Sweatshops of the Mind: The Rise of Bureaucracy

Community control of schools run by dedicated teachers who looked after each child individually runs counter to the modern assumption that every human endeavor can be turned into a science.  Every real "science" requires a theoretical framework, hence the need in educationism for theories of cognitive development and child psychology.   Even the acts of learning and teaching must be analyzed, broken down into their components, tested, measured, and graphed with all sorts of coefficients and Greek letters that really mean very little more than up and down, more and less.  

In the years when I was reading grant proposals for the US Department of Education, a great many of the applicants assured us that they were using "Bloom's taxonomy."  Ah yes, my fellow-panelists would say, Bloom's taxonomy--that's good.  What is Bloom's taxonomy?, I asked in my innocence.  It turns out to be a scheme for classifying levels of learning complexity.  The taxonomy is then used to decide what sorts of things can be learned at different grade levels.  To understand how silly this is, try to imagine some examples.  Since we discriminate light and dark before we understand the spectrum, children presumably should be given only charcoal to draw with, and not crayons.  Since a coherent narrative demands more than an isolated fact, children should not be given stories until they can be made to memorize strings of dates.  

As one critic humorously describes it, "Bloom's proposal was that  complex types of behavior (like the kinds of things humans generally do) are based on more simple kinds of behavior (like the kinds of things generally done only in experimental studies), and that instruction should similarly proceed in the same direction."    Does the learning of children actually match this or any other hierarchical theory?  Not in my experience. 

The most essential function now performed by the schools is data collection.  It is the cumulative results of tests and surveys that are used to justify all the special commissions and report cards on education that get educationists into the news.  How reliable, how valuable are these tests?  A prudent man with some experience would say they have a limited value. 

On a comparative basis, students who do well on the tests generally do better in school than those who don't, but the problems almost outweigh the advantages.  Consider the SAT's and College Boards.  Every year some bright high school student discoves a major error in the math section, and, when I administered the PSAT, I immediately spotted a misunderstanding in the English section--the test-makers had confused two related, but different English words. 

When I took the graduate record, I was stumped by a series of questions concerning a paragraph in Herodotus.  A careful reading revealed  that none of the answers to one of the questions could possibly be right.  What was worse, I had just spent a semester reading Herodotus in Greek and knew the context and the passage very well.  My task then became trying to figure out which of the wrong answers must have seemed right to the ignoramuses at the ETS. 

As everyone knows, the tests are increasingly politicized, and as too few people know, they have been dumbed down over the years.  A 600 today might have been a 550 in years past.  Worst of all is the most important of the tests, the English section of the tests.  Originally, these were--as indeed all the tests were--essays.  This method came under fire from educationists who wanted something more scientific-looking, something that could be quantified.   Even when the reliability of the essay version was vindicated in tests against multiple choice tests, there were other, equally serious complaints.  Essays on Shakespeare or Dickens suggested a bias in favor of the English classics.  This was obviously a bad thing, and the essay version was dropped, though its reinstatement was later demanded by active action advocates who wanted something easier to fudge than grammar and vocabulary.

Perhaps the worst aspect of testing is the way it skews teaching toward the trivia of true and false and multiple choice.  Tests have been accused, even by educationists, of "narrowing the school's agenda."   False theories, unscientific collection of data, meaningless tests--all have been used to justify teaching methods that don't work and the incredible waste of time spent on learning information that is usually either false or ideological or so trivial that no one would want to know it in the first place.  

To this day, teachers and newspaper writers repeat the stories of how unpopular bathing used to be in America, how there were fines levied on bathtubs even in 19th century Boston.  The story goes back to a spoof published by H.L. Mencken in 1917.  When even Mencken grew alarmed at how widely accepted his fairy tale was, he published a retraction.  It didn't matter, and the same paper in which he published the explanation, printed his original spoof a few months later. 

The fact is that most of what you learned in school about history and literature and virtually everything else is a pack of errors and downright lies.  Why?  Because the literate classes of the US--the teachers, editors, writers--are so hopelessly ignorant and credulous, they don't even know when they are being put on.  100 years ago they had phrenology; today it is the social sciences, neither of which could easily be imposed upon a man or woman with an old-fashioned education. But the vast bureaucracy of public education, which spends billions of dollars every year, is one gigantic Rube Goldberg machine for turning lies into official truths, and curious children into anti-intellectual teenagers. 

