you're reading...
Leadership and Activism, Philosophical Meanderings

The Problem Is Older Than the Factory

“Dad, if ants are so strong why can’t we just make really big machines that are built like ants and can carry heavy stuff for us?” Joel asks me.

Being a first-grader, I struggle with how to teach the difficulty of scalability.

“Sometimes things that work in small spaces don’t work when they get too big,” I tell him.

“Show me,” he dares.

So we build a small Lego structure that works wonderfully as at four inches tall.  However when we attempt to create a human-size version it collapses.

“That’s the problem,” I tell him.

I don’t get into the formulas involved, but he’s able to grasp in a very tangible way that small things when scaled to larger spaces don’t always function as well.

*     *     *

I’ve been re-reading Socrates lately.  I find it interesting that the same man (presumably) who had engaged in critical dialogue within the public realm had concocted a militaristic, standardized, heavy-handed, prescriptive solution for education.  (I also think he was a bit of a creep at moments) When I re-read The Republic, I am struck by how benign Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind seem.

It would be easy to condemn The Republic as a dystopian fantasy for an ideal society based upon coercion and social conditioning.  However, it seems to me that Socrates crafted his vision for Athens based upon what worked for Sparta. The real issue isn’t that it was bad ideology (which, in my pseudo-libertarian-bordering-on-anarchist worldview, I see as a truth) but that it didn’t fit the context of Athens.

As much of a genius as Socrates might have been, he failed to grasp the reality of context, models and scalability.   He assumed that what worked with one type of person or one local politic would transfer trans-geographically to a new context without any hiccups.

This has me thinking that the real issue might not be factory education and the real solution might not be as simple as applying home-school, unschool, charter school, private school, Waldorf, Montessori, KIPP, PLC, BYOD or LSD across the spectrum.   It’s why, as amazing as Finland may be, I don’t think the solution will be to copy them, either.  We can rail about industrial education, but culprit has less to do with the factory model as much as the reality that the model was applied top-down to all public schools while ignoring the sense of nuance, paradox and context implicit in every educational experience.

The real issue goes further back than the factory and probably further back than Socrates.  It’s the approach of enforcing one idea, one system and one model across the board and assuming that it will work.  It’s not so much the problem of one-size-fits-all (in a true one-size-fits-all there is room within the fitting for customization) but a one-fit-sizes-all where the “fit” is used to size up every person, place and institution that doesn’t conform to a particular standard.

The real issue is arrogance*.

When I think of where to go with educational reform, I look again at Socrates – though not so much in his grandiose dream of an educational utopia.  Instead, I yearn for the Socrates of the street or of Jesus or of any other rabble-rouser who began with humility, with questions and with the notion that challenging social norms through real dialogue is the only way that sustainable social change will occur.

*And I’ve often been the one laying out grand plans for what I think works in education.

About John Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.


6 thoughts on “The Problem Is Older Than the Factory

  1. John, I’m afraid that there are a couple of problems with your argument here. First, the Republic was written by Plato, not Socrates. The latter appears in all but one of Plato’s dialogues, and there is no certainty as to how much of the content is really attributable to Socrates (as opposed to Plato putting his own words into the mouth of Socrates). Socrates wrote nothing himself.

    But even if you substitute ‘Plato’ for ‘Socrates’ in your argument, we come to a second problem. Although many theories have been attributed to Plato on the basis of his dialogues, some scholars have pointed out that Plato may have written dialogues precisely in order to avoid presenting a fixed position. They argue that Plato deliberately chose the dialogue form because a dialogue is an ongoing discussion, rather than a finished position.

    This is not to undermine your argument for the Socrates or Jesus ‘of the street’, just to say that the view of Socrates that you are using may be doing him (and Plato) a disservice. For more on the scholarship on this issue, I recommend ‘Platonic Writings/Platonic Readings’, edited by Charles L. Griswold:

    Posted by Simon Kidd | November 6, 2011, 3:37 am
    • Scholars differ on the idea of Plato v. Socrates. I recognize that it wasn’t written by Plato (please give me at least a little credit — both books list Plato as the author.) just as the gospels weren’t written by Jesus.

      With regards to the second paragraph, I think that confirms rather than corrects my position. I think educational change needs to occur through dialogue rather than models. Some historians claim that Plato wanted to avoid taking a position. Some say that the dialogues were by truly based upon real conversations of Socrates while “The Republic” was truly the work of Plato alone. Still others see “The Republic” as a dialogue based upon Socrates’s visit to Sparta.

      Socrates of the street, of the marketplace, is what you get in the dialogues. I mentioned Socrates as the character in both books. I’m not bold enough to claim that Plato was lying, just that I think the Socratic method is a better approach than trying to force a model on people.

