There is a YouTube video making the rounds on the internet right now of a whiteboard animation of part of a speech on the state of American public education by Sir Ken Robinson:
One of the amazing points Robinson makes is that the modern education system mirrors the mass production model of the industrial revolution. In thinking about this model, it becomes clear to me that the significant purpose of the public education system was to develop citizens prepared to endure the conditions of industrial work.
This industrial model of education functions beyond even the examples Robinson cites: we can see the industrial model in the way unions dominate the employment of education workers, in how the government sees education as a commodity to regulate, and in many other parallels. The American model of education is effectively an industry with our children’s futures as the commodity.
Yet, I do not think the industrial model is limited only to the schools. Our society is the most effective product of our education system, a highly segmented, commodity driven, stratified structure created by people who had as many as 21 or more years of belief in the industrial model force fed to them.
As we look at the malaise that faces our society in general, and specific aspects in particular, I believe we can see the flaws in the industrial model that were always there. Our firm belief in things like economic class, defined pathways to employment and success, and the right to claim benefits from greater society are all ideas borne out of the industrial model that do no bear out in reality. As a society, we are forcing ourselves to abide by a set of rules that have never really applied and have only been made possible by the fragile structure of dependence industrialization created.
Now, that structure of dependence is failing, and very few members of our society are prepared for whatever comes next. Instead, we want to continue to try to tweak the industrial model, hoping that we can somehow coax just a little more out of a system that was inevitably destined to fail because it never really applied.
I think the only way out of this mess for all of us is to de-industrialize. Do not misunderstand me, the industrial model has its place, and where it has been applied to appropriate areas of endeavor, it has succeeded and belongs. But, success in one area of endeavor does not mean that the model is appropriate for all endeavors.
So, while the industrial model might be appropriate for manufacturing, it is probably entirely inappropriate for education, agriculture, or politics. We have had other far more successful models for other endeavors important to our society, and returning to those models is the best way to ensure those endeavors survive.
Unfortunately, real barriers stand in the way of returning to those models. Far too many people believe they have irrevocable vested interests in the failing model, and those people actively work against any kind of change. Further, some better functioning models, like community based education or locality based agriculture, have been unused for so long that there are too few people available right now to help effectively manage the change.
Yet, I think the change is inevitable because what we are doing now cannot continue to work. The industrial model of society depends on too many resources that will become more scarce and on too many structures that demand too much effort to maintain for it to survive.
The only way for this change to happen is if we all realize that it must and if we all change our mindsets toward making the more effective models work. The alternative is collapse and anarchy.
I’m thinking of the drastic differences between the current public education model and Montessori. I worked at a Montessori school while in college and was struck by how much more balanced everything seemed. If you haven’t experienced Montessori method, it’s hard (at least for me) to explain, but if a kid was really into math that day, no one told him “no, it’s time for English, so put the math book away”. Not a perfect system, and maybe not the best way for all kids, but there was some serious learning going on.