Some scientists would like to exempt science teaching from this general condemnation, but they are mistaken for several reasons.  First, on the most trivial level, science textbooks are politically skewed toward issues that comfort NPR listeners--the spontaneous emergence of life, manmade climate change, etc.   On a less trivial level, budding scientists really need math and not dumbed-down descriptions of the last generation's understanding of chemistry or biology.  The National Science Foundation at one point called for beefing up math in elementary schools and eliminating science.  Most important, however, is that real science, which is a process of investigation, is turned into an ideology that students are condemned to memorize and repeat.  All through grammar school and high school, I knew I was going to become a chemist--until I took a high school chemistry course that persuaded me the whole thing was stupid.

How we got from Laura in Those Happy Golden Years to the educational Nomenklatura that is working day and night to insure the ignorance of the population is a long story that I have neither the time or the stomach to go over in any detail.  It would have to include: the creation of state school boards on the Massachusetts model and the hiring of professional superintendents, first in urban school systems and then everywhere; the establishment of the major knots of oldboy networks: the NEA, the great teacher's colleges at Columbia and Chicago, and all the little institutes, conferences, and resource banks by which the big spiders at the center communicate their intentions to the little mites out on the periphery.

If the old schools were like little mon-and-pop businesses, modern public education is a national fastfood conglomerate, in which each district holds the franchises for McDonalds, Burger King, and Wendy's.  Of course, the local owners are free to pick a decor they like or even to introduce an occasional regional variation on the menu, but as you travel across this great nation from Maine to California, a burger is still a burger, and a school is just a school.   Tinkering with the system will not work.  Short of disestablishment or radical decentralization, there are no remedies worth the time and effort even to debate them.  Choice plans, for example, which have been all the rage among unreflective conservatives and libertarians, would probably succeed in extending the grip of the national franchising system into private schools.  At best, public school choice, magnet schools, and all such schemes give you the choice between a Whopper and a Big Mac.  They will never provide a balanced meal of pot roast, potatoes, and green salad--let alone a seven course dinner.

In this vast network of semi-dependent districts and completely dependent schools, the teacher has slipped from her lofty perch as entrepreneur or craftsman and fallen into the ranks of the employees, a word that literally means persons used for a task like so many tools.  The teacher's role is now confined, almost literally, to asking if you'd like that hamburger with cheese; do you want it for here or to go.  In her classroom, where the marvelous transmutation of gold into lead takes place, the teacher is no more free than her charges.  To continue the analogy with business, the school is become a workplace in which the students are the workers, the teachers the foremen, and the administrators are the managers. 

Under the old system, in the bad old days before Horace Mann, teachers were essentially men and women of some learning, who for a fee would impart that learning to a group of children.  Most of the burden fell on the backs of the students themselves.  Books were for the most part on the adult level, and there were no instructional materials to make education fun.  There were clear rewards for success, and for failure the punishment--usually corporal--was swift and sure. 

This brief sketch of the degeneration of public schools corresponds in many details the phase of industrial revolution inaugurated by Frederick Winslow Taylor.  Taylor deplored the  old "initiative and incentive" system for managing shops and factories, in which the managers rely heavily on the traditional lore and skills of their best men and foremen, who are rewarded to the degree they display initiative.   This cumbersome method Taylor wished to replace by the more scientific "task management" which depends on rigorous analysis of the most efficient work methods and a careful and detailed supervision of the workmen:

The work of every workman is fully planned out by the management at least one day in advance, and each man receives in most cases complete written instructions, describing in detail the task which he is to accomplish, as well as the means to be used in doing the work.  And the work planned in advance in this way constitutes a task which is to be solved...not by the workman alone, but in almost all cases by the joint effort of the workman and the management. 

Gone is the old-fashioned notion of the skilled craftsman, who applies his hard-won skills to a series of problems.  Taylor had no doubt that his scheme applied to all human work, including the professions, but it is odd how he confines his detailed discussion to the monotonous and repetitious tasks of loading pig iron and laying bricks.  

Taylor and his disciples were sure that scientific management, while increasing efficiency and productivity, would also lead to contentment and job satisfaction, when workers realized that they would be payed more for a job well-done.  But there is a great difference between a craftsman who owns his own tools and is the possessor of marketable skills and the flunky who needs to be told what to do every hour of the day.  Inevitably the men come to see themselves as the exploited victims of a system designed to reward the rich at their expense.  They lose the sense of pride they might once have taken in their work.  The American automobile made in Detroit is the vivid symbol of Taylorism in operation.

Taylor himself understood the application of his ideas to education:

No efficient teacher these days would think of giving a class of students an indefinite lesson to learn.  Each day a definite, clear-cut task is set by the teacher before each scholar, stating that he must learn just so much of the subject; and it is only by this means that proper, systematic progress can be made by the students. The average boy would go very slowly if, instead of being given a task, he were told to do as much as he could. 