      Posted by John T. Spencer | November 6, 2011, 9:19 am
  2. John,

    I view The Republic with respect for its presentation of ‘the magnificent myth”, often referred to as the “Noble Lie”. Whether penned only in Plato’s words or as an ex post facto recount of Socrates’ discussions with his students, the work may have been less a praise of the Republic than a lampooning of it. I mean, really, just who the heck would lie about the foundations of one’s society? Socrates was the gadfly of Athens, and he must have really been irritating since he was sentenced to death. I am certain the Citizens of Athens (all of whom were free, landed males) were glad to have an excuse to put him away.

    To me, any Race, whether to the Top or otherwise (and also the NCLB) are Noble Lies. What better way to control an unruly populace than to get them to ‘drink the koolaid’? It was Power, not Education, that enabled the first leaders and the later ‘citizens’ to acquire their relative social standing and wealth. From all I can suss out, ‘education’ is generally seen to lead to status and power — from that viewpoint, it is a lie which keeps the herd from straying too far afield as they chase the carrot held in front of them. A few will get to eat that carrot, but not too many because there are limits to the supply — just enough get it to keep the rest chasing the dream.

    Let us not forget that the republics studied so much in history classes were economically based on slave-labor (whether City State or Nation State), and by extension, the entirety of the republics rested on slaves.

    It took decades of life and about nine years of ‘higher education’ for my little light bulb to go on. I am afraid Education is a pharmakon, both a cure and deadly poison. Keep the masses intellectually deaf, dumb and blind by presenting single viewpoints — it is for their own good (and good for their betters). Keep the “geniuses” culled from the populace in line by removing them from general society — provide them ever greater ‘education’ so that they might be co-opted to serve the republic.

    Education can, and from time-to-time does, liberate individuals, but being free shifts one from being a dullard to being the “Democratic Man” disucssed in The Republic, a life of pain, struggel and strife, and perhaps ostracization by and from those who still drink the koolaid.

    From my interstitial existence in the land of aporia and paradox, I wish you the best.


    Posted by Brent Snavely | November 6, 2011, 9:07 am
  3. John, Two comments. One, I really wish I had had you as a teacher at some point in my elementary school career. You would have been one of those inspiring instructors who change a kid’s life, the ones who create hope and promise and a sense of possibility in kids. That’s evident in every post.

    Second, the thing I see as the big essential problem, at the moment, is adult need to control kids–education is founded on an idea that kids are deficient and must “get” things from adults. This is much less true than I think our system can really allow, and it creates devastation and waste at every turn. This is a problem with adults and their assumptions, and had less to do with the system in which the assumptions are housed.


    Posted by Kirsten Olson | November 7, 2011, 10:02 am
    • Thanks for the kinds words. I’ve had mixed results as a teacher – that’s for sure. I have tried to keep an authentic, human approach. I’ve tried to be humble. I’ve tried to abandon the need for control and compliance. Yet, I’ve yelled. I’ve shamed kids (my own at home, too). I have cried over my own imperfections. I’ve also watched kids show resilience when I’ve apologized.

      Posted by John T. Spencer | November 7, 2011, 11:05 am
  4. “Challenging social norms through real dialog”. Well said, John.

    I often come back to the factory model, though, because it’s a powerful metaphor.

    Sure, the social contract of modern education goes back much farther – to the likes of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau who helped to frame the concept – then later, I believe it was T.Jefferson, Mann and Dewey who further drove and shaped it. Many of those framers modeled classic (yes, I think Platonic?) idealism and universal (ok, self-evident) truths in the shape/form of our modern western institutions – including the foundations of public education in the U.S.

    But the grim reality of ‘how to achieve success with scale’ is where the factory model is so informative. NCLB and RTTT are clear examples. As we discussed at #ECOSYS this past weekend, the factory paradigm of

    standardize > replicate > measure > remove defects

    is distantly removed from what any of the above ed framers had envisioned in a ‘social contract’. It is also counter culture to what a teacher wants to achieve in the classroom – to inspire, to challenge, to expand horizons, to remove barriers, to create wonder – to elevate their kids’ chances for a healthy and productive life.

    And still, our system with factory-like goals of output and standards churns on, machine-like, in the direction of process, and away from core values that most would say they aspire to.

    Comments by Brent, Kirsten, and yourself show a compassion for learning in all it’s regard, from the classic to the founders to modern day practitioners. All aspects are important. They tell a story.

    The good news – and I think you’d agree – is that we’re starting to write a different story. One idea, and one blog post at a time. Thanks for your sharing your thoughts, John – I appreciate the depth of your insight. As Kirsten says, we need more of it.

    Chris @sourcepov

    Posted by sourcepov | November 8, 2011, 12:02 am

Join the Conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 4,101 other followers

Comments are subject to moderation.

%d bloggers like this: