|From Stop Stealing Dreams|
Essay 7. Mass production desires to produce mass
That statement seems obvious, yet it surprises us that schools are oriented around the notion of uniformity. Even though the workplace and civil society demand variety, the industrialized school system works to stamp it out.
The industrialized mass nature of school goes back to the very beginning, to the common school and the normal school and the idea of universal schooling. All of which were invented at precisely the same time we were perfecting mass production and interchangeable parts and then mass marketing.
Some quick background:
The common school (now called a public school) was a brand new concept, created shortly after the Civil War. “Common” because it was for everyone, for the kids of the farmer, the kids of the potter, and the kids of the local shopkeeper. Horace Mann is generally regarded as the father of the institution, but he didn’t have to fight nearly as hard as you would imagine—because industrialists were on his side. The two biggest challenges of a newly industrial economy were finding enough compliant workers and finding enough eager customers. The common school solved both problems.
The normal school (now called a teacher’s college) was developed to indoctrinate teachers into the system of the common school, ensuring that there would be a coherent approach to the processing of students. If this sounds parallel to the notion of factories producing items in bulk, of interchangeable parts, of the notion of measurement and quality, it’s not an accident.
The world has changed, of course. It has changed into a culture fueled by a market that knows how to mass-customize, to find the edges and the weird, and to cater to what the individual demands instead of insisting on conformity.
Mass customization of school isn’t easy. Do we have any choice, though? If mass production and mass markets are falling apart, we really don’t have the right to insist that the schools we designed for a different era will function well now.
Those who worry about the nature of schools face a few choices, but it’s clear that one of them is not business as usual. One option is smaller units within schools, less industrial in outlook, with each unit creating its own varieties of leaders and citizens. The other is an organization that understands that size can
be an asset, but only if the organization values customization instead of fighting it.
The current structure, which seeks low-cost uniformity that meets minimum standards, is killing our economy, our culture, and us.
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