Taylor's description may have corresponded to  the late 19th century schools of Pennsylvania that he attended in his youth, but outside the industrialized Northeast, few schools were yet so mechanical and routinized.  As the authors (Tyack and Hansot) of one study of American schooling point out, "The heart of the school--the classroom--proved more resistant to change than the factory floor."   In fact, the method of many rural schoolteachers was precisely to let children work their way through the readers, spellers, and math books at their own rate.  Some children may have shirked, but the more intelligent worked diligently, and were not held back to the level of the dullards, as they are today.  Teaching in those days was almost exclusively an affair of the students and teachers--that is, the workers and their foremen.     

This idyllic world of community schools was doomed by Taylor and his disciples.  If, by the way, anyone would like to see an idealistic portrayal of Taylorism applied to family life, the children of Taylor's chief disciple, Frank Gilbreth, wrote a humorous reminiscence, Cheaper by the Dozen, made into a Hollywood movie starring Clifton Webb and (I believe) Myrna Loy.   One of the authors, Frank Junior, made enough money to move to Charleston, buy an interest in the newspaper, and write a popular column, "Doin' the Charleston" by Ashley Cooper.  As a boy I read the book and as an adult I saw the charming film.  I suppose one could make a charming movie about the daughter of B.F. Skinner, whom he reared, in her infancy, in his patented Baby-Tender--a Skinner Box for infants.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

13 Responses

  1. Allen Wilson says:

    Control freaks. That’s what they were, and are.

    In his probably not very useful book (which I now slog through for no other reason than that I foolishly spent money on it 20 years ago), De Bono’s Thinking Course, Edward De Bono’s notions about “lateral thinking” could be interpreted, in light of what you have described here, as an attempt to rebel against the type of thinking that leads to such monstrosities as universal coercive schooling and scientific management.
    Unfortunately, so far I don’t really see much use in his ideas, any more than there was any use to scientific management.

    As for the educational regime, hopefully it’s days are numbered. Just removing the state coercion would cause this Goliath to collapse like the bolshevik regime. Who will tear down that wall? When will we have our trivium back?

  2. Roger McGrath says:

    Another perspicacious piece by Tom Fleming. The federalization and bureaucratization of public education has had disastrous consequences. Remember how Ronald Reagan was going to abolish the Department of Education? The ED now has almost 4,000 employees and an annual budget pushing $70 billion. And what do we have to show for that? Indeed, nothing. Another federal leviathan now impossible to dislodge.

  3. Sam Dickson says:

    Taylor ‘s idea does not offend my sensibilities as much as it does Dr. Fleming’s.

    And I suspect Il Duce (my new nickname for my pet Fleming) would agree when I say that America’s public education system (which would shame Haiti) bears no resemblance to what Taylor and his cronies created.

    It’s unimaginable that the spoiled, dull, genetically underprivileged youth of modern America who live in the world of Lady Gaga and Michael Jackson could handle being assigned a task to learn like memorizing the 5th declension in Latin.

    They would probably attack their schools with bazookas if by some miracle the teachers started putting such a stressful burden upon them.

    Sam Dickson

    P.S. Do people ever calculate the amount of money expended on each classroom in their local school system? In Atlanta a class of 30 students represents around $450,000 ($15,000 per student – almost enough to send them to one of our elite prep schools – perish the thought.)

    Can even the most fanatical devotee of the System claim we are getting $450,000 benefit out of this class room?

  4. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Regarding SAT and GMAT, Mensa once regarded them as valid measurements of intelligence. That has not been true for decades now.

  5. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    In the past, the superintendent of our county schools has been working to eliminate the so-called “education gap.” Most recently he said that efforts were now directed to educate each student to the best of his or her abilities. He did not note that if successful, the education gap would increase.

  6. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    What Sam Dickson fails to realize is the degree to which Taylorism–and a variety of other revolutionary inventions and movements–has degraded ordinary Americans until they are incapable of functioning. They can’t marry, bear and rear legitimate children, play the piano unless it is electrified, read more than 1000 words at a sitting, light a fire in the woods on a rainy day, tie a knot that will hold, play a game that is not computer-driven to outthink the players…. Of course, there are a few people who learn to tie knots they need for a hobby, but, then, they can’t learn the fifth declension.

  7. Dot says:

    “The most essential function now performed by the schools is data collection.” I have to wonder if data collection is also used to justify salary increases. In my State teachers will receive a salary increase amounting to almost 20% from 2014 to the current 2018-19 school year. It will be interesting to see if this increase will show improved student academic outcomes.

  8. Sam Dickson says:


    I certainly see and recognize the problems with modern people and am in complete accord with your observations about their ignorance and ineptitude.

