into international affairs, had become chief matters of concern by 1915. Turning to the German model of “industrial education” was nonsensical, and Dewey worried that employer needs—including those of factory owners—would come to dictate the trajectory of American education if it is given a narrow technical focus, as only large employers would be able to partner with schools to systematically provide such training.
We can see that Dewey’s critique did not crystallize until the twentieth century when the Industrial Revolution was already triumphant, and this was separate from his concerns about the more traditional approach of many non-industrial public schools, which he saw as encouraging passivity. Yet for all the ink spilled over the issue, fewer than 10% of Americans graduated high school prior to World War I.
The Real Story
Around 1940, however, this metric had risen to 50%.
The term factory-style schooling had nothing to do with toiling factory workers. Instead, it was used by people like Dewey to describe the tendency towards middle-class credentialism, which seemed to spit out identical widgets like a 20th-century factory assembly line.
The “factory” metaphors likely result from the prevalence of British liberals in the mid-late 19th-century debates over education reform, particularly those in prestigious English-language publications. Twentieth-century American academics relied heavily on these sources, where they would have seen mid-19th century debates over how to remedy the plight of the British masses, toiling away in factories after the first industrial revolution.
Late 19th-century debates found the remedy in “industrial education,” which would train the public of the Western world to adapt to the needs of a society premised on innovation and national competition. These points were echoed by American intellectuals, who added laments about the “rote memorization” and “irrelevance” of America’s emphasis on the universal value of classical education.
Despite shared reformist ideals, 19th century Americans put their own spin on arguments advanced by British liberals, because they were dealing with a very different situation. Unlike Europe, America did not have a “permanent” working-class brutally exploited by industrialists with all the resources and political power. Many looked to Germany, which seemed less classist and more objective in its national ambitions, for inspiration.
In the early-mid 20th century, these debates merged with the concerns of humanist intellectuals like John Dewey and Harvard’s President Eliot that the modern school system neglected character formation and individual creativity, churning out career-focused conformists who could not participate in democratic political life.
By the late twentieth century, American academics synthesized all of this into a model of American public education with a vague connection to 19th-century factories, one that focused on rote memorization of useless information and churned out passively obedient workers. Naturally, such a model must be outdated and unlikely to serve the needs of modern students or their society.
Eventually, Horace Mann’s fascination with the Prussian model of education, designed to create an army and populace loyal to the state, fused with this line of criticism.
“According to the European theory, men are divided into classes,—some to toil and earn, others to seize and enjoy. According to the Massachusetts theory, all are to have an equal chance for earning, and equal security in the enjoyment of what they earn.
... The children of the [English] work-people are abandoned to their fate; and...no power in the realm has yet been able to secure them an education...
... By its industrial condition...[Massachusetts] is exposed, far beyond any other state in the Union, to the fatal extremes of overgrown wealth and desperate poverty.
... Now, surely, nothing but Universal Education can counter-work this tendency to the domination of capital and the servility of labor. If one class possesses all the wealth and the education...the [other,] in fact and in truth, will be the servile dependents and subjects of the former. But if education be equably diffused, it will draw property after it, by the strongest of all attractions; for such a thing never did happen, and never can happen, as that an intelligent and practical body of men should be permanently poor. Property and labor, in different classes, are essentially antagonistic; but property and labor, in the same class, are essentially fraternal.”
Mann then argued that while the people of Massachusetts understood that its exceptional success was linked its high-quality universal education, they seemed less aware it had also allowed two-thirds of them to be self-sufficient. Presumably referring to their relative political and economic independence, he said that without their history of unusual access to education, most citizens of Massachusetts would be "the vassals of as severe a tyranny, in the form of capital, as the lower classes of Europe are bound to in the form of brute force.”
“Education, then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men – the balance-wheel of the social machinery...it gives each man the independence and the means, by which he can resist the selfishness of other men. It does better than to disarm the poor of their hostility towards the rich; it prevents being poor...the spread of education, by enlarging the cultivated class or caste, will open a wider area over which the social feelings will expand; and, if this education should be universal and complete, it would do more than all things else to obliterate factitious distinctions in society.”
Massachusetts was the most industrialized state in the country, and Mann’s goal was not to create an obedient, permanent class of factory workers. He was not trying to fuel industrialization and catch up with Britain, but to avoid Britain’s fate by limiting the dominance of this model. Like Dewey would be more than half a century later, Mann was worried about class conflict brought about by the societal disruptions of industrialization and wanted an education system that aimed to counterbalance those volatile new forces. Keeping men able to hold themselves independent of a fixed class identity was of the utmost importance.
Nor did Mann disagree with Dewey’s point that the German system could not be suitably imported to America. Mann believed that a national system of education—what the Prussian system was seen to represent at the time—would bring social stability by establishing shared norms and fraternal feelings. This was the theory underlying the standardization desired by education reformers like Mann. Such uniformity was necessarily administered by a centralized government authority but was intended to reflect the character of each nation, not turn every nation into Prussia. And at the time of Mann’s efforts in the decades leading up to the Civil War, the states functioned almost as independent nations. While Mann did hope that the system he implemented in Massachusetts would spread across America, his primary concern seems to have been dealing with the immediate circumstances of Massachusetts, which was the only state capable of implementing such a centralized plan.
In other words, Prussian education was seen as a model of a function, not an ideology or set of practices. To say the modern school system is “Prussian-style” in its origins is merely to say that it is free and compulsory for all children, administered by the national government, and follows a standardized curriculum.
The persistent talk of a “factory-model school system” reflects inquiries into the purpose of the modern American system by asking who benefits, or once benefitted, from its design. Almost all such inquiries result in the conclusion that its design reflects the needs of someone other than middle-class parents, teachers, and modern employers. But the system was not built by greedy 19th-century factory owners. Middle-class parents and local business leaders pieced together the infrastructure in response to post-Civil War social changes.
United by a focus on career training, economic growth, and maintaining social status, middle-class parents and business interests have continued to exercise significant influence as needed, which, along with changing socioeconomic factors, has prevented the Progressive plan—or anyone else’s—from being fully realized. The resulting incoherence of the modern education system, which contributes to these myths, will be the topic of an upcoming piece.
Clearing up the relationship between industrialization and education will make it easier to identify the purpose American education actually serves. And if changes are in order, we must have history in mind when deciding what changes to make and how to implement them. It's encouraging to know that we have more options than those recognized in the usual debates.
For Reference: Popular Uses of the Factory School Metaphor
Dewey objected to “the identification of education with the acquisition of specialized skill in the management of machines,” saying he was “utterly opposed to giving the power of social predestination, by means of narrow trade-training, to any group of fallible men,” meaning advocates of the technical skill- or career-focused “industrial” education model.
Late 20th century scholars alleged that “mass education was the ingenious machine constructed by industrialism to...pre-adapt children for a new world...in which time was to be regulated not by the cycle of sun and moon, but by the factory whistle and the clock... assembling masses of students (raw material) to be processed by teachers (workers) in a centrally located school (factory)…"
Today, some intellectuals use the metaphor to describe the worldview of progressive educators, alleging that “public schools are a peerless example of the progressives’ conception of society as one big factory that can be scientifically managed with a kind of political (and moral) Taylorism...the factory mindset of progressives favors unified systems characterized by standardization and homogeneity.”
At the same time, mainstream politicians and reformers use it to advocate for school choice or reform of the outdated public education system, which they describe as “designed as a one-size-fits-all factory model...in the 1890s to build a workforce for a factory-model economy,”
- For helpful context on related intellectual debates, see Kyle Edward Williams, “Conserving Liberalism,” The Baffler, September 6, 2021, https://thebaffler.com/salvos/conserving-liberalism-edward-williams (“The historical puzzle of progressivism that New Left historians were trying to solve was how the rise of modern regulation and socially liberal public policies, particularly those friendly to workers, could empower big business”) and Elizabeth Sanders, Roots of Reform: Farmers, Workers, and the American State, 1877-1917 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).
- Going back at least to the release of the “Nation at Risk” report in the 1980s, it has become common to see an alternate universe presented in which the New England Puritans, Thomas Jefferson, and Horace Mann all shared a vision of a public education system for the entire nation. In the last twenty years, there have been a number of works that paint a more realistic picture, but they are often still marketed to fit the myth of an antebellum national public school system. For example, Democracy's Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America, by Johann N. Neem, is promoted as telling “the inspiring story of how and why Americans built a robust public school system in the decades between the Revolution and the Civil War.” That “robust public school system” was actually a bunch of independent local schools, mostly in the northern states (one of Neem’s earlier books is called Creating a Nation of Joiners: Democracy and Civil Society in Early National Massachusetts.) Emphases added. See Review of Democracy's Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America, Bookshop.org, https://bookshop.org/books/democracy-s-schools-the-rise-of-public-education-in-america/9781421423210.
- See Freddie deBoer, “Education Week: Review of The Education Trap,” Substack, June 24, 2021, https://freddiedeboer.substack.com/p/education-week-review-of-the-education.
- The Second Industrial Revolution is generally dated between 1870 and 1914 (the beginning of World War I). See Wikipedia contributors, "Second Industrial Revolution," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Second_Industrial_Revolution&oldid=1047279423 (accessed October 8, 2021). By 1870, Britain had ceased to be the world’s leading industrial power. Germany also rapidly industrialized during the Second Industrial Revolution.
- Andrew J. Taylor, “The Expert in American Life,” National Affairs Journal, Fall 2021, https://www.nationalaffairs.com/publications/detail/the-expert-in-american-life (“The American expert only began to emerge during the Second Industrial Revolution in the 1880s, as the United States took its position as a pre-eminent world economic power... During the first third of the 20th century, some of these experts forged the technocracy movement. Sympathetic to but distinct from most progressives of the era, technocrats were more interested in economic and sociological theories than in saving the poor or busting the trusts.”)
- Claire Garside, “The Effect of Industrialisation on Education Policy and the School System,” January 22, 2020, https://clairegarside.com/2020/01/22/the-effect-of-industrialisation-on-education-policy-and-the-school-system/. (Emphases added).
- Tocqueville noted that “The Americans never use the word peasant, because they have no idea of the class which that term denotes...”
- See Herbert M. Kliebard, The Struggle for the American Curriculum, 1893-1958, 3rd ed. (New York, NY: RoutledgeFalmer, 2004); Vincent Kelley,”John Taylor Gatto Challenged the Ideas Inherent in US Mass Schooling,” Truthout, October 25, 2019, https://truthout.org/articles/john-taylor-gatto-challenged-the-ideas-inherent-in-us-mass-schooling/, and F. H. Buckley, “The Next Republican Party,” National Affairs Journal, Fall 2021, https://nationalaffairs.com/publications/detail/the-next-republican-party. See also Henry Geitz, Jürgen Heideking, and Jurgen Herbst, German Influences on Education in the United States to 1917 (Cambridge University Press, 1995).
- Martin Cothran, ”Classical Education Today: Counterfeit or Real?,” Classical Latin School Association, January 28, 2020, https://classicallatin.org/exordium/classical-education-today-counterfeit-or-real/ (”That people [living around 1900] understood there was some form of education broadly classical and some upstart form broadly modern is evidenced by how people talked at the time. In Europe, remarks such as those found in Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, in which there is a dinner table debate about the relative merits of “classical” vs. “modern” education, show that people assumed classical education consisted of something like the liberal arts and the great books and modern education consisted of something like vocational training.”)
