Competing Models for Public Education: Which Model Is Best?

By Freeman, Robert | Our Schools, Our Selves, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Competing Models for Public Education: Which Model Is Best?


Freeman, Robert, Our Schools, Our Selves


Cultures live by their models. They die by them as well. Ulysses spawned ancient Greece. Horatio Alger defined rags-to-riches America. Rambo epitomized the 1980's.

When it comes to education, our models are not people but, rather, ideas.

Our seeming schizophrenia about education can be understood as the struggle between two different models, two competing sets of ideas.

One model views schools as a process of cultural birth, of bringing forth a new generation of children who will carry on the culture. The other model views schools as a machine, an industrial process not unlike an assembly line. Its purpose is to mass produce "factors of production," well trained, obedient inputs that can be used in the manufacture of wealth.

Not surprisingly, these competing models produce radically different prescriptions for how to improve our schools. The differences show up in everything from how to pay and retain good teachers to curriculum design, teaching methods, and discipline.

In order to improve our schools, getting the model right will prove not nearly so important as getting the right model.

Mass public education in America was conceived and designed as a production process. In the late 1800's, millions of farmers and immigrants were arriving in American cities in search of their mythic riches. The challenge for the country's leaders was how to at once assimilate these teeming masses to both American culture and industrial society.

The answer was simple: students would be moved from station to station, hour by hour, year by year, and fitted with various types of "knowledge." It was not unlike moving a car through a factory while bolting on engines, axles, and wheels - only, the "parts" were literacy, vocational skills, and citizenship.

In addition to its physical process, the factory model has an economic side as well: capitalism. Adam Smith, capitalism's patron saint, was in awe of Isaac Newton's model of the universe as a big machine. He was determined to apply Newton's idea to social life and so, in 1776, wrote The Wealth of Nations, the book that ultimately became the Bible of capitalism.

Where Newton's world was made up of planets in motion, Smith's was composed of consumers in motion. In each world, fundamental forces, gravity in one, greed in the other, held things together in a balanced, harmonious whole. But where Newton had centrifugal force to balance gravity, Smith had to invent a theological agency to moderate the destructive excesses of greed: The Invisible Hand.

It is not an accident that calls to "reform" schools, to make them more "efficient," almost always come from business interests. They not only have long experience with the factory model but an abiding need for cost effective "inputs" as well. They also see education as a business opportunity in itself, a chance to cash in on the half trillion dollars a year spent on public education in America. They wouldn't be good capitalists if they didn't at least make a try for it.

The other model of education call it the cultural womb - we can trace back to Plato's Academy and up through the universities of medieval Europe. It views the student not as a factor of production to be assembled and put to work, but as a human being to be nurtured and set to thinking. Its primary goal is not mass production of vocational competence but rather individual cultivation of human maturity.

In the cultural womb model, society replicates itself by creating thoughtful human beings who will carry its "cultural DNA" into succeeding generations. It is those thoughtful human beings who embody and therefore model society's values for those who come after them. This concept of education as cultural womb could not be more different from that of the school as a factory.

Clearly, American education today is more factory than womb. But it is a towering irony that it was saved from becoming a completely dehumanizing process by the "factory workers" themselves: the teachers. …

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