    What makes this phenomenon all the more bizarre is that these inept, ignorant, feckless people sincerely believe that they are “the most educated generation in history” and feel nothing but contempt for their parents, their grandparents and ancestors further back.

    I was born a generation behind. Many of my cousins were married and had children when I was born. All of them were vastly older than I was as the last, late-born shoot from the old stump on both sides of my family. My cousins stood to me as aunts and uncles do for most people. I had a great great aunt Belle Morrison with whom I often talked of past times who lived during the Civil War and Reconstruction. My family were utterly out of step with the modern world. I have never been able truly to fit in. I learned quickly, however, to hide and disguise how 19th century I was so as to achieve some degree of acceptance from other children.

    I actually KNEW the older generations.

    They could do ANYTHING. They could plant arbors and orchards. They could repair cars and boat engines. They could roof houses. They knew how to read and read significant things.

    I recognized early on that their education was superior to what I was getting. I went through my grandfather’s office in McClellanville looking for things to read. I came across his HIGH SCHOOL report cards and text books. Before he graduated from high school at age 17 he had Euclidean geometry, algebra, trigonometry, Latin and even eff-ing GREEK, for Pete’s sake.

    Nor did his education stop with science, mathematics and the classics. He took German (which he actually spoke growing up with his immigrant parents – the only ancestors we have who came after the Revolution) and French.

    He also read widely in history and theology.

    I found a book entitled something like “English History for Children” that guided (correctly) my first steps in learning about our people’s history in the Old World. I can still see in my mind the 2 illustrations in the frontispiece:

    One showed Boadicea driving her chariot with the words “This Kingdom shall never bend to the Roman yoke” inscribed under it.

    The other depicted the heretic Cranmer (he tried but never reached the full truth) thrusting his hand into the fire and saying, “”As for the Pope I denounce him as Antichrist.”

    You will recognize, Duce, that back then my grandparents had solid and UNBIASED books to provide to their children and then to their grandchildren.

    You may quibble about the 2 illustrations but the difference in quality of information between what I got from my grandparents and parents and the pablum I got at school was stark as night and day.

    Modern people puff themselves up at the expense of their forebears but the truth is 99% of them aren’t worth a damn, know nothing and can’t do anything.


    P.S. It really bothers me to witness the contempt people have for their ancestors. There’s a book of the Apocripha (sp?) I really like and have read many times called variously “Ecclesiasticus” and “The Book of Sirich.” It’s really great. Better than most of the Bible. One of the verses I have memorized runs like this and will appeal to Il Duce’s reverence for the heroes of antiquity and of our own past:

    “Do not deny kindness to the dead.”

  9. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Apocrypha, and it is in the Christian Bible. It was included by the learned Jews who did the Septuagint translation at Alexandria. The apocrypha are quoted in the NT and were generally accepted. Later rabbis excluded these books on various grounds, e.g., they were written in Greek or survived only in Greek translation. Second Maccabees includes references to the resurrection of the dead. Susannah is pretty hard on the Jewish establishment, while there are other books with references pointing to Christ. I understood why the rabbis did not like them–though Sirach continued to be cited. What I don’t understand is why Protestants–except for Anglicans–followed the rabbis’ lead, but Sam would be a better judge of such questions. To hate your ancestors–whether actual genetic ancestors or only the heroes of your people–you must first be taught to hate yourself.

  10. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    PS. The original Authorized Version of the Bible included the misnamed apocryphal books, but these days impudent publishers –acting much like Pope Francis–have censored Holy Scripture. When I was licensed to administer the chalice, conduct services of Morning Prayer, and preach sermons in the Episcopal Church in McClellanville, I was temporarily stymied when I had to include a reading from Wisdom. I only had the Bowdlerized version of the AV, but then I recalled that I had the Greek test of the Septuagint. In those days, there was no internet, and I was going to have to go down to the Charleston Library Society.

  11. Dot says:

    Has anyone ever heard of Melchizedek as the forerunner of Christ?

  12. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Christ made the allusion himself.

  13. Frank Brownlow says:

    This Winslow Taylor is new to me, so I went looking him up, was pleased to find that he published his famous book in 1911. The Taylor Society was founded in 1912, and it had 800 members by 1915. So the great Taylorian assault on human dignity coincides with that dire period, 1911-1920, when so many things went wrong in virtually all departments of life. As to what “what Taylor and his cronies created,” heaven only knows what they thought they were up to, apart from making money, but what they actually seem to have created was human wreckage wherever they struck, in factories and schools especially. Their admirers included Lenin & Stalin, I see.