- T. Dwight Thatcher, Address Before the Agricultural College: “Industrial Education,” June 22, 1874, Manhattan Nationalist, quoted in Kansas Farmer, July 8, 1874. Thatcher noted that ”the great masses of our people get no other schooling than that afforded by the common district schools,” and did not attend "the higher schools of our cities and larger towns.” See also “A Letter from Our State Chemist to Mr. R. V. Gaines, of Virginia,” Goldsboro (NC) Messenger, April 23, 1885 (” The so-called Agricultural and Mechanical Colleges are generally a failure, because they were made into English academies, instead of the Industrial Schools they were designed to have been, or because the industrial features were subordinated to the general education...The agricultural department in our universities, even where well managed and endowed, have few or no students...What is the trouble? The experience of the world shows that technical and especially industrial schools will not thrive under the shadow of classical and literary schools and the schools of the learned "professions. This is the experience of all Continental countries...”) C. W. Dabney, Jr., was the North Carolivia State Chemist, and a native of Virginia. Gaines was the Commissioner of the Virginia Agricultural Society.
- Robin Hanson, ”School Is To Submit,” Overcoming Bias, April 6, 2016, https://www.overcomingbias.com/2016/04/school-is-to-submit.html.
- John Dewey, “A Policy of Industrial Education,” Industrial Education Magazine: “Manual Training and Vocational Education,” vol. Xvi, no. 7, March 1915, https://www.google.com/books/edition/Industrial_Education_Magazine/o8IPAQAAIAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq.
- Dewey follows this with the comment that ”Were it not for historic causes which explain the fact, it would be a disgrace that a large proportion of the school population leaves school at the end of the fifth or sixth grade. Irrespective of its causes, the continuance of this situation is a menace. Meager as are the efforts already put forth in adapting industry to educational ends, it is demonstrated in Chicago, Gary, and Cincinnati, that such adaptation is the first need for holding pupils in school and making their instruction significant to them.” What he is specifically referring to when he repeatedly speaks of “historic causes“ in the U.S. and Germany cannot be known for certain. In this line, he may be merely acknowledging that historically, the material resources and incentives for educating the majority of children past that age were not present, either in America or elsewhere. He seems to be saying that Chicago, Gary and Cincinnati made schooling seem rewarding on a practical, concrete level, thus changing the incentives and drawing students. He seems to be saying that the forces thwarting an ideal public education system are more practical than moral or ideological.“
- The Myth of Civic Education,” The Week, October 9, 2021, https://theweek.com/politics/1005771/the-myth-of-civic-education.
- The Week. “The Myth of Civic Education.” Accessed October 10, 2021. https://theweek.com/politics/1005771/the-myth-of-civic-education.
- See Samuel Biagetti, “Into the Fairy Castle: The Persistence of Victorian Liberalism,” American Affairs, Fall 2021, https://americanaffairsjournal.org/2021/08/into-the-fairy-castle-the-persistence-of-victorian-liberalism/. (Emphasis added.)
- See, for example, Kevin D. Williamson, ”Harvard Law Takes Aim at Homeschooling,” National Review, April 30, 2020, https://www.nationalreview.com/magazine/2020/05/18/harvard-law-takes-aim-at-homeschooling/ (”...schools have been treated as factories that produce what the state needs: able administrators and bureaucrats in the context of the emerging Bismarckian welfare regimes and, later, workers in the industrial economies.”)
- See, for example, ”From the Factory to Student-Centered Learning: A Look at Education Theory,” Lexia Learning, January 25, 2018, https://www.lexialearning.com/blog/factory-student-centered-learning-look-education-theory (”A 2012 article in The Atlantic went so far as to offer ways to ’break free of our 19th-century factory-model education system.‘ The article, written by education and innovation entrepreneur Joel Rose, explored why schools—currently and historically—are typically built around large groups of similar-aged students learning the same information and skills at the same time... Student-centered learning is not a new education theory. Early 20th-century researcher John Dewey is often credited with promoting progressive education perspectives that were anything but factory-like.”)
- This debate, like the ”Nation at Risk“ report, was unfortunately ahistorical in its assumptions, and though the scholarly record has since been corrected, many of the politicized talking points of that era have become conventional wisdom. Progressive critiques seem to define their model in opposition to the 1950s educational model, which they seem to assume had similar dynamics to 19th-century factories. Factory workers in 1950s America had much higher living standards and more substantive education than those in 19th century Britain, but this is mostly irrelevant to the progressive focus on a perceived lack of creativity and personalization. Conversely, more conservative academics tended to idealize the 1950s education system, but increasingly used ”factory-style” to refer to past trends in American education seen to suppress individual initiative and excellence in favor of outdated or radical social agendas. The original “factory-style“ education debates grew out of parental and academic dissatisfaction with the school system in the 1950s, which explains the focus on that period. Many parents were upset with the perceived move away from fundamentals towards more progressive techniques, not the resemblance of schools to factories, but books like 1955’s “Why Johnny Can’t Read” launched a larger cultural debate.
- This sounds odd today, but in the 19tht century, as Germany struggled to unify, the Prussian model was perceived as uniquely ”designed to build a common sense of national identity.“ See Joel Rose, “How to Break Free of Our 19th-Century Factory-Model Education System,“ The Atlantic, May 9, 2012, https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/05/how-to-break-free-of-our-19th-century-factory-model-education-system/256881/. See also See Henry Geitz, Jürgen Heideking, and Jurgen Herbst, German Influences on Education in the United States to 1917 (Cambridge University Press, 1995 (”When the American observers used the term ’national education,‘ it did not have the same overtones or the complicated history of meaning that the term Nationalerziehung had in Europe, and especially in Germany, as early as the beginning of the nineteenth century. National education simply meant public education, in contrast to private education a school system--open to all and accountable to political authorities in the community and government...American travelers were above all interested in an already established education system. In this respect, they viewed Prussia as exemplary.") Emphases added.
- Audrey Watters, “The Invented History of 'The Factory Model of Education',” Hack Education, April 25, 2015, http://hackeducation.com/2015/04/25/factory-model. (”One of the most common ways to criticize our current system of education is to suggest that it’s based on a ’factory model.‘ An alternative condemnation: ’industrial era.‘ The implication is the same: schools are woefully outmoded.”)
- See ”Prussian model of schooling,” SuperMemo.guru, November 29, 2020, https://supermemo.guru/wiki/Prussian_model_of_schooling (”...the Prussian model is associated with discipline, obedience, subservience, conformity, grading, rigid curriculum, mindless memorization, suppression of creativity, suppression of intelligence, and other negative aspects of modern schooling. For those reasons, the term is often used interchangeably with the factory model of schooling.”)
- Horace Mann, ”Twelfth Annual Report to the Secretary of the Massachusetts State Board of Education,“ 1848. Mann is liable to criticism on other points, including being too defensive of the status quo and an embrace of statist or collectivist impulses that sounded more innocent in the 19th century. See ibid. (”Now I proceed, then, in endeavoring to show how the true business of the schoolroom connects itself, and becomes identical, with the great interests of society. The former is the infant, immature state of those interests; the latter, their developed, adult state. As "the child is father to the man," so may the training of the schoolroom expand into the institutions and fortunes of the State.”)
- In this paragraph, Mann also remarked that ”Agrarianism is the revenge of poverty against wealth.”
- Other related elements are the use of testing, professionally trained and state-accredited teachers, and the tracking of students in line with specific career paths. In practice, national education systems have usually started out as local education systems, but many reformers became involved with local schools with the intention to scale and combine them into a national system as soon as this became feasible.
- For example, it is misleading to jump from the observation that centrally-administered social systems “foster dependence of the individual on the group and on the State “to the allegation that the modern American school system is run on the ”Rousseau-Pestalozzi-Dewey" model of ”progressive education,” which aims to ”accomplish the molding of the child without actually seizing him as in the plans of Plato or Owen.” Murray N. Rothbard ”Progressive Education and the Current Scene,” Education: Free and Compulsory, 1971, via Mises Institute, https://mises.org/library/education-free-and-compulsory-1/html/c/27.
- See Freddie deBoer, ”Education Week: How is Power Distributed in American Public K-12 Education?: like everything in our education system, the division of power is historically contingent, ad hoc, and pretty weird,” Substack, June 21, 2021, https://freddiedeboer.substack.com/p/how-is-power-distributed-in-american (”The principle of local control has long been considered sacrosanct in American education, although it is worth noting that it arose less as an expression of principle at all and more due to the iterative and piecemeal adoption of free, publicly-funded and government controlled schools in the United States. As the ideal of public schools congealed in the late 19th and early 20th century, our country was even less federalized than it is now. An effort to create a standardized national system of public schools would surely have failed the political test, as well as strained the infrastructure of government. Instead, in bits and pieces municipalities and states began funding free schools, with standout cities like Boston creating models for the rest of the country to follow...Because cities were largely paying for these schools themselves, and because of the lack of anything resembling true national standards – it is always worth remembering that a dedicated cabinet-level Department of Education has existed only since 1980 – local control was inevitable.”) Emphases added.
- For an example of this ahistorical conventional wisdom, see the 2010 remarks of then-US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, quoted in Audrey Watters, “The Invented History of 'The Factory Model of Education',” Hack Education, April 25, 2015, http://hackeducation.com/2015/04/25/factory-model (”Our K–12 system largely still adheres to the century-old, industrial-age factory model of education. A century ago, maybe it made sense to adopt seat-time requirements for graduation and pay teachers based on their educational credentials and seniority. Educators were right to fear the large class sizes that prevailed in many schools. But the factory model of education is the wrong model for the 21st century.”)
- Quoted in David Labaree, “How Dewey Lost,“ September 2, 2019, https://davidlabaree.com/2019/09/02/how-dewey-lost/.
- Alvin Toffler, Future Shock, 1970 quoted in Audrey Watters, ”The Invented History of 'The Factory Model of Education,’” April 25, 2015, http://hackeducation.com/2015/04/25/factory-model.
- Kevin D. Williamson, ”What Are Schools For?,” National Review, July 2020, https://www.nationalreview.com/2020/07/espinoza-decision-victory-religious-schools/.
- Jeb Bush, ”All public school students deserve to be treated fairly no matter what type of public school they choose to attend,” August 10, 2021, https://www.postbulletin.com/opinion/columns/7144974-Jeb-Bush-All-public-school-students-deserve-to-be-treated-fairly-no-matter-what-type-of-public-school-they-choose-to-attend.
- US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, 2010, quoted in Audrey Watters, ”The Invented History of 'The Factory Model of Education,’” April 25, 2015, http://hackeducation.com/2015/04/25/factory-model. For more details on the contemporary usage of the metaphor, see ibid. (”The “factory model of education” is invoked as shorthand for the flaws in today’s schools – flaws that can be addressed by new technologies or by new policies, depending on who’s telling the story. The “factory model” is also shorthand for the history of public education itself – the development of and change in the school system (or – purportedly – the lack thereof)...the markers of the invented history of the “factory model of education” [include] buckets, assembly lines, age-based cohorts, whole class instruction, standardization, Prussia, Horace Mann, and a system that has not changed in 120 years.”)
Kerry Ellard earned a B.S. in Communication and a B.A. in Political Science from Boston University, and a J.D. from Boston College Law School. During school and after graduation, she worked in law, education, and government. Most recently, she has worked as a tutor, independent historian, and sociological analyst. Kerry lives in Boston, where she enjoys playing with her dog and attending concerts.
Industrial Education Explained
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The History of American Education from 1820-1920: Part I
Educating the Citizens of the World’s Only Democratic Republic: An examination of a number of overlapping currents in the evolution of education in 19th century America: Emerson, Jacksonian Democracy, the emergence of secondary education, progressive education, and more.
Montessori's Initial Reception in America
The initial popularity of Maria Montessori’s educational philosophy in the US resonated with the Emersonian philosophy of education and intersected, albeit only for a few years, with the societal views of the Progressive elites of the day.