Clones for a Bygone Era

Quick, in what educational institution do we systematically try to stamp out individuality or the growth of adult responsibility?

Secondary school, of course.

One of the more serious issues with the school system today is that it, frankly, is geared for a previous century.

The first half of the twentieth, to be precise: our school system is geared to a student body who, by and large, will go on to work in rigid organizations, either as blue collar manufacturing and extraction workers, or as while collar office workers.

The world described by Whyte in The Organization Man was the outcome of many years of transformation, from the independent business life — farmer (not agribusiness manager), manufacturer, shop-keeper, etc. — into the managerial and organizational culture of the corporate economy.

This transformation is mirrored in the purpose of schooling (and the number of years of it provided).

19th century schools, therefore, presumed that the average student would only finish the first eight grades at most. This “elementary” education was designed to make them capable of being thoughtful citizens — and economic innovators (enough science and mathematics, in other words, to design and build products and businesses).

A few would go on to “secondary” education, which was designed to lead to many types of more professional activities — and, for the very few, a university education.

“Few” is a relative term, as it differed from country to country, and from region to region [urban vs rural, for instance].

Thus much of the praxis, or practical and technical matters — including the fundamentals of arithmetic, reading, etc. — occurred in the early years, while theoria was the province of the secondary years.

On the back of such a system did the British Empire grow and administer the Pax Britannica, the Americans build a mighty economy, etc.

In the early 20th century, as founder-led firms grew to become the early corporations, there became a need to educate both a managerial and administrative workforce capable of working at higher levels of abstraction, and a plant workforce capable of following orders (as Taylor’s concepts around productivity via repetition and invariance of operation came to the fore).

The mix started to shift, therefore, toward more secondary education — and differing types of secondary education, from the technology & trades stream that would turn out people capable of working with machine tools, to the business & commerce stream that would turn out the clerks and accountants needed for a larger-scale enterprise.

“Arts & Science” stream graduates, in turn, would be the future managerial and professional cadre, either on the back of their high school diploma or further university education as appropriate.

Those who dropped out of secondary school “too soon” would form the blue collar unskilled and semi-skilled backbone of manufacturing, distribution, and resource extraction.

In this 20th century model, the primary skill to be learned in secondary school was obedience — obedience to instructions, to procedures, to methods. The mix of assignments capable of demonstrating the ability to regurgitate and process information (as opposed to “think outside the course limits” common in the 19th century, where an essay might merge materials from several subjects and argue for a conclusion) and the type of testing that confirmed the transfer of the necessary “knowledge nuggets” to be used in the workplace started to come to the fore.

Independent thought became “the province of the university campus”: adolescence, as we know it, became deeply rooted.

Adolescence is an extended period of mixed purpose, poorly integrated into the society we actually live in.

In the last three decades, with workforces essentially frozen by the bulk of the baby boomers occupying most of the paths of advancement, adolescence became one of many ways of limiting workforce entry, mostly by upgrading minimal educational requirements (such as the lunacy of requiring a university degree to be a garbage collector: calling such a person a “sanitary engineer” is high insult, indeed, especially when the city then buys trucks that pick up the pails so that no lifting or sorting is ever required).

But in the 1950s-1970s, adolescence was a delaying of adult responsibilities to teach the virtues of Zitsfleisch — to sit for the requisite number of hours and do all the requisite things.

This, of course, was the world of work that awaited. Its very success can be seen in the falling rates of entrepreneurial activity and the transformation of farming from vocation into business during this period; entrepreneurism rose again more out of a lack of opportunities in the corporate world than from anything done to change schooling back to a more individual-initiative model.

Today this has been taken to its furthest extremes, with the automatic suspicion placed on the student who is in any way “different”.

Were, for instance, a student to write a paper questioning any of the shibboleths of our time — global warming, say, or the “virtue” of teaching “creation science” — such student would find themselves not only with a paper of low, perhaps failing, grade, but also up for interrogation as to why such anti-social ideas are in their minds.

Suspensions for having in their possession a book that works against the social engineering consensus, whether this be something like Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (for which I was almost suspended in Grade 11), Christopher Hutchins’ God is not Great or some such other anti-consensus writing are becoming commonplace.

In other words, the secondary school is still about conforming, but to a world long gone.

For the old early leavers, technology & trades or business & commerce oriented students, the jobs are gone and the streams are gone.

Everyone is slotted into a pre-university stream now, in a world that, frankly, does not provide anything like the number of openings for graduates with an earned degree as are needed for the numbers now going through tertiary education. In turn, professional graduate degrees now serve the purpose a bachelor’s degree did a generation ago, and a high school diploma did before that.

Most students now leave school in their mid-20s, burdened by upwards of a hundred thousand dollars’ of debt. Such is just one of the prices being paid for not having revised the system earlier.

Meanwhile secondary school adolescents are forced into “community service” classes, “self and society” indoctrinations, and other attempts to mould them to fit a singular view of their role in society as acquiescent, non-political consumers who will seek their own gratification rather than contribute to society through the refreshing of its institutions.

This prolongs adolescence into the permanent crippling of adults.

Three generations of this type of behaviour now infest the streets of North America, supremely convinced that the short-term is the only term that matters, that they should get it while the getting is good, and that nothing can be done about anything anyway.

Our schools, in other words, are tearing our countries apart.

It is far past time for gentle reforms: it is time to completely redesign the school system for the world we now live in.

Whether one agrees with John Dewey and his ilk (I do not) the early 20th century generated the educational philosophers needed to change the system at that time.

Where are our thinkers on what education should be, for the 21st?



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  1. Perhaps there is more indoctrination of the type you describe in Canada than there is in the U.S. I went through school in the 60s and early 70s and did not get the type of indoctrination you describe except from one teacher who was interested in teaching us about ecology (for which I got untold lectures at the dinner table from my father, who ranted and raved that any teacher interested in ecology must be a communist, out against big business–my father worked as a salesman for a large steel company). I started teaching in the United States in 1989 as a second career, and left the U.S. in 1993. At that time, we were still teaching good critical thinking to students. Has something changed since then? I don’t know.

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