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A Model T Education: Public Schooling on the Assembly Line

Mass-production is a problem for education u2013 indeed, it is now the problem.

“Mass production is a problem the auto industry solved over 100 years ago,” veteran education reporter Jonn Merrow narrates over grainy images of Model Ts being rolled out of a factory in his most recent PBS NewsHour report. He observes that with the Model T, Henry Ford’s innovation was not in creating a quality car, but in constructing an assembly-line which could mass-produce them, providing this once cutting edge technology affordably to the public. “But it’s an issue our education system has yet to figure out. Nobody has figured out how to mass-produce high-quality, cost-effective schools,” Merrow mournfully concludes – public education has yet to discover its “Model T.”

In other words, Merrow – who has been reporting on education for forty years – is saying public education should aspire to the assembly line of the 1920s.

Perhaps the Mayans were right.

The last few years have felt like the beginning of the end of public education: it’s not just neo-con think tanks and billionaire industrialists calling for the end of public schooling as we know it, even our Public Broadcasting System is airing reports that our public schools aren’t acting enough like productive, efficient, and profitable factories[i]

It seems absurd that in 2013, in the digital era –one of personalization, customization, and individual expression – the assembly-line would be held up as an paragon for public education. Ford’s “innovative” feat was to standardize the workplace, following Frederick Winslow Taylor’s, philosophy of “scientific management.” In Ford’s plant, each worker’s role was reduced to performing a single-task, over and over again, each of his movements designed to maximize efficiency, and decrease waste. A worker’s initiative, creativity, and individual taste stood in the way of progress, innovation and profit, as they slowed down production. “In the past the man has been first,” Taylor pronounced the dawn of a new, more efficient industrial age in his 1911 blueprint for the assembly-line Principles of Scientific Management. “In the future the system must be first.”[ii] Thus, in Ford’s plants, the workers – much like the parts in Model T – were interchangeable, and easily replaced, to ensure that the system of mass-production was always first.

While Merrow’s assembly-line analogy may seem absurd, it has now become the normal way in which public education is discussed, as I found in a two-year study of education coverage in Project Censored 2013 titled “GERM Warfare: How to reclaim the education debate from corporate occupation.” G.E.R.M – the Global Education Reform Movement, a term coined by Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg, and more popularly known as “education reform” – models public education on corporate philosophies and practices, handing over public institutions to corporate style management, and ultimately, corporations themselves. The most visible symptom of G.E.R.M manifests itself in language, and is demonstrated in Merrow’s report, as he uses the language of business to discuss education. Merrow – in comparing schools to factories, and education to a consumer product – presents a radical revision in the way that the public perceives education.

Merrow’s report – whether he is aware of it or not – owes a great debt to Nobel-Prize wining economist Milton Friedman, “grandmaster of free-market economic theory,” who was the architect of the “small government” ethos that now dominates the Republican Party. Friedman – the inventor of the “school voucher” – wanted schools out of the hands of the government, and into the hands of private enterprise, which he believe could provide a better education. While Friedman’s privatization policies are still in their infancy, the way he discusses schooling as a customer service is now the linguistic status quo, used not just by right wing policy wonks, and so-called education reformers like Michelle Rhee, but even PBS reporters like Merrow, as I discussed in this excerpt from Project Censored 2013:

Friedman did not just propose a set of education policies, but rather, a fundamentally different way of thinking about, and discussing education. His use of corporate language – “efficiency,” “productivity,” and “consumer” – encourages the reader to imagine schools in terms of the private sector, of corporations, or “factories,” as cognitive linguist George Lakoff observes. A business has a primary goal of pleasing the consumer, of keeping costs low, of driving in revenue, and as a result, ultimately making money. Its goal is not to enrich the public good, but rather, the private entity. However, as Lakoff argues “Education is about more than making money. It is about coming to know the world, about learning to think critically, and about developing the capacity to create new knowledge, new social institutions, and new kinds of businesses.” Of course, education serves a critical economic function, but it also serves to enrich culture, our morals, our quality of life, and our democracy – and to view education as a business, as a private service rather than a public good, is to strip it of these critical values.

Therein is the most potent symptom of Friedman’s education philosophy: in framing education as a business, G.E.R.M. reduces the incredibly complex, rich vibrant and human process of education into a mechanized production line, with goals of “efficiency” and “productivity” replacing learning, growth, creativity, community, and democracy.[iii]

By framing education as an assembly-line, Merrow – like many reporters – lays the foundation for schools to actually become assembly-lines (Indeed, many schools, as I found in talking to an anonymous middle-school teacher in Washington D.C. for a graphic report The Disaster Capitalism Curriculum are already on the assembly-line). And with GERM “reform” policies like No Child Left Behind and its sequel Race to the Top, Ford-like standardization is the goal – not just of tests, but of students and teachers themselves, who become interchangeable, not unlike parts on a Model T.

Mass-production is a problem for education – indeed, it is now the problem. Our schools are not factories, and our children are not products to be mass-produced. Any real effort at reform will not look backwards to the assembly-line, a century-old system that reduces the humanity of our children and teachers, which strives to fit the human into the form of the standardized system; rather, any real improvement of our public education will look forward, to ways we can acknowledge and enhance the humanity of those that participate in the noble journey of learning.[iv]

[i] The PBS NewsHour is underwritten by a billionaire industrialist policy engine The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, who have been the primary movers in pushing GERM policies. In a further conflict of interest, almost every director of the school featured in Merrow’s report has direct ties to the Gates Foundation, and a star-studded fundraiser for the school was at a Microsoft store. In other words, the Gates Foundation helped fund a report for a school they are actively supporting. For documentation, see my essay “A Retro-Rocket Ship to the Future: Corporate Education Reform Takes Off in Silicon Valley.”

[ii] For more information on Taylor, see Nicholas Carr’s seminal essay “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The Atlantic. July/August 2008.

[iii] For much more, see Adam Bessie.“GERM Warfare: How to reclaim the education debate from corporate occupation.” Project Censored 2013. Ed. Mickey Huff. Seven Stories: New York. 2013.

[iv] For the greater implications of an assembly-line education, see Paul Thomas “Clones, Assembly Line Capitalism, and Wage Slaves.” National Education Policy Center. December 11th 2012.

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