Rethinking Teaching as Industry

Above: Democratic Model

My Advanced Placement United States History sections recently discussed the transformation of American identity as it related to the concepts of capitalism and democracy; I used my interest in progressive education to showcase how education was used to bring about a transformation in independent school teaching and  the political progressive reforms circa 1900. During the Gilded Age period, the industrial model of education was seen as efficient and pragmatic; however, the traditional machine model as illustrated by a row of desk showcased industry and religion: In the typical classroom model, students’ expectation were to sit and listen to a sage pontificate knowledge; I addressed the religious aspect because the notion of Puritanical beliefs circa 1620 modeled what one found in a church: A minister in front of his followers whose duty was to absorb information rather than engage in a dialogue about the premise of the information.

Why do schools continue to be industrial? If you recall, it is not unusual for a school day to operate much like a factory: Eager students await the day by gathering in lines to enter the hall of their particular factory/school. They make their way from period to period at the beat of a bell; students take on the identity of robots as they appear to have conformed to a systematic process of clock watching. As the bell rings, they escape one shift for the next. They work as endless droids until the whistle blows (or bell rings) denoting lunch; they attend session after session to watch a “manager” play authority over their ability to think freely and/or independently. Some schools operate like prisons and less like learning communities: Windows exist to be boxed up and doors shut to showcase work zones; the manager instructs his/her workers to conform much like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World’s operatives do. A warden polices the hall modeling a lack of distrust for his/her factory workers. Such workers are told to think independently, but they are chained by conformity.

In a classical sense, a great manager by the name of Mr. Keeting (Dead Poets Society) taught his workers to break from the Taylor model of industrial efficiency; however, when they did so, they were met by a factory full of managers who feared true independence of thought; in the end, Oh Captain my Captain was dismissed due to his Socratic formula of teaching . A decade later,  his workers took on the revolution espoused by Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto and brought about an educational system that empowered the young workers. Those young progressives used Marx’s literature to remove the industrial constructs interfering with their education which ultimately gave birth to the civil rights era of the 1960s.

Above: Industrial model


7 thoughts on “Rethinking Teaching as Industry

  1. Well said and true. Who was the Taylor guy of the “Taylor model”? Your last paragraph covered a lot of ground. Maybe you could expand on that for me in another post. I saw Dead Poets a long time ago. Does “Oh Captain My Captain” connect with that? “His workers took on the revolution” Who does the pronoun refer to? Thanks.

  2. I found myself responding viscerally to those two photographs. For all that my student roll their eyes and sigh dramatically at having to move their desks into a circle at the beginning of class, I find that the democratic configuration works far better in terms of creating a cooperative and inclusive environment in the classes I teach. No one can hide in the corner in a circle, and I’m not set up as the high holy head.

    I do wonder, though; are there some disciplines that are better served in the industrial model? Is mathematics instruction, say, or engineering, better taught (and learned) in the more ordered settings? How much does the personality and learning style of the student play into the question?


  3. Mrschili:

    I will say this: As is the case in any course, students must receive information that brings about further understanding of the content. Not just in math, but English and history too. But, the concept of democratic teaching is not just important in the humanities, but in math and science as well. A colleague I work with and who will be rejoining the math department next year, teaches students to work all problems in front of the class but in small groups. This is designed to get each student to discuss not just the answer, but why it is the answer. I see the sciences as a field of problem solving.

    The personality of the teacher does play a big part. I think it is a school culture matter more than just one persons teaching style.


    I will do so. I teach the 1950s using Dead Poets Society. I state that revolutionary thinking and teaching in the 50s gave birth to those young students of the 50s who would go off to college in the 60s. Once in college, they will have learned to be independent of the racism of their parents. Thus they were major leaders in 1960s change.

  4. I always appreciate your posts regarding education, especially progressive models of education. I had the pleasure of taking a class in Critical Pedagogy a few semesters ago and got to read several different studies that illuminated that the socioeconomic status of a school had a direct correlation with the industrial nature of the classrooms of its public schools. The working class schools were designed to create near-thoughtless workers while more affluent schools were equipped to create thinkers and leaders.

    On the new ABC show “Better Off Ted” (it’s on after Scrubs so I can’t stop watching), the fictional company’s day-care center is set up to exploit the children’s ‘play’ into profit for the company–especially the children of the hourly workers of the office. Unfortunately, many educators are taught to mold workers for the industrial world, not to create thinkers.

  5. iantrevor:

    Interesting comment; I do know of Scrubs but not Better off Ted; I will be looking for it. I think your point is a good one. It is easy to fall victim to the cyclical conditions of education. Why change? This is the way it has long been done. In Dead Poets Society, I believe the school’s head told Keeting that the curriculum works and is proven. Why mess with it? Public schools have been trapped in this more than private; I do not know why people do not demand 12 to 1 student to teacher ratios. People like trends when it comes to education. Buzz words.

    That critical pedagogy course sounds interesting; I have not taken such a course. I am like you, books, articles, and blogs discussing progressive education have long caught my attention. It is a passion.

  6. Love your observations of a school day. I actually remember thinking similarly–as a student, but now even more-so as a teacher.

  7. Thanks Matt!!! Schools often take on the “role” as being transformative actors by introducing new “innovative” programs or trying and spending lots on technology, but they often fail to address the small cultural things that hold them back.

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