Competing Models for Public Education: Which Model is Best?

Cultures live by their models. They die by them as well. Ulysses spawned ancient Greece. Horatio Alger defined rags-to-riches America. Rambo epitomized the 1980's.

When it comes to education, our models are not people but, rather, ideas. Our seeming schizophrenia about education can be understood as the struggle between two different models, two competing sets of ideas.

One model views schools as a process of cultural birth, of bringing forth a new generation of children who will carry on - replicate - the culture. The other model views schools as a machine, an industrial process not unlike an assembly line. Its purpose is to mass produce "factors of production," well trained, obedient inputs that can be used in the manufacture of wealth.

Not surprisingly, these competing models produce radically different prescriptions for how to improve our schools. The differences show up in everything from how to pay and retain good teachers to curriculum design, teaching methods, and discipline.

In order to improve our schools, getting the model right will prove not nearly so important as getting the right model.

Mass public education in America was conceived and designed as a production process. In the late 1800's, millions of farmers and immigrants were arriving in American cities in search of their mythic riches. The challenge for the country's leaders was how to at once assimilate these teeming masses to both American culture and industrial society.

The answer was simple: students would be moved from station to station, hour by hour, year by year, and fitted with various types of "knowledge." It was not unlike moving a car through a factory while bolting on engines, axles, and wheels, only, the "parts" were literacy, vocational skills, and citizenship.

In addition to its physical process, the factory model has an economic side as well: capitalism. Adam Smith, capitalism's patron saint, was in awe of Isaac Newton's model of the universe as a big machine. He determined to apply Newton's idea to social life and so, in 1776, wrote The Wealth of Nations, the book that ultimately became the Bible of capitalism.

Where Newton's world was made up of planets in motion, Smith's was composed of consumers in motion. In each world, fundamental forces-gravity in one, greed in the other-held things together in a balanced, harmonious whole. But where Newton had centrifugal force to balance gravity, Smith had to invent a theological agency to moderate the destructive excesses of greed: The Invisible Hand.

It is not an accident that calls to "reform" schools, to make them more "efficient," almost always come from business interests. They not only have long experience with the factory model but an abiding need for cost effective "inputs" as well. They also see education as a business opportunity in itself, a chance to cash in on the half trillion dollars a year spent on public education in America. They wouldn't be good capitalists if they didn't at least make a try for it.

The other model of education - call it the cultural womb - we can trace back to Plato's Academy and up through the universities of medieval Europe. It views the student not as a factor of production to be assembled and put to work, but as a human being to be nurtured and set to thinking. Its primary goal is not mass production of vocational competence but rather individual cultivation of human maturity.

In the cultural womb model, society replicates itself by creating thoughtful human beings who will carry its "cultural DNA" into succeeding generations. It is those thoughtful human beings who embody and therefore model society's values for those who come after them. This concept of education as cultural womb could not be more different from that of the school as a factory.

Clearly, American education today is more factory than womb. But it is a towering irony that it was saved from becoming a completely de-humanizing process by the "factory workers" themselves: the teachers. In the beginning, they were overwhelmingly women. They were natural nurturers, instinctively able to shelter their students from the cold, harsh depersonalization of the machine process.

It was the teachers, both women and men, who, through their simple humanity, bridged the seemingly unbridgeable gulf between factory and womb. It was the teachers who birthed generation after generation of productive workers AND thoughtful human beings. It was they who may have saved society itself from destruction at the hands of its own ideational schizophrenia.

All of us know the difference between organisms and machines. We would think it insane to put dirt into our engines or motor oil onto our plants. Yet we've become so captivated with the machine model we no longer know when it is appropriate or not. We can no longer understand that in some settings it is simply destructive.

Most of the calls for "educational reform" today would have us do what we intuitively recoil from: make our schools even more machine-like, even more relentlessly mechanical. The "reformers" want to make schools into businesses, profit-making educational factories stripped of the very humanizing sheltering that saved such factories from themselves in the first place.

In the emerging industrial model of education, standardization is everything. No matter that all children are different, that all learn in different ways and at different rates. Learning is not about thinking but memorization. Imagination is replaced by regurgitation. Tests become totems to be taught to. Efficiency becomes the iconic measure of performance where out-of-spec. "products" are discarded. Questioning is replaced by obedience. Freedom succumbs to fealty.

Worst of all, the teachers are expected to become industrial robots, dutifully bolting on prefab knowledge components while remaining subservient and docile. No more guiding the strongest, succoring the weakest, while inspiring the rest. The compassion, empathy, and love of human growth that led teachers to education in the first place, that humanized an otherwise dispiriting process, is winnowed out and replaced with regimentation, routine, and reverence for return on investment.

And it is not enough to hope that its greed-driven mechanism might be moderated by an "Invisible Hand," no matter how Providentially inspired. If it is not mitigated, balanced by an intentional, palpable Visible Hand of nurturing, encouragement, and compassion, the school-as-factory will simply chew up its inputs, making cogs, parts, and Frankenstein-like assemblies of human beings.

What kind of society, what kind of humanity, could such people-as-products reproduce? For, let's not forget: society still needs to replicate itself. But factories cannot do that. Only wombs can.

As a society, we've become besotted with the language of costs and benefits, as if everybody was a commodity whose highest purpose in life was to be put to work. In our thrall to mechanism, we have already destroyed a formerly vibrant public health system so that businesses could earn more profits by letting accountants make "cost-effective" medical decisions.

And we stand now in danger of destroying the most powerful democratizing institution in the world-public education-and for the same reason as well: so that private interests can make a profit off of it. It will be a fateful, perhaps irreversible decision.

Remember: cultures live by their models but they die by them as well. In the debate over how to improve public education we would be wise to listen not to the "educational entrepreneurs", the accountants, the politicians, or the ideologues. We would be wise to listen to the teachers.

It is the teachers who already saved public education once from the worst depredations of its inner machine. Not only is it the teachers who know education best, it is they who care about it most. For it is one thing to commit your investors' money to an enterprise. It is another thing altogether to commit your own life. Which commitment-which model-would you rather trust your children to?

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