Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Why We Will Lose: Taylorism in America's High Schools

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Why We Will Lose: Taylorism in America's High Schools

Article excerpt

The new economic order requires all workers to be a part of the team, Mr. Gray reminds us. Developing this point of view among our young people begins by making all of them feel a part of the first large organization with which they are associated - namely, their school.

AMERICANS are competitive by nature. Most of us share a distaste for losing. Of course, the greatest humiliation is losing international competitions. Yet, despite our obsession with being number one, we seem to be losing the grandest and most important of all world-class events. This event has higher stakes than the Olympics. Admission tickets are not sold because everyone is on the team. The outcome does not appear in the sports pages but shows up on our paychecks. The event being described is the international competition for world markets. The size of our trade deficit is our losing score.

It may be inevitable that America will lose the race for international markets; at least, that is the prediction of Japanese industrialist Konosuke Matsushita. "America will lose," says Matsushita, because its people are infected with a disease of the brain. He calls this disease "Taylorism."[1] Embedded in the philosophy of social Darwinism, Taylorism is the belief that both the preordained natural order and the maximization of profits dictate that the fittest should manage as benevolent dictators and that the rest should work. The former should do the thinking while the latter follow directions; consultations between the two groups are discouraged, since these interactions threaten the authority (if not the bloated paychecks) of the managing class.

Is Matsushita correct? The literature on Total Quality Management (TQM) suggests that he is. Phillip Richards argues, for example, that in American industry the worker and the customer are typically the last to be considered.[2] Despite talk about participatory management, little has changed in most companies. The question is whether anything can be done about it. Can this disease that Matsushita calls Taylorism be cured? The answer to this question lies in the genesis of Taylorism. Where are the elitist attitudes of Taylorism learned? For one possible answer, most of us need only remember our own high school days and how we, as students, treated one another.


Many of the lasting attitudes and behaviors learned in high school seem to contradict the curriculum. For example, teens are taught in class that rushing through a meal is unhealthy. Yet even the most recalcitrant students learn quickly that they had better eat lunch in 20 minutes or go hungry. Similarly, students are taught that the U.S. was founded on the principle that all individuals are created equal. They learn from experience, however, that at least in school some of their peers are apparently more equal than others.

One predictable characteristic of every high school in the country is the existence of an officially identified and certified "in crowd" of students. This "in crowd," anointed and honored by teachers, school administrators, school boards, school policies, and the public, is made up of those blessed with varying combinations of intellectual skills, interpersonal skills, athletic prowess, and middle-class values. These students are elected by the faculty to the National Honor Society. They are honored at awards assemblies, where they typically receive "all" the awards. They can wander the corridors without being harassed by teachers. They are enrolled in honors courses, where they are taught by the best teachers in the smallest classes. Their status as superior is ensured by special discriminatory policies such as weighted grading systems, in which courses taken by the in crowd count more than other courses for class standing. The in crowd is referred to as the country's future leaders. Leaders of whom? Those less blessed - the remaining students who are taught by the same system that they are inferior, that their opinions do not count, and that they are destined to be subordinates. …

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