Box of Chocolates

Godin #3: Back to (the wrong) school

“Stop Stealing Dreams” is a series on IowaTransformED designed to initiate conversation in our community around educational transformation. Each excerpt is used by permission from the manifesto by Seth Godin entitled “Stop Stealing Dreams (what is school for?). Written in blog format, we will post segments several times a week and ask for community members to comment and start a dialogue. While not necessarily reproducing each blog and segment verbatim every time based upon the topic – but in no way changing Godin’s words or message – the entire book is available here: Stop Stealing Dreams by GodinHighlighted sections are ours to point to big ideas. Seth Godin’s “Stop Stealing Dreams (what is school for?)

Dedicated to every teacher who cares enough to change the system, and to every student brave enough to stand up and speak up.

Today’s segment is Godin’s “Chapter” 3: Back to (the wrong) school. Godin provides a glimpse into his upcoming argument about the schools we have and why “reforming” them won’t work.

3. Back to (the wrong) school

A hundred and fifty years ago, adults were incensed about child labor. Low-wage kids were taking jobs away from hard-working adults.

Sure, there was some moral outrage about seven-year-olds losing fingers and being abused at work, but the economic rationale was paramount. Factory owners insisted that losing child workers would be catastrophic to their industries and fought hard to keep the kids at work— they said they couldn’t afford to hire adults. It wasn’t until 1918 that nationwide compulsory education was in place.

Part of the rationale used to sell this major transformation to industrialists was the idea that educated kids would actually become more compliant and productive workers. Our current system of teaching kids to sit in straight rows and obey instructions isn’t a coincidence—it was an investment in our economic future. The plan: trade short-term child-labor wages for longer term productivity by giving kids a head start in doing what they’re told.

Large-scale education was not developed to motivate kids or to create scholars. It was invented to churn out adults who worked well within the system. Scale was more important than quality, just as it was for most industrialists.

Of course, it worked. Several generations of productive, fully employed workers followed. But now?

Nobel prize–winning economist Michael Spence makes this really clear: there are tradable jobs (doing things that could be done somewhere else, like building cars, designing chairs, and answering the phone) and non-tradable jobs (like mowing the lawn or cooking burgers). Is there any question that the first kind of job is worth keeping in our economy?

Alas, Spence reports that from 1990 to 2008, the U.S. economy added only 600,000 tradable jobs.

If you do a job where someone tells you exactly what to do, he will find someone cheaper than you to do it. And yet our schools are churning out kids who are stuck looking for jobs where the boss tells them exactly what to do.

Do you see the disconnect here? Every year, we churn out millions of workers who are trained to do 1925-style labor.

The bargain (take kids out of work so we can teach them to become better factory workers as adults) has set us on a race to the bottom. Some people argue that we ought to become the cheaper, easier country for sourcing cheap, compliant workers who do what they’re told. Even if we could win that race, we’d lose. The bottom is not a good place to be, even if you’re capable of getting there.

As we get ready for the ninety-third year of universal public education, here’s the question every parent and taxpayer needs to wrestle with: Are we going to applaud, push, or even permit our schools (including most of the private ones) to continue the safe but ultimately doomed strategy of churning out predictable, testable, and mediocre factory workers?

As long as we embrace (or even accept) standardized testing, fear of science, little attempt at teaching leadership, and most of all, the bureaucratic imperative to turn education into a factory itself, we’re in big trouble.

The post-industrial revolution is here. Do you care enough to teach your kids to take advantage of it?

Initiating Comments by Trace Pickering, Director of Community Building:  Godin gets right to the heart of  his thesis in this segment – that schools were designed for a different America than we have today. Those of us alive today have always known “school” to exist in a very familiar and rather standardized form. While communities and cities are different, walk into any school and a sense of familiarity comes over you. Godin begins to challenge us to ask important questions and confront important facts: we largely made kids go to school to provide a workforce buffer and we made preparing them to be workers in factories as the priority. So, the function of school was to make compliant factory workers, the form became having schools look and act like factories, and the result? – a mass of workers who made America the greatest industrial economy and country in the world. But that’s not the world America faces today.

One thought on “Godin #3: Back to (the wrong) school
  • I am optimistic at the number of schools doing some really innovative things. Of course, it’s not enough, but you have to start somewhere. It took us 92 years to get here, large scale culture change will not happen overnight. It will require constant pressure by those willing to continually ask the tough questions. The longest journey begins with the first step.

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