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.