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Education Reform: The Individual at Risk (Except when Protected by Money)

Taylorism, the systematization of labor developed by Frederick Taylor, makes the worker immediately replaceable. Individual skill and knowledge becomes irrelevant–on the part of the worker. Only at the higher levels of management and ownership does creativity count for anything. It’s an elitist system positing that those at the lower echelons are merely cogs, not thinkers. It’s the elitism forwarded by Ayn Rand, whose The Fountainhead ends with Howard Roark atop a building he designed–with the implication that he created it completely. He didn’t, of course.  No one does–but those with money and power can create the illusion of their own freedom and competence, an illusion based on the unrecognized work of those who, for whatever reason, are below them.

I first experienced the Taylorization of education a little more than a decade ago, when I worked, for a time, for a for-profit online “college.” It was a writing class. Naive, I was a little perplexed by the nature of the course, built on a structure with little room for instructor input. As I see writing as a dynamic, an interaction between author and audience, I tried to add that in, giving the students a little sense of whom they were writing to. I tried to make a few other changes, as well. Soon, I came up against “my” administrator, someone who had never taught, had no advanced degree relevant to the subject, but who was responsible for oversight of the “facilitators” (as we putative “teachers” were called). Finally, I was threatened with immediate dismissal if I deviated from the proscribed path. I finished up the term but did not ask to teach there again.

Maybe the denigration of teachers (and their unions) these past decades has not come about for the express purpose of reducing their classroom roles, removing any creativity and individualism from what they do, but that has been the impact. The irony is that a growing lack of confidence in teachers has gone hand-in-glove with growing trust in those at the top, in those who make decisions about education. Bill Gates, with no actual experience working in education, is perhaps the most influential person in the country–in relation to our schools. Arne Duncan, Barack Obama’s Secretary of Education, has only worked in education as an administrator. Then there is David Coleman, creator of the Common Core State Standards and now head of the College Board–another with no hands-on classroom experience. In fact, the one consistent trait of today’s education “reformers” is a lack of substantial experience in the classroom or dealing directly with students on a day-to-day level. Yet we are allowing them, and not teachers, to shape national education policy.

Teachers, to these people, are no more important to education than laborers were to Taylor in the manufacture of pig iron. They would no more see it a viable activity on their part to actually work in a classroom than an industrialist would a lathe. Teachers, in their view, aren’t important: Systems are. And it is only the people at the top with the skills, the brains, and the money to draw up the plans.

But learning is not car-making; students are not vehicles. Education fits neither corporate nor industrial models for it does not produce “products.” Standardization in the production of refrigerators benefits us all; standardization in the process of learning, on the other hand, helps no one. It creates rigid, backward-looking formulae that stifle creativity and progress.

To even say that universal standards in education (and not the individual ones developed by each classroom teacher) benefit all is to gainsay the foundational belief in the individual behind so much of American thought, replacing it with the idea that all must be alike. The beauty of the system of education that grew up in the United States is that it ensures exposure to an array of vastly different teachers with different ideas and skills. Some students will respond best to one, some to another–but the diversity allows most to find someone they can work with, someone whose methods all them to grow. It has never been a perfect system (it allows way too many to fall through the cracks) but its efficacy is seen in the very history of the country.

A college student in the US can experience up to 40 different teachers on the way to a baccalaureate degree. Some, the student will like. Others, the student will hate. Those students who learn to deal effectively even with the teachers they despise will graduate, and will move on with skills in dealing with all sorts of people–skills that will serve them well in later life. In addition, some of those people, looking back from a vantage point of experience outside of school, will see that even those classes and teachers they liked least have proven useful. They have experienced a diversity in education that, in many ways, mirrors the diversity in American society. They have been allowed to develop as individuals without the burden of a system trying to mold them in one form.

That’s the way it should be. And, amid all the reform, that’s the way it still is–for the elite. The children of those people making the decisions about the education of everyone else mostly do not attend the public schools slated for the “reforms.” Most go to private schools and colleges where the emphasis is on the individual and on individual potential, where classes are small and each teacher is respected for his or her unique contribution to the education of the students. The implication, when one looks at this and looks at the different expectations and possibilities for the “leaders,” is that individualism is only for the elite, for those endowed with money, special talents, or unusual intellect. That’s the “take away” from Rand, as well. It seems that she, not John Dewey and not Thomas Jefferson, has become the guiding light for the leaders of American education.

It’s a myth, though: No one, not even Bill Gates, has done it all on their own in the way Rand imagines. And even the lowest on the scale deserves better than to be mechanized into an existence beyond their control.

About Aaron Barlow

English faculty, New York City College of Technology (CUNY) and Faculty Editor, "Academe."

One comment on “Education Reform: The Individual at Risk (Except when Protected by Money)

  1. martinkich
    March 20, 2014

    The real irony is, of course, that when teachers and other workers are represented by unions that, in response to their being treated to mere cogs in the machine, try to put limits on how much the machine can be reasonably expected to produce–to endure–then the unions are described as being obstructive and even destructive: specifically, the complaint is that the unions are eliminating the possibility for individual achievement and personal initiative, even though the opportunity for those things never existed to begin with.

    Some industrial unions made the mistake of creating bureaucracies that, to many workers, seemed to mirror and to be essentially indistinguishable from corporate management, and some unions too readily sacrificed local interests and needs to regional or national strategies. But, even allowing for those abuses of members, any worker who asserts that corporations care more about their workers than a union would is living in a delusory world. For every union that has been dismissive of local interests and needs, there are dozens of corporations who have closed or sold a plant with a long history of being very productive simply to boost a stock price or to meet investors expectations for a given quarter.

    All corporations may not have a Tayloresque attitude toward their employees, but anyone who bets on a corporation putting it employees ahead of a whole host of other considerations is like the person who keeps betting that 16th seeds will beat the 1 seeds in the NCAA basketball tournament. It will eventually happen, but the person placing those bets may not live long enough to see the betting strategy pay off.

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