A Thought Experiment Begins

I recently looked back over my last several posts to this blog, and thought, “Woman, you are such a whiner!  Why don’t you write something positive?”

It is true that I find much of today’s education news deeply depressing–but my nature is to be optimistic, which is probably why I went into teaching in the first place.  So I’ve decided to start a series of posts that explore some of the ways we can make schools better.

Education has been conducted on much the same paradigm
since this engraving was made in 1826. I think it’s time to change
the paradigm, if we want to improve our 21st-century schools!

Why should I be able to do any better than the Gates Foundation and the Secretary of Education at prescribing the best recipe for education reform?  Well, I’m not sure I can!

But I’ve been playing with an idea for several years that I haven’t seen widely discussed, and I’d like to share it here.

I think the only way we’ll manage to have meaningful educational reform is to change the paradigm.  I don’t mean moving away from the goal of providing the best possible education for our kids.  I just think we’re going about it from the basis of an unhelpful paradigm–the paradigm of “Control.”

What does that mean?  To explain, I need to go back to the 19th century, when the whole idea of universal public education was just starting to gain traction in the United States.

No one should dispute the fact that reformers such as Horace Mann wanted to help improve the lives of children. But schools also developed as they did for several other reasons–and those don’t often make it into the history books.  Understanding these origins, however, is essential to understanding the current paradigm.

Public education pioneers got powerful backing from industrialists in the northeast during the middle of the 19th century.  These businessmen had found that they really needed as many minimally-educated, compliant, dependable factory workers as they could find.  There was a chronic labor shortage that continually nagged the effort to keep the mills and factories humming.

Children turned out to be unreliable, easily-killed factory
workers, although mill owners tried for years to use
them. These little girls are depicted in a British textile mill.

At first, it seemed that child labor would be a partial cure for the labor shortage, but employers and floor bosses discovered that children actually made very poor factory workers.  They were distractible, too weak, way too easily injured or killed, and generally unreliable (see David Bakan’s 1971 article, Adolescence in America: From Idea to Social Fact for details.  Unfortunately, the article does not seem to be available online, except for a price through JSTOR).

But the unemployed children of factory workers caused problems in the burgeoning northeastern cities, too.  They became a growing public nuisance.  Unsupervised by their factory-worker parents, who were busy working 10- and 12-hour shifts six or seven days a week, they had nothing to do.  There was no farm work to keep them busy, as there would have been in earlier times.  They ran in gangs of street urchins, sometimes begging for work, and other times shoplifting their lunches from food vendors, vandalizing or robbing people’s property, and generally causing trouble.  A new term was coined: juvenile delinquent.

Urchins on the loose in northeastern cities caused many problems.  The boys in the little gang at left were a danger to themselves and a traffic hazard, running the streets unsupervised.  At right, children begging for work were such a common sight in New York that they inspired this cartoon in the humor magazine Judge, a spin-off of the more famous Punch.  Click on the image to make it large enough to read the joke at the bottom.

It is no coincidence that Massachusetts and New York were the first states to make compulsory school attendance laws.  Similarly, the innovative New York House of Refuge was established by early reformers in 1824, ushering in the start of the juvenile justice system.  Reformers wanted to rehabilitate juvenile delinquents through education, rather than throwing them into jail with older criminals.  The juvenile justice system developed parallel to the public schools.

Nineteenth-century schools were specifically designed to keep students off the streets, and to turn out cooperative, dependable factory workers.  They were all about control and conformity.  This beginning profoundly affected the nature of the schools that resulted.

First-graders at Lakewood Elementary in Houston,
TX learn to walk quietly in a line during the first
week of school.

Consider the industrial “form” of schools, which lingers still today: they are designed to run kids through their programs in uniform “lots” called “classes.” Their norm is to teach everyone the same, mass-administered lessons.  They follow a strict schedule, and have stated production goals (“students will learn these things by the end of the semester”).

The paradigm of “Control” is evident in many aspects of daily school life.  From this point of view, the most important thing is to control students at all times.  Often, this means they are made to do innately unnatural things.

They must walk quietly in line.  They must sit in rows.  They must raise their hands for permission to talk.  They may not eat until the teacher allows it.  They even have to ask for such basic essentials as permission to go to the bathroom.

They are told what to think about, where to go, and when they have to be there.  They must adhere to adult-imposed schedules that may be wildly out of sync with their own natural circadian rhythms–or face punishment if they don’t.  Large portions of their lives are consumed by forced participation in activities they do not choose, and may not like or see any reason for doing.

The adults may enthuse about what a wonderful, nurturing place of learning the school is, but most of the kids are not fooled.  In my years of teaching, I have had many conversations with students in which I tried (sometimes unsuccessfully) to get them to believe I did not go into teaching just so I could gleefully and ruthlessly oppress children.

If school reform is to succeed at the high levels our policymakers profess that they want, it will mean that vast numbers of currently-unwilling students must embrace the entire school experience with an enthusiasm we have heretofore not seen, or even realistically imagined.  Students who are doggedly resisting our efforts to teach them do not learn as well as students who cooperate.

For most of our students to embrace education with enthusiasm, we will first have to convince them that our primary goal is not child-oppression–and we will have to show them we mean it with action, not just words.  All but the very youngest have heard all the words before.

We have no choice.  We have to change the paradigm.

PHOTO CREDITS: The 1836 school image is from Teach US History.org.  The Victorian child mill-workers are from Lisa Waller Rogers’ blog.  The New York urchin band are from the Street Children website, and the cartoon from Judge came from Mike Lynch’s blog about cartoons.  North Forest Independent School District proudly displayed the image of first graders in line on their Lakewood Elementary webpage.

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jansgephardt

Kansas City-based Jan S. Gephardt is a writer, artist, and teacher. She makes nationally-recognized paper sculpture and writes sf mystery novels about a sapient police dog.

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