Monday, July 29, 2013

Schools Aren't Factories.... Yet

A couple of weeks back, I got into a twitter spat over the concept of schools as factories.  It's a fairly pervasive trope out there.  You can see it on full display in this Joel Rose article in The Atlantic from last year.  An even worse version is in this excerpt from the book Knowmad Society.  (I think I just threw up a little in my mouth after typing that.  Knowmad Society?  That's a bad Grateful Dead cover band name.  Do futurists really have that little imagination, sigh).  The Rose article at least has some subtlety to it.  The futurist/stoners  somehow draw a straight line from Prussia 1763 to today. This despite the fact that there was nothing that we could recognize as a factory in Prussia in 1763. 

The central problem here has to do with what goes on in a factory.  In a factory, machines do the work that used to be done by people.  Putting a whole bunch of people in a room making linen shirts out of linen cloth isn't a factory (although in the 1760s someone might have called that a factory, then again factory was also used as a term for a place where fur traders collected hides before shipping them east).  If however, you introduce sewing machines into the equation, you now have what we call a sweat shop, and the place where the cloth is made, if it's done on a machine, that's a factory.  Steel is made in a factory.  Automobiles are made in factories.  i-phones are made in factories.  In all of these places, machines do a lot of the work that used to be done by hand.  Factory work has some advantages: it standardizes output; it can mass produce things, dropping their price; and it requires less skill to make things.  It also comes with some costs.  If you've ever owned a pair of handcrafted shoes -or talked to someone who owns them - you know that handcrafted can mean high quality, customized goods.  Likewise, the boom of artisanal wines and beers emphasizes handcrafted products over those that were made in the factory. 

Currently, the educational model biases towards artisanal.     Teachers using knowledge and skills gained over a career try to teach students in fairly small groups pretty much defines education in the United States.  A lot of folks think this is old fashioned and they want to achieve economies of scale using technology.  In other words, they want to replace teachers with machines.  In other words, thew want to turn schools into knowledge factories.

So my first reaction to that is this:

Except of course, it isn't 1964, and educators have lost a lot of those battles over the years.  Ronald Reagan made attacking the UC system the cornerstone of his gubernatorial run in 1966. By the 1980s, the types of arguments about public education being a public good that should be paid for by the public were dying.  By the 2000s, lots of Democrats had gotten on the teacher bashing  band wagon that is the cornerstone of most current reform efforts.  And now Bill Gates et. al. want you to believe that schools are factories in a world where factories aren't relevant.  But herein lies the lie that's at the center of the pseudo-reform movement.  Schools aren't factories, they are centers of what Tim Burke calls handcrafted or artisanal education. 

So the question is really:  are you willing to pay more for high quality handcrafted shoe or do you want that cheap Bangledeshi knock-off?  And remember, education isn't just for next fashion season, it's for the rest of your life.  If Bill Gates et. al. get their way, schools will be factories. 

Pick of the week
Diane Ravitch:
Because as much as she would hate the comparison, she's the closest thing we've got to Mario Savio right now